Some background and why this blog
TL;DR: I immigrated to South Africa in 1992 and have lived here for 25 years. I raised a family. I built (and failed) numerous businesses. The time has come that we leave South Africa. This blog will journal our (my wife and son) journey back to Austria and will hopefully assist other South Africans with their emigration.
How I got to South Africa
After I finished matric at hakspittal.at in 1990 I could not afford further education at university and like most of my peers, I finished conscription at the Austrian army with an overdrawn bank account. I was lucky to participate in a government-funded C++ training course which landed me my first job at a Carinthian software company.
Through a comedy of errors (who would have thought that the German sounding city of “Johannesburg” was actually not in Europe) I found myself on the way to South Africa in 1992 for a project implementation with Standard Bank of South Africa. After all, back then the Internet did not exist and any time away from home sounded like a good enough adventure. I must say that it was quite comical when the Austrian Airline plane pushed back on the tarmac and the pilot announced:
Herzlich Willkommen zu unseren 10-stündigen Flug nach Johannesburg. Sobald wir über Afrika sind, beginnen wir mit dem Abendessen.
It will turn out that most of my life-choices thereafter had been coincidental and were “spur-of-the-moment” events. I am grateful for those random events bringing me to South Africa, allowing me to raise a fantastic kid and being married to a beautiful and intelligent woman. The rest of my career is better described on my CV @ naschenweng.info.
I made South Africa my home, became permanent resident in 1996 and gave up my Austrian residence at the same time. It still took another 7 years and 13 identity book-applications until the Department of Home Affairs managed to issue me with a South African ID document. At that time I had given up attempting to become a South African citizen and relinquish my Austrian citizenship.
When I innocently arrived in South Africa in 1992, the apartheid regime crumbled and the country was filled with hope and was going through a lengthy reconciliation process led by archbishop Desmond Tutu. South Africa during that time had the same spirit as I could witness when the Berlin Wall fell and how the Nazi regime was dismantled by the allied forces during WW2. It was obvious for me that a country with Nelson Mandela as president would make strides going forward and I was excited as infrastructure (such as banking) was years ahead of European counterparts. To my dismay and shock I also learned that Austrian schools did not cover the Dutch or British colonisation or apartheid and the struggle of South Africans.
Bombs rock South Africa and we vote ~ “No long queue is going to stop us”
The next two decades were filled with excitement – a new political party started leading the country, South Africa hosted and won the 1995 Rugby Worldcup and in 2010 was the host-country for the FIFA World Cup.
The run-up of the first free elections saw outbreak of violence (Shell house massacre) and an orchestrated bombing-campaign by the right-wing AWB in an attempt to disrupt the elections. I still remember when I was on the way to work on Sunday, 24th April 1994 as a 100kg car-bomb ripped through buildings near the ANC head office at about 10am. Only days later I learned that 10 people were killed and over 100 people injured.
The bombings and bomb-threats continued for days and the most disturbing part was when we were evacuated during a Sunday lunch from a shopping mall and South Africans showed no panic or uneasiness. This level of violence and crime was new to me, but it very quickly became the new “normal” as citizens have made it part of life.
Only three days later, on the 27th April 1994 (Freedom Day), South Africa votes. I remember standing with friends in the cold winter-morning at the voting station so that they could cast their votes. Voting would continue for another two days as the elections were seriously disrupted by logistical problems. Despite kilometre-long queues, administrative blunders and disappointments, the party mood rarely sagged. People of all backgrounds and races made friends in the long queues, swapping stories, alcohol and food. We stood patiently from dawn to dusk while the bureaucrats and politicians squabbled. We arrived at the end of the queue at 6am on 27th April 1994 and friends cast votes 11 hours later (I was in South Africa on an extended work-permit and could not vote).
That excitement continued for years and one of my first notable and disappointing memory was when HIV/AIDS was long denied by President Thabo Mbeki and his health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, who insisted that the many deaths in the country are due to malnutrition, and hence poverty, and not HIV. This went as far as the Department of Health calling on people to treat HIV/AIDS by eating beetroot and African potatoes. From this time (2006) I started to pay more attention to local politics, familiarised myself with local laws, the Constitution and started to become active with a number of civil societies and causes.
Fast-forward and why we are leaving
We were fortunate enough as a family to take two overseas-trips in the last 10 years which allowed us to gain some distance and a different perspective of what South Africa has become. It is very easy to accept that it is normal to live in gated communities, have armed guards, skip red lights at night to avoid being hijacked and generally be alert to avoid becoming a victim of crime.
There is just something wrong when you have to say to friends after an armed burglary: “I am glad that you are all alive and your wive and daughters have not been raped”. I would argue for years that crime will decrease and things will become better and for the time being we could deal with the extra security and the vigilance.
When I first arrived, I realised that South Africa was a really strange place, but stayed because I wanted to make a career for myself away from home. I arrived here with a suitcase of clothes and was able to save and invest. What I have achieved here is the same or slightly worse than friends in Europe. I paid my taxes with the hope that those taxes could provide whatever is needed to uplift the country.
Socio-economic situation, racism and crime
Over the last three decades I witnessed huge improvements in race relations and there are amazing stories of goodwill. Racism was always a foreign concept for me – it did not exist during my upbringing in Austria. There was every little evidence of racism in the work environment and I mentored many people and was never aware of any antagonism, but have no doubt it exists on both side, but it is not universal.
The first time racism became real for us was when my son was called derogatory names by his school’s canteen-staff in 2017. The second incident by different administrative staff occurred a few months ago. While we have been fortunate enough to never been victims of serious crimes (theft, burglary and smash-and-grabs are mere insurance-claim cases and will never be investigated) we felt that it is time to move.
Reason for exit: Crime and constant safety concerns are a major reason for our move.
Political instability and populist government
In 2019 Cyril Ramaphosa will likely become South Africa’s fifth state president. He will be faced with an economic mountain to climb, youth unemployment nearing 50% and an impatient population of 55m people where the average age is only 27 years.
South Africans will look up to Ramaphosa to see whether he can continue the legacy of the Rainbow nation’s icon, Nelson Mandela, who dreamed of an united, prosperous and equal South Africa. The previous presidents (looking at you, Jacob Zuma) could not realise this dream, but instead looted state resources at the expense of foreign investment and the people in need.
The African National Congress (ANC) calls for populist policy changes under the guise of “redress for apartheid” and promises the voting base land expropriation without compensation, free tertiary education, free national health care, access to a national pension scheme and the nationalisation of the South African Reserve Bank.
The funding for those populist policies would come from a diminishing tax-payer base and joining this populist chorus will possibly result in a collapsing economy, increased unemployment and poverty, and possibly public revolt. I covered a recent research paper on my blog “Three stories of how South Africa’s future might unfold by 2030” which depicts possible scenarios how South Africa could unfold in the next decade.
The harsh reality is the ineptness in government. There is the reliance on government to provide employment, give free housing and free education, instead of just enabling people to get on with it. The South African government has failed to create an enabling environment that provides the policy-certainty that would give people the confidence to invest. The recent scandals highlight rampant looting of state resources, at the expense of investment and at the expense of the people in need. This economical climate has resulted in several downgrades by major rating agencies.
Instead of taking responsibility and accountability, the politicians will redirect people’s attentions away from their own failings to other groups. Although this is not peculiar to South Africa, it is a very dominant part in South African society. Many might still remember how British PR firm Bell Pottinger assisted former president Jacob Zuma to capitalise on, and introducing the mantras of #WhiteMonopolyCapital and radical economic transformation into the national discourse and to seek a scapegoat for the lack of development and the failure of government to provide better lives to ordinary people.
The scapegoat is white business and the white minority generally, and of course those who are labelled as protectors of white privilege. President Jacob Zuma’s reckless decree on free tertiary education on the eve of the ANC’s conference in December 2017 is an example of cheap populism. As is the EFF’s encouragement for students to arrive at universities for free education or asking people to just take “their own land”. As an European all of this is a bit like Brexit: ill-informed citizens changing the course of history through a ballot.
Neither ANC or DA or EFF (the dominant political parties in South Africa) have a concrete plan on how to stabilise the economy. Until the country is in a position to look beyond the past and stop blaming history for shortcomings, the political landscape will not change.
Complacency is often at the heart of South African society – enter the three different types of “Now”, “Just Now” and “Now Now” (none of them have an actual commitment to time):
- Now: As in “I’m leaving now to fetch your laptop!” meaning anytime between several hours from now until maybe next week, or, quite frankly, never.
- Just now: “Just now” is a bit higher on the priority list than “now.” It’s a distinct improvement but still nowhere near “this instant.”
- Now Now: A term widely used in South African conversations relating to the period of time which will elapse before the given task, time or opportunity will present itself. “I’ll do it now now” means “I will get to it as soon as I can.”
Reason for exit: Political outlook and populist choices by the government will disadvantage the working class and businesses, cementing the “Have vs Have-nots” environment even further.
The indirect taxes
It comes as no surprise that the ineptness of the ruling government has resulted in a failing educational-, health- and social-system which forces citizens who can afford it to “top-up” services generally provided by government. A typical middle-class household in South Africa will pay:
- ZAR 3,000-4,000 per month per child going to High School (fee rates from Fourways High School) or upwards of ZAR 7,000/pm per kid in private schools. By the time a child has matriculated, a family would have paid between ZAR 500,000 – ZAR 1,3m.
- A minimum of ZAR 800/pm per medical aid member for a basic hospital plan. An average family will pay in excess of ZAR 5,000/pm on medical aid contribution.
- An average ZAR 1,000/pm for car-insurance due to high accident rates, theft and hijackings (add to that monthly costs for satellite tracking services)
- Between 10-15% of the salary for pension contributions
- About 3% of the value of your house goes towards levies, rates & taxes, water, electricity, sewage (for a typical ZAR 1,5m property this will be around ZAR 4,000-5,000/pm)
Including income tax, a typical middle-class income be left with about 20-30% of their gross earnings to make a living. Within the next few years, South Africa will introduce the National Pension Scheme (NPS) and the National Health Insurance (NHI). The NHI itself is problematic as the government seeks to fund the NHI from the currently 14% of the population already paying for private medical insurance in order to fund the remaining 86% to achieve equal health standards.
Reason for exit: Financial feasibility and cost of living. There is no point in earning a R70,000 salary ($ 5200/pm or EUR4,500/pm), when indirect taxes eat into your net-salary.
How would a businessman look at this?
It’s quite simple: I am running a business (my life and my family) with diminishing returns and no positive outlook. My labour-force (my son) will not receive an equal opportunity and has been experiencing this inequality for the last 4 years in high-school. It is certain that the cost of running my “business” will increase, eating into savings or requiring steep salary increases.
Any businessman would look at this and try and find more favourable conditions for the business to flourish. South Africa is not the place for us any more and the above sums up why the decision was made to emigrate. In future, both my wife and my son will share their sentiments and even more interesting will be their future posts in 2019/2020, looking back at South Africa from Europe and the challenges & opportunities they had to face.