The Expat Friend Blog

Knowing When It's Time To Go

One of the big worries, when you're thinking about moving overseas, is what happens if it goes horribly wrong, or you can't settle for some reason. I've been thinking about this a lot recently with Hong Kong, South Africa and Brexit currently in the news. South Africa, a place we called home for two years, has seen a lot of horrible events this year and it's taken me back to the time that we realised we could no longer stay there long-term. For the record, this isn't intended to be a 'woe-is-me' piece - living in developing countries has made me acutely aware of how advantaged I am, and that the problems facing expats are generally self-made; we have the luxury of being able to choose where to live, and also when to leave. 

* Please note, this post may be difficult reading, especially for victims of crime and sexual violence.

...though we were slated to stay longer, we had to deal with our new reality and readjust our plans.

Our own lightbulb moment occurred in the latter half of 2015 when my husband was asked to go away with work for a week and I realised I was panicking at the prospect of being left alone. It was disconcerting and, as an adult, something I'd never felt before. Coming from a country where I'd go everywhere on my own, whenever and wherever, this loss of confidence was unnerving. A few weeks earlier someone had burgled our elderly neighbour's house across the road (luckily she was away) and then targeted ours. Even though they'd only managed to break the garage door, it brought home to me how vulnerable I felt, especially as a mother with young daughters. My sense of being able to adequately protect them was shaken, particularly when faced with the prospect of a home invasion (which are often characterised by violence). We were fortunate that we had an electric fence, armed response, and an alarm, but we lived on a normal residential street rather than in a security estate. I can't imagine what it's like for people who don't even have a decent roof over their heads, let alone security measures.  

Everyone has a personal cut-off point of what they can cope with when living in another country; for some people, it might be the differences in cultural attitudes or homesickness. Often you can put it down to teething problems - it's said it takes the average immigrant around two years to settle properly in their new country of residence. My feeling is if it goes on for longer than this, or your quality of life starts to suffer, it's time to be brutally honest with yourself. Take stock, weigh up the pros and cons of staying, make a decision and stick to it. 

My own point-of-no-return was the realisation that the fear of crime, not crime itself, was restricting our freedom, something we'd pretty much taken for granted previously coming from the UK. Probably out of necessity, many of the South Africans we'd observed were made of stronger stuff and carried on regardless. Though nothing serious ever happened to us, my anxiety levels increased and got progressively worse over time to the point I no longer felt able to venture out at night or walk anywhere alone. We'd moved to Cape Town for an adventure and had fallen in love with it, but had been exploring less and less during our second year there as we'd noticed that more places we enjoyed visiting were having problems with crime, with even popular tourist spots and hiking routes being badly hit. The most horrific point was when a young teenage girl was raped and murdered when out with her family at a beauty spot we often visited; I still think about her and her loved ones. We started to worry about our daughters' ability to grow up in the kind of environment where they would effectively need to look over their shoulders the whole time and be chaperoned everywhere. 

It can be hard if you've put down roots somewhere, or invested financially and emotionally in a place, to just 'up sticks' and leave. I expect there are people living in Hong Kong, and expats in the UK and EU, who are feeling similarly torn at the moment. South Africa is an incredibly special place and we were, in lots of ways, very sad to go. We've never experienced anywhere like it, and probably never will again. We don't regret the time we spent there and the amazing experiences we had as a family. However, we promised ourselves from the outset - given South Africa's troubles - that if the negative outweighed the positive then we wouldn't stay; we didn't want to be the proverbial frog in hot water only willing to jump out if things became unbearable.

By our second year, we could sense a change in the political, economic and social climate with South Africa starting to feel like a tinder box. If I'm honest, it's very likely that these tensions were always simmering away and we'd just become more aware of them. However, possibly in part due to social media, people were becoming more organised and protests were escalating; there was a massive increase in social unrest across the country, in townships, schools, universities and at government buildings.

Though at times shocking and distressing, we felt these protests were entirely justified. Nothing can really prepare you for the amount of poverty and inequality that exists in this beautiful country, and the shock you inevitably experience mixed with feelings of anger and guilt. Visiting Khayelitsha - the second largest township in South Africa - to deliver food and toys to a children's home, was something I'll never forget. By the time we arrived, it seemed as though Nelson Mandela's imagined 'Rainbow Nation' was falling apart, and the scars of apartheid were raw and visible. Homicide and rape statistics, primarily affecting the poorest members of society, were (and still are) some of the highest in the world. People were sick and tired of waiting for the jobs, housing and educational opportunities they'd been promised for years.

Against this backdrop of real problems for the South African nation, our own issues seemed trivial, especially considering our privileged expat life, with a British passport and the option to return home. Nevertheless, though we were slated to stay longer, we had to deal with our new reality and readjust our plans. We also had to ensure that the transition was as smooth as possible for our girls, then aged 9 and 12, who were quite settled at this point. 

The fact remains that we chose to move to South Africa for personal reasons, rather than out of economic necessity, and were able to change our circumstances fairly easily when it didn't work out. When things started to deteriorate, we had options. My heart breaks for the millions of South Africans, but in particular its women, who live and work in fear and do not - they have no choice but to stay and fight for their rights, and those of their families. August 2019 saw the deadliest month for violent crimes against women the country has ever seen; thousands of women and girls, including friends of our teenage daughter,  have been protesting. The last straw for many was the shocking death of 19-year-old University of Cape Town student Uyinene Mrwetyana, who went to pick up a parcel at our old local post office in Claremont, a comparatively 'safe' area of Cape Town. She was raped and beaten to death with a set of scales by the post office worker on duty. The building, which we knew well, is located right next door to a police station. I hope that this young woman - whose life was so senselessly and cruelly destroyed - didn't die in vain, and her family can eventually find peace.