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Emigrating from South Africa to the UK: Was it worth it in the end?

On the 25th of December 2021 Ernst Roets, Executive at Civil Rights organisation Afriforum, posted a Twitter post which greatly affected me. 

The post is of the modern definition of the resistance, with many thinking it would be armed, but rather it is of the traditional family, with the parents taking their kids to church.  Of course you had the usual, “oh it’s only a white family and racist blah blah” usual rubbish; but there was something in the picture that greatly affected me and the topic is deeply imbedded in emigration.

My father comes from a rather large family.  This father and mother I never knew, both died before I was old enough to remember anything.  My grandfather came from Fife, Scotland – found his wife in South Africa, married and raised a family of 5 children.  The eldest Robert, got married, had a daughter, got divorced and remarried.  The next in line was my father and his sister.  My father had 3 kids, his sister 2.  The youngest, Duncan, had 2 kids.  We all lived in the Durban area; being raised in various suburbs around the city.  My grandfather was in construction and was responsible for key locations such as Durban and Richard’s Bay harbor.

I myself was taken, by my father and mother to live in the UK when I was 16.  It was around the year 2000.  At the time my father’s entire family brought their entire families over to the UK.  That would have, according to my deceased Grandfather, been all 4 kids (one had died during childhood), their spouses and their 9 kids.  Unsurprisingly those kids went onto marry British ladies and raised British children.  If asked on an official government document, who they are, they’ll all tick British.

So, what is it that affected me about the post Ernst put up?  The post ultimately got me thinking, having returned to SA in 2017 it suddenly occurred to me that I was the last of my family now residing in South Africa.  I was the last of my family name to live here.  This on its own means little to many and yet it’s no small thing to me.

I recall aspects of my childhood that many would share a mutual understanding with.  I recall when I was young, I used to cycle my bicycle all over my suburb seeing my friends.  We would play in the streets until the street lights came on and we knew it was time to go home.  In those days, in Durban City Centre there was a public park where they would put up Christmas lights and displays and my parents would me there to see them.  I remember eating bunny chows with my friends outside our local arcade where we used to play Mortal Kombat on the arcade machines.  I remember going to Pavilion, going to dinner with my parents eating at Centre Court, then going to Musica, Exclusive Books, the Biltong Store and finally the Movies downstairs to watch many different films, including The Matrix.  I remember going to the Wheel in Durban, on Point Road, where there were small little market stores on the top floor where I would get Nintendo Cartridge Games.

I remember in 1993 when the first black kids joined my school after the ending of apartheid.  I remember in 1995 when we had the Rugby World Cup and pogs were all the rage.  I remember how aggressively we tried to collect all of them and trade them with our friends.  I remember when South Africa won the world cup.  I remember Saturday mornings watching KTV.  They used to have a Toys R Us 1 minute rush and a Sonic The Hedgehog phone in where you used to steer Sonic by saying ‘Forward, Forward, Jump’.  I remember Sunday mornings when my Grandmother would put a roast Chicken in the oven at 50 degrees, which would ultimately be cooked by the time we got home after the usual 3 hour Sunday service.

These are just some of the things I remember, and I am sure many of you will read this and remember those days and have an understanding of what my childhood might have looked like because of a shared history.  My father and his brothers all served in the armed forces.  They all fought on the borders.  They all got married in Durban, had their special days there, raced their wives to hospitals in Durban when their kids were born.  They bought their school uniforms, went to their gala days, sports days, went to their running clubs etc.  Many took their kids on their first paper routes on Sunday mornings at 5am.

The key of all this is, and what affected me most was that this was all for nothing.  I am the last of my family in South Africa.  Our unified history, our struggles, our joys, who we are as a people are all gone.  My brothers and their cousins will all raise British Kids.  These Kids will have a childhood very different to our own.  They will go to a British School, talk with a British accent, have British morals and values and one day when we sit down with them and talk about our history, our childhoods and our upbringings they will not understand.  They will look at us with eyes that do not comprehend or have an understanding of what our lives might have been like.  In many respects their experiences will differ so much with our own that they will consider our childhoods as being bizarre.

My family has a family plot in Durban where my grandfather and my father are buried.  The entire family no longer lives here, if I died tomorrow, I would be the last to be buried there and then our family history would be over.  No one would ever know what we experienced, no one would ever know we lived there, and certainly none of the now British kids would vaguely even understand what kind of childhoods we might have experienced.  In our eagerness to escape South Africa for our better lives abroad we made ourselves foreigners in another land and in the process committed cultural genocide.  As the last of my family in South Africa, I can’t help but look back with sadness and wonder whether it was worth it.  Whether we should have endured more than we did.



JJ prefers to be anonymous and let his writing speak for itself.

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