S. Africa's Crime-Driven Emigration
Essay Fuels Debate With Expatriates

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 20, 2008

JOHANNESBURG For South Africans with means, a fundamental question is: stay or go?

Yes, South Africa boasts perpetual sunshine, jaw-dropping scenery and vigorously free media and civic debate. But since the dawn of democracy in 1994, many thousands have found reasons to emigrate, and 2008 delivered several more -- political uncertainty, power shortages, gruesome attacks on foreigners.

The most oft-cited reason for leaving, though, remains crime. Ghastly, violent crime.

In this month's Harper's Magazine, a famed Afrikaner poet and former anti-apartheid activist cited the brutality in an essay that gave his answer to the stay-or-go question: "My bitter advice" to young South Africans, Breyten Breytenbach wrote, "would be to go."

In doing so, Breytenbach turned up the heat in a constantly simmering debate in a nation struggling to transition from the heady days of newfound freedom to the harsh realities of huge wealth gaps, unemployment and a severe shortage of skills. And he brought South Africa's most revered figure, Nelson Mandela, into the fray.

Breytenbach, who has lived most of the past three decades outside South Africa, wrote his essay in the form of a letter to Mandela, whom he called a "wise and a curious and caring humanist." But he chided the icon for wielding his influence to raise money for charities but not condemning South Africa's woes, such as corruption within the African National Congress, the legendary liberation-movement-turned-ruling party.

"Would you consider the thought that your organization has lost the way?" Breytenbach, 69, wrote. "It is a harsh question; it may even suggest that we have only the ashes of spent dreams to poke around in."

The piece, which has made headlines and blogs here, prompted a stinging response from the Nelson Mandela Foundation.

"Come home and fight the good fight," Achmat Dangor, the foundation's chief executive, said in a statement addressed to Breytenbach. "Do what Mandela has challenged all of us to do -- take personal responsibility [and] help lift the burden of leadership from the shoulders of people like him. He did not choose to be an icon."

One commenter on the Web site of the Times, a newspaper that has covered the controversy, was less generous: "He and all who agree with him must leave our country. We will develop it and make it a better country."

Much of Breytenbach's essay is devoted to South Africa's particularly cruel form of crime, a subject that fills newspaper pages and fuels dinner-table conversations in a nation where an average of 50 people are murdered each day, most in poor black neighborhoods.

Breytenbach described a recent visit to South Africa, where he said he felt a "sense of impending horror in the air" and began to calculate his chances of being raped, robbed or killed. He related the awful tales he has heard: A friend's grandmother pleading with robbers not to rape her. A fellow writer's nephew slain by an intruder. His own nephew stabbed in a parking lot.

"What sears the mind and chokes the heart first are the apparently random events that have become emblematic of a society in profound disarray," he wrote.

It is a sentiment shared by many who leave, who typically cite crime as their top reason, polls show. Though there are no firm statistics on emigration, some signs indicate it is growing. According to a First National Bank survey of home-sellers, 20 percent of those who put their houses on the market in the third quarter of 2008 did so because they were emigrating, up from 9 percent in the last quarter of 2007.

In 2007, 39 percent of South Africans polled by a research organization called FutureFact said they were seriously considering leaving, more than double the percentage in 2000. The number was fairly consistent across racial groups, though observers say they believe the bulk of emigres have been whites, who make up about 9 percent of a population of more than 45 million.

Those who leave take with them the skills that South Africa, the continent's largest economy, desperately lacks in health care, education and technology. In response, a small industry has sprung up to stem the outflow and encourage returns.

One best-selling book, intended to extol South Africa's promising aspects, is called "Don't Panic!" A few organizations advise expatriates who are thinking of coming back.

Breytenbach's essay was no help to their cause.

"South Africa is still not an easy sell for a lot of the reasons that Breyten Breytenbach mentioned in his article," said Martine Schaffer, managing director of one such organization, Homecoming Revolution. "But he's not living here, so I don't believe he has a right to say a lot of the things that he says."

Schaffer said her organization does not deny that crime is rife in South Africa. Instead, it emphasizes the nation's strong points -- a relaxed lifestyle, good private schools -- and notes research indicating that the return of one skilled person creates 10 jobs.

Breytenbach's essay was not the first to ponder questions of crime and departure. This summer, the author and friend Breytenbach mentioned -- whose nephew was fatally shot -- described the incident, and lamented crime and corruption, in a heart-wrenching piece for the Sunday Independent.

In the article, André Brink, another eminent figure in Afrikaner literature, said many acquaintances assumed the event would drive him from his homeland. But citing what he called the "urgency" and "relevance" of the nation's nascent democracy, he came to the opposite conclusion.

"They seem perplexed," Brink wrote, "when I reply that I am staying right where I am."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company