There’s a novel by John Steinbeck, a famous one called The Grapes of Wrath. It centres around a family (and many other families), venturing thousands of miles westward to California in search of a better life, escaping the harsh dust bowl of Oklahoma in the 1930’s. One scene early in the book depicts how the women would watch their farmer husbands in the wake of devastating dust storms to see their reaction:
“The women watched the men, watched to see whether the break had come at last. The women stood silently and watched. And where a number of men gathered together, the fear went from their faces, and anger took its place. And the women sighed with relief, for they knew it was all right – the break had not come; and the break would never come as long as fear could turn to wrath.”
Yes, at the end of this month I am leaving South Africa for the UK. It is still difficult to grasp the fact that it’s happening, but it is. I was always one of those who saw the realities of South Africa, yet always remained positive that things would be fine, and that we could live happy lives here. But like the poor farmers in the Steinbeck novel, the fear for the future of South Africa has turned to wrath, one time too many. Needless to say, my wrath is aimed at the South African government. I never like being forced into something – ask my wife this, or any of my friends. This is a prime example. This feels forced. I look forward to the adventure, and feel positive, of course. But still, if South Africa was thriving and hope was high, I wouldn’t be doing this.
This isn’t a political post, but this is unfortunately a political issue. Many of my political rants of the past (some on this blog) have argued against the ever increasing sizes and extents of governments and government interventions around the world. The concept of a government, I maintain, is one of the most dangerous entities operating around the world today, which is why they need to be kept to a minimum in size and kept in check. A bloated, morally bankrupt government with a bad ideology can destroy an entire country, which is what is happening in South Africa. There are many other examples of this through the 20th century which I won’t mention, for fear of making this a political post. This is why I always support the ideal of small government and individual autonomy.
You can take a lot of things from a person, and they can carry on almost perfectly ok. Little bits of freedom, little bits of safety, little bits of disposable income, little bits of patience. But as soon as you start chipping away at hope, you have someone who takes action. That action is to say goodbye to my country.
Contrary to my outward appearances, I’m actually an incredibly sentimental person, bordering on melancholic at times. This is despite my rather awkward, somewhat cold disposition. I hate saying goodbye to things, it always leaves me with a sense of emptiness and sadness. When I drop relatives off at the airport in Joburg or say goodbye to them in Port Elizabeth as I leave, it usually takes me a while to recover from my gloomy stupor.
Leaving a country, your home country, will be no different, I suspect. Perhaps even more severe. I’m not sure what I’ll be feeling when the plane takes off from OR Tambo International, but I’m sure the sadness, albeit temporary, will outweigh the excitement. But what is it that I really love about South Africa? I don’t feel any particular affinity or sense of belonging with the people here. I don’t do the whole South African pride thing. I probably won’t wear South African apparel in the UK. A small, dark part of me is so angry I want to disown the place.
It’s the more permanent, non-human elements that I love and will undoubtedly miss. Some weird deep love of the land. Like an old oak tree, it’s like a fixed rootedness, an attachment to the land that’s near impossible to displace. I’ve always had a keen interest in where it is I came from. Who were the people who came before me, and what did they do? Maybe knowing that my forefathers landed here in 1690 and have been here since then has something to do with my attachment to this land, in a way that goes beyond sentimentality into the spiritual, energy side. I tend to think some have a greater attachment than others, and I tend to think my roots are very entrenched in this land. It’s quite hard to put words to this. Some will understand this, but many won’t. This isn’t necessarily a good thing. It just makes leaving that much heavier.
The smell of a braai as you light the firelighter and the relaxed feeling that follows. The beautiful severity of Johannesburg thunderstorm. The chorus of birds at 4:30am. The calm serenity of the Karoo at sunset. Driving 100km of road without passing a car. Reaching a royal hotel at 5pm after 8 hours of driving in the heat and the magnificence of drinking that ice cold lager. The feeling of entering Cape wine country after going over a Cedarberg mountain pass. These are the ways one’s roots speak to you. These are the odd things so hard to let go, because they’ve become part of who I am, and how I identify with my roots. Nature and the land are powerful things.
Unlike roots, which are permanent, home is not. Home is temporary. Home is moveable. When I moved to Johannesburg in 2012, one thing became very clear to me, and it’s something I seem to have forgotten in the few years that followed: Home is not a place. Home is where your family is. Home is a feeling. A feeling of safety and familiarity. A place where you truly are your real self. That’s why moving from your home country is so daunting. You go beyond the familiar into the unknown. But it is impermanent, because in no time the UK will be home, feel like home and be familiar. This is why I’m not at all worried about settling.
I’m also reminded, painfully, that nothing is permanent in this life. The sentimentalist in me keeps recognising the last times I’ll be doing things (for a while at least). The last time I put petrol in my car. The last time I have those amazing chips from that restaurant. The last time I drive a certain road across the country or see certain towns. The last time I jog down certain streets. The last time I have a get together with good people. The last time I look at my bookshelf before it’s sold and the books packed away. The last time (for a while) that I leisurely watch football in my own house on a Saturday afternoon, with the braai burning outside. Yet all the ‘last times’ experienced will inevitably be balanced out by a whole lot of first times as I do things for the first time. Everything changes. Always.
I could come back from the UK in a year after a failed experience and none of the above is relevant. I could love it and become highly successful there, staying long term. One thing I’ve learned in life is that you never know what’s around the next corner. And that’s ok. We’re ok. I’m ok.
What can one do but smile, put some classic rock on the headphones, some wine in the glass, and roll the crazy wave of life.