Home is where the heart is: Why I love South Africa

Dr Devi Rajab

Dr Devi Rajab

Published Jan 20, 2024


I LISTENED intently as an eminent businessman and philanthropist spoke at a small gathering of like-minded persons. The inevitable question of our position in this country emerged.

Do we, as a small community of approximately 1.7 million people, have a future under a black government? What if the EFF comes in as the official opposition? What if we are not recognised as bone fides SA? What if our economy collapses and we become another Zimbabwe?

His answer was unequivocally dismissive. This was the best country in the world, he said. Nowhere in the world could we enjoy a lifestyle of the kind in our comfortable homes for which we would have to pay a great deal more.

It would be unaffordable. Nowhere in the world would be able to enjoy the freedom to practise our respective religions in our temples and mosques and celebrate our festivities and enjoy a lifestyle of rich cultural traditions, among family and friends in an amenable climate.

In a strange way, although South Africans are not loyal citizens as perhaps Americans or Indian nationals are, South Africa is loved by its exiles. Despite their economic success in the country of their adoption, they seem to long for their country of birth. To address their homesickness, they recreate an SA style of living, with curry, braaivleis, boerewors and biltong and congregate in common neighbourhoods.

Recently there have been spates of aged people who emigrated to the West during apartheid and have decided to return to the country of their birth to spend the last years of their lives. Speaking to an octogenarian from Canada, I learnt that she had come back to spend the remaining years of her life among her own people. She missed the religious functions; her people, their unique ethnic culture, the food, the Tamil language and the South African-style weddings. Home is, after all, where the heart is.

There is no doubt that the Shangri La that this wise man paints has its dark spots too.

In between the cracks of a political leadership crisis, the downgrading of education, heavy crime rate, intermittent water and electricity cuts, poor services and corrupt politicians, I find my country a beautiful one and its people its natural wealth. Like a lover, it exasperates and entices. It cajoles and frustrates. It rewards and pleases but most of all, it is difficult to abandon.

It wasn’t always like this for me.

I recall spending much of my teenage years wanting to leave South Africa. It never felt like my country. I couldn’t identify with the national anthem or any part of its history. I hated the country and its unjust laws that forced me to study at an ethnic institution and live in restricted areas.

I would find myself constantly arguing with bank tellers, shopkeepers or post office employees about my rights to use the toilet, try on a dress or be served on a first-come first-served basis. I soon developed a narcissistic preoccupation to present myself as culturally superior despite my skin colour.

Education became the conduit through which one sought refuge. At the first available opportunity, I left the country on a scholarship to the US and I was never as happy as when I left the shores of the Republic of SA. Now, the times have changed and while one is proud to be a South African, one is constantly wary about how long this freedom would last. In those days, we would ask: What will become of SA? Today, people ask if it is safe to stay.

Though most of us have forgotten this under the weight of crime and other socio-political issues, for me, the delights of freedom was to buy my house in the neighbourhood of my choice, place my children at private schools, sell my labour at any institution, swim in any beach and see my children happily married to other racial groups.

I love the richness of the freedom of association. I love the diversity of its people. The peculiar nature of conversation across racial lines educates, enlightens and thrills me endlessly. The richness of interracial banter is unique to our context and history.

Living in the rainbow nation calls for a bizarre sense of humour too. I once recall being accosted by a rather persistent dried-grass broom seller. Appealing to my ethnicity, he enticed me with the stereotypic Asian inducer: “Cheap madam. Special price for you.” I succumbed and paused for a moment.

Then he said: “For the white madam, I charge R12 but for you, I charge R10.” He may not have realised it at the time, but our broom seller was practising a brand of affirmative action. However, perspectives change, depending on where one is positioned in the cycle of life.

Among Indian, coloured and white youth today, affirmative action, as practised in the job market and educational institutions, especially at medical schools, is deeply divisive and frustrates the call for social cohesion and nation building. It must go if South Africa wants to incorporate its entire people as equal citizens. In fact, we should all strive to eliminate racial tags in favour of a common identity as South Africans.

Dr Devi Rajab is an award-winning columnist and psychologist. She is the author of “Indian Women from Indenture to Democracy”.

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