SA: Best place for kids to grow up

I’ve met many people who have left South Africa or are planning to leave because of their kids. I think it’s a lousy reason. It’s seldom about the children and even if it was, it’s a mistake. Our children get more out of growing up in South Africa than they would in some safe little town in Australia.

Having two beautiful young children I can understand the dilemma. We have to balance keeping ourselves safe while not being paranoid and paralysed by fear. It’s not always easy. Despite the dilemma, South Africa offers one of the best opportunities for children to learn about the world and grow into better people.

This view only works if you can start by wondering whether life is about more than just being comfortable and safe.

The usual reasons in favour of South Africa are the warmth of our people, our lifestyle and opportunity. Brenda Weis, an American sales executive, discovered this when she visited the country in 2007 and again in 2008. She fell in love with South Africa and its people. Based on her brief visits, she has made the decision to retire here rather than in the United States. As she says, “It is a good country with great potential … and I look forward to calling it home.”

On the other side, there are of course a number of arguments why you should get on the phone to Stuttafords and start planning your emigration. That’s the usual debate though and not the point of this article.

Make me stronger
A unique aspect of our country is that, unlike other countries where you might not have to think about some of the big issues in life, South Africa forces you to take a view. More than just a view, you are often forced to look at yourself and challenge your beliefs.

Isn’t it possible that the problems we have in South Africa make us stronger? It was the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who in 1888 said, “What does not kill me, makes me stronger.” Could this be the attraction to our country for people like Brenda Weis?

A world in one country
The nature of South Africa with it’s complex history can be seen as a microcosm for the world, with all it’s beauty and troubles. I don’t know who came up with “South Africa — A world in one country” — it is a perfect description of our land.

There are many issues which South Africa has dealt with or is dealing with which have yet to be resolved by the world at large. In many cases the world looks to South Africa for solutions and our four Nobel Peace Prize laureates are proof of the value placed on our leadership.

Race
While race as an issue is hardly resolved (see “On being a recovering racist”) we have certainly dealt with issues in a more open and engaging manor than elsewhere in the world.

South Africa under apartheid was the cauldron of race relations for the world and while countries such as America abolished their own form of apartheid many years before, the issue is far from resolved.

There have been at least two racist right-wing plots to kill Barack Obama, simply because he is black and the president. Clearly all is not well in the land of the free and the home of the brave, the country which first coined the term race riot and where Los Angeles erupted in 1992 as South Africa was negotiating its transition to a non-racial democracy. Europe has similar issues with a growing right-wing movement.

Race in South Africa is real. We haven’t stopped talking about it, which is healthy. We don’t all agree and that’s fine. It’s explicit, it’s messy, it’s in our faces and we have to deal with it. And we will. And the world can learn from our experiences while we will be better prepared for a world facing similar issues.

Shifting Power
China is growing faster than America. At some point, it’s likely China will be a bigger and more powerful country than America. This is likely to cause some tension. There are other shifts in power around energy, nuclear capability, food and even water, which are likely to affect who has the biggest voice at the table.

In South Africa we’ve recently shifted power quite significantly and quickly. In the late 1980’s the National Party saw that their model was flawed and effectively negotiated themselves out of power, avoiding a meltdown and providing an opportunity of a more peaceful and prosperous future.

The ANC was founded in 1912 as a collective of Africans resisting initially colonisation and later Afrikaner nationalism. In 1990 they suddenly found their cause removed and they were thrust into power and have been reinventing themselves ever since.

This shift takes some adjusting on all fronts. It’s not just about politicians and leaders. Living in South Africa, you and I have faced issues as a result of this change in power that the rest of the world hasn’t since World War II.

Dealing with the bad guys
Fifteen years before terrorists flew airplanes into the World Trade Centre and shocked America to its core, we were already dealing with the reality of armoured vehicles cruising our neighbourhoods and bombs exploding in restaurants as people fought for their causes.

You may remember the bombing of the Wimpy in Benoni in 1988. That year there were more than 100 incidents of attack and counter-attack scattered across our country while the nationalist army and Umkhonto we Sizwe fought their war. As civilians we learned to live in this environment.

Without being paranoid, there will always be bad guys. It’s not doom and gloom, it is just reality. People fight and people get hurt, they always have. Better to have strategies for dealing with it than looking for a place to put your head in the sand.

South Africans have moved beyond being paralysed by the actions of the bad guys. From neighbourhood watches to private security, we have organised ourselves to live despite the threat.

Life would be better if we didn’t have to look over our shoulders, but we do. The New York, London, Madrid and Mumbai attacks illustrate that nowhere is safe and our only error is to believe that somehow, we can insulate ourselves from “the bad guys”.

The great deciders
The shifting of power and global terrorism are big macro issues, and while interesting, they are not as real as the conversations and interactions we have on a daily basis. We are the people on the ground, living our lives in our neighbourhoods and offices. We are the citizens who live and work, raise families, have friends and find meaning in our everyday existence.

This existence in South Africa, is at a different intensity level to other countries. Irrespective of who you are and who I am, we have been challenged since 1990 to review, perhaps change, but at least look at our beliefs around some big issues.

Race, crime, community, citizenship, religion, politics, education and health are some of the topics that we have had to examine. Even if we haven’t changed our minds, we are forced to make decisions.

Many of us have had to look life and death situations squarely in the face, either ourselves or among our family and friends. We have to decide how we let it affect us.

Politically, it doesn’t matter whether we supported the Communists or the AWB, or somewhere in between, we have had to examine our position as things around us have changed.

What feels normal to us is certainly not normal for much of the world. While the daily papers in Helsinki are scratching around for a motor accident to put on the front page, journalists in South Africa seldom have a slow news day.

Contrasts
In South Africa we live in rich contrasts. There is not much that is just average. Life is mostly on the ends of continuum rather than the middle.

We have to think, reflect and grapple with life. As anyone who has bungi jumped, rock climbed, skydived or done something putting their lives in danger will attest, there is nothing that makes us feel as alive as facing death. In South Africa we get to think about this more often than most.

Admittedly, we may be a little far on the “wild west” side of the continuum and I don’t believe we should be fighting for our lives every day. I do however appreciate having to deal with sometimes complex — but always real — issues. I feel richer, stronger and more ready for the issues that we are faced with in the wider world.

Australia
When visiting Australia I’ve seen the apparent idyllic lifestyle so often talked about. Gas barbecues, which are never vandalised, are available in the parks for free. Everyone drives at the speed limit. Rules are obeyed and everyone lives happily ever after.

In Sydney I was apprehended by a local who stopped me from jay walking, a term I was vaguely familiar with. I was confused. We stood staring at a red man on a pole without a car in site.

My friend Neil had a similar but much more hilarious experience at the WACA after a cricket game. You can read his column entitled “One foot in, one foot out” (and look at the photo).

So would I rather my children grew up in Australia where rules are strict and govern just about every aspect of my life? It’s safe, but we might just die of boredom (suicide rates are up). Or live in South Africa where life is definitely more dangerous but I feel challenged and alive every day?

The issues we grapple with are deep and meaningful and matter in the world. They are seldom petty. I feel eternally grateful for the challenges and mind changing experiences that have influenced me.

Working in a very international environment in my mid twenties, South Africans were always revered for their resourcefulness and ability to engage in a broad range of issues. South African business people are revered for similar qualities today. Could it be as a result of the issues we face at home that make the rest of the world look tame by comparison.

Life is difficult
Talking about this with my friend Rob over breakfast the other day, I thought of the opening paragraph of M Scott Peck’s best selling book, The Road Less Travelled, which states;

“Life is difficult

This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult — once we truly understand and accept it — then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.”

South Africa offers some of the best opportunities to deal with difficulty and transcend it. It’s not for sissy’s, but the rewards are high.

For my kids, I believe I would be doing them a disservice to take them away from this rich and rewarding life that we lead.

Either you are looking for what is good about the country and you will find more than ample evidence, or you are looking for what is wrong with the country and again you will discover enough to fuel dinner party conversation with doom and gloom stories. Either way, what you look for you will see.

I’m off to Australia for a holiday in a few weeks and while looking forward to the trip and seeing family and friends, I’m not looking forward to the feeling of pulling on a straight jacket as I walk out of the airport.

It leaves me longing to be cut off by a taxi. Just to feel alive.

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Author: Dale Williams

Dale is based in Cape Town on the southern tip of Africa from where he maintains connections with people all over the world through his portfolio life.