We Cannot Dismiss Reasons Whites Give For Leaving

Rhoda Kadalie, Business Day (ZA), October 5, 2006

The topic of the John Perlman radio talk show on Monday, Victims or Villains, was the ultimate provocation to a white woman who called in to complain of another show, also hosted by SAfm, which she believes fuels antiwhite sentiment.

Host Nikiwe Bikitsha went ballistic at the accusation, claiming it was the show’s right to encourage debate, but then rudely cut off the caller, who complained that the title itself was loaded.

Nikiwe, who is generally calm and polite to her callers, lost it with this woman. It was obviously a sore point. Were the 1-million whites, who were leaving, according to Rapport, victims or villains? The report published by the South African Institute of Race Relations, based on an analysis of the Statistics SA Household Surveys from 1995 to 2005, said that the main reasons given for emigrating were crime and affirmative action.

Many callers phoned in accusing those who leave of hankering after their apartheid past and being unable to come to terms with a country where they were no longer the privileged. Some accused the emigrants of outright racism, of not being committed to transformation and the development of the country. Those who balked at these accusations called in to tell of their children, friends and relatives who have left against their wills, as their options were increasingly becoming limited. The rampant crime and the racist application of affirmative action were cited as reasons for leaving.

The numbers of whites who have left since 1995 is astounding. According to the 2005 census, approximately 841000 white South Africans have left, leaving the current white population at 4,3-million. The cohort that leaves is apparently between 20 and 40 years old, with children. The frequent complaint—that they are being punished for apartheid, which many felt they were not responsible for—should be taken seriously. Indirectly punishing white people for the past is a betrayal of our negotiated settlement. We cannot afford to let our economically productive citizens leave, nor can we afford a shrinking tax base, given that our economically active black population is dying like flies of AIDS.

It is easy to make negative political capital out of this phenomenon, when in fact we should be extremely worried that an important, highly skilled sector of our population is leaving—not to speak of the coloured and Indian professionals who are also disappearing at a rapid rate. This loss is particularly serious in the public sector, where whole layers of medical, technical and engineering skills have gone. It takes about eight to 10 years to grow and nurture experienced engineers, doctors or technicians, and to lose them because of affirmative action is to throw the baby out with the bath water.

While affirmative action is seen to be an important political imperative, there seems to be denial about the havoc it is wreaking on the economy and the public sector. Skilled labour is scarce, not because there is a paucity of qualified people, but because we drive skilled people out for stupid reasons. SA is one of the least successful countries in Africa when it comes to producing black students who are literate in maths, science and technology. The poor matric results attest to this as well as the fact that few teachers in black schools are properly qualified to teach maths and science. Add to this the moratorium placed on employing white academic males in some universities, and we are really in trouble.

Given the challenges facing our country, we ignore the “purge” at our peril. The consequences for the economy and the public sector are dire and when a whole sector of a population feels unwanted, from a constitutional point of view, their rights to a livelihood and economic activity are under threat.

I am convinced that most whites who leave do not want to go and that they feel driven out by crime and affirmative action. We forget that it is government’s duty is to create the kind of society in which people want to stay and contribute. And there are many who do stay at great cost to themselves. A sound case can be made for affirmative action when properly applied, but when vacancies in the public sector amount to thousands, government has to find ways to seriously stem the tide of current emigration levels

Dance for All, for example, is a ballet company set up in the townships to train black youth in classical ballet and a variety of other dance forms. Two of SA’s premier retired ballet dancers, Philip Boyd and Phyllis Spira, set up studios in the black townships, the Cape Flats and in the rural areas specifically to train black dancers and so provide job opportunities for those who formerly have been excluded from the profession. Spira, as well as some of the other members, were brutally attacked at one of the studios in the townships, but survived.

This is but one story of committed white people who go out of their comfort zones to teach black people in the performing arts, a profession formerly preserved for whites.

In appealing to our loyalty, the African National Congress too often confuses loyalty to the country with loyalty to the government, and when people criticise government’s failure to protect them from rampant crime, they are labelled unpatriotic, racist and against transformation. But no amount of political rhetoric of ubuntu, of African Renaissance, of transformation, of empowerment, will hold educated and talented people behind when opportunities abound overseas. The availability of jobs, access to public transport and the freedom to enjoy the public sphere are increasingly becoming attractive to people who want better prospects.

Unlike many of us who do not have the option to leave, or who choose the beauty of SA above our safety, others choose life and freedom and I certainly do not blame them for it. My daughter is well on her way to becoming a villain.

  • Kadalie is a human rights activist based in Cape Town.

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