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Three South African Exports: Place of the Year 2009

Michelle Rafferty, Publicity Assistant

Jake Kraft received a MSc in Anthropology at Oxford in 2004 and just finished up a JD/MBA at Stanford. Having recently visited South Africa, one of Jake’s college buddies (and my dear friend) suggested Jake contribute to our “Place of the Year” campaign, to which he kindly agreed. In the following piece Jake sheds light on South Africa’s exorbitant population loss since the mid 90s by consulting three natives who chose to leave. Be sure to check out more “Place of the Year” contributions here.

South Africa exports many goods which the world consumes and which enrich South Africa. Other countries buy South Africa’s metals and minerals, agricultural products, machinery, and wine, sending their own goods and cash in return. But in the last fifteen years, South Africa’s greatest export has traded at great profit to importing nations and at great expense to the exporter. Since the mid-1990s, more than one million South Africans, including more than a fifth of the white population, has emigrated abroad. Many of these are South Africa’s most educated citizens; most have no plans to return.

Last winter I visited South Africa and enjoyed tremendous natural scenery, wildlife, bustling cities and towns, food, and cultural traditions. South Africa is wonderful for a tourist, but life as a resident is more complicated.

I made the trip to visit three South African friends whom I had met in the United States. This opportunity to see them and learn about their home was special not only because I would be guided by locals, but also because it would be my last chance: all three had decided to leave the country and settle elsewhere.

My first stop was in the Eastern Cape, to visit my friend the journalist. A wiry white English South African, he had been lucky to study at top boarding schools and attend an excellent private university where he had become a collegiate champion in kayaking. In addition to inimitable charm, he has a great deal of compassion, and as a journalist wrote stories highlighting the plight of AIDS victims and AIDS orphans. He unearthed local corruption, and developed an encyclopedic knowledge of South African history and culture, as well as a seemingly endless number of friends who would greet us wherever we went.

He now lives in London. South Africa has limited opportunities for an enthusiastic journalist to grow in his career, especially as traditional media models fall apart and journalism becomes intertwined with the internet. He would love to go back if he could, but he doesn’t know how or when South Africa will have professional opportunities in which he can flourish.

From the Eastern Cape I traveled to Johannesburg, where I met my friend the entrepreneur. Chinese South African, he had grown up in a posh area on the North side of the city, attending excellent schools and University in the United States. His family lived in mansion straight out of Beverly Hills, including swimming pool and pool house, magnificent rooms for living and entertaining, and a garage full of sleek Mercedes. The local malls and restaurants were equivalent to anything I’d seen in the United States and we spent a very civilized afternoon eating scones and playing croquet with friends at the local club.

My friend now lives in China. Besides its luxury, his family home in South Africa is surrounded by 15 foot walls, which are topped with electrified barbed wire. The outer doors of the house are fortified with steel bars and must be unlocked with a key from the inside or outside in order to enter or leave. An enormous guard dog barks at any movement. Security guards with sub-machine guns patrol his neighborhood. Even so, not long ago, perpetrators managed to poison the dog and hop over the walls from a nearby telephone pole, catching his mother as she was exiting the pool house, and holding her and the rest of the family at gun point as they robbed the home. The family survived, but the incident was uncommon only in that sense. Every house in the neighborhood has this kind of security, and violent robbery is a daily risk. As he pursues his ventures, my friend would prefer that his success won him some other life.

My last trip was to the Free State town of Ladybrand, a small farming hamlet not far from the Drakensberg Mountains and the Lesotho border. Here I met my third friend, the broad shouldered and sandy-haired son of an Afrikaner farmer. He had grown up chasing cattle thieves on horseback, swimming in river dividing South Africa and Lesotho, and dreaming of playing rugby for the Springboks. He never spoke English until he traveled to Cape Town for his University degree, where he gave up rugby and excelled at actuarial studies. After finishing University, he landed himself a job with a prestigious international consultancy, where he was whisked around Africa, working at the great mining projects and factories of the continent. Once he had a taste of the outside world, he wanted more, and sponsored by his company, he came to the United States to finish his education. When he did, he decided to stay in San Francisco. There is opportunity in South Africa, he believes, but why take the risk with so much government corruption and physical violence. As a South African, he did not feel wanted in America, but as a businessman, he did not he feel wanted by South Africa.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen more beautiful sunsets, eaten better steaks or had more outdoor fun than I did in South Africa. But I left the country feeling discouraged. If my three friends are in any way representative of the million plus who have left or are leaving, how can the South Africa expect to win its fight against AIDS, improve its government and civic life, or bring its education and economic opportunities not only to the lucky few born into them, but also to the millions born into extreme poverty? How can the country find a way to keep its educated and passionate young citizens, or a way to bring them back? What should be the priority? The rule of law? Economic opportunities? Security?

Recent Comments

  1. […] Three South African Exports: Place of the Year 2009 (oup.com) […]

  2. nigel watson

    did you talk to any black south africans? They would have been able to fill in some of the gaps for you…..

  3. Zandisile

    Surprise, surprise…all your friends are whites. Okay, and a Chinese fella.

    Not a fair reflection of SA at all when you do not speak to the majority of the people in the country.

    No opportunities for journalists? Really? Wow! So much career advancement for journos that I know…and these are whites I am talking about.

    Really, you would’ve left SA feeling less discouraged had you spoken to a few black people!

  4. Tristan Jones

    I was born in Britain and I choose to live in South Africa. I am at home in squatter camps and in mansions. We will build this country together – what does this junior assistant know about anything?

  5. Simon G

    It is sad what you found, but only a few days ago I heard a successful SA-born singer/song-writer, who has lived in Memphis for several years, say he felt much better returning to live in SA. I am a Brit but the thought of going back to live in the UK, with the awful weather and so many people, puts me off completely.

  6. Simon Barber

    You are right about the steaks, sunsets and SA’s great outdoors, but your negative observations based on a three person sample are highly questionable. The flow goes both ways. A lot of talent is coming back. You also need to be careful about suggesting that SA’s future depends on people who look like your friends.

  7. Su Birch

    My thirty year old son currently lives in London where he has established a very successful building business. His fiancee, also a South African, has a thriving recruitment agency. They are returning to SA next year as they do not wish to raise children in the UK. This true of many of their London based South African friends. All of them plan to return bringing with them substantial capital and their international experience.
    Jake’s friends are unfortunate but not typical.

  8. Rian

    Although I certainly understand the sentiment, and all the arguments for leaving SA, I am one of those who will be returning in 2010 after 6 years in the US. It was great to get out and explore, to get experience in Silicon Valley, and broaden my horizons. But South Africa is home, and I am moving back to Cape Town to take what I learned in the US, and try to contribute in some small way to alleviate some of the issues you bring up.

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