Jane Flanagan* [caption id="attachment_9231" align="alignleft" width="150"] The Sinclaire family. Settling in on their return to South Africa.[/caption] Hundreds of thousands of whites left South Africa following the ANC’s landslide election victory in 1994. Twenty years on, the exodus shows signs of slowing, even reversing. Jane Flanagan spoke to some of those who have returned. Nicky and Craig Irving spent five years in Australia before moving back to Cape Town with their three daughters.
They were among the last members of their respective families to emigrate amid fears over the crime wave that swept South Africa during the 1990s.“The challenge to us from our relatives who had left was ‘How can you raise your children in a country that is so violent and has no future’,” Mrs Irving recalls. “Our girls were 10, seven and nearly one at the time. We felt vulnerable living in South Africa, so leaving seemed the obvious thing to do.” Exodus The Irvings were among 44,500 white South Africans who left the country in 2004, more than double the annual figure in 1996.
But after five years in Sydney and on a farm five hours drive from the city, the Irvings had had “enough of living in a sorted society”.They decided to return home and help tackle some of the challenges that had prompted them to leave South Africa in the first place. “We could have decided to stay in Australia which, as people kept telling us, was a safe place for our children, but we decided to come back and try and make South Africa a safer place for all its children.” Mrs Irving, an architect, is now working with Cape Town officials to help improve Khayelitsha, the country’s biggest township. Someone who also left in the first wave, Angel Jones, was prompted to return on hearing Nelson Mandela reach out to a mainly white South African crowd on a visit to London in 1996. “He told us: ‘I love you so much. I want to put you in my pocket and take you home’,” she recalls. “We all stood there with tears running down our cheeks. I had grown up with so much shame about the colour of my skin, but Nelson Mandela really did change that for a lot of white South Africans. I knew then that I had to go home. It was the most amazing moment.” She came home in 1996, just as many of her friends were packing their bags to leave, and set up Homecoming Revolution which connects the homesick South African diaspora with potential employers back home. ‘Pale male’ [caption id="attachment_9232" align="alignright" width="150"] The Sinclaire family in Scotland before deciding to come back to South Africa.[/caption]
The exodus has steadily slowed however and there is evidence that many of those that left – whether for careers, over safety fears or political instability – are returning. Homecoming Revolution estimates that some 340,000 have come home in the last decade.The idea that the “pale male” is not welcome in the South Africa, in the wake of a widespread implementation of affirmative action, is misplaced, Ms Jones says. There is “no shortage” of opportunities for returning skilled professionals with international experience, particularly in finance and IT, she says. But settling back into life in South Africa often takes time and some cannot put aside their original motivations for going. Around one in six returnees end up leaving again. After 12 years in London, Greg Anderson, now 45, could not contemplate the idea of returning to South Africa. However, the birth of his twin sons changed that, he says. He and his South African wife came home in 2008, and now have a third child. “It wasn’t just that the cost of childcare or the complicated logistics of having kids in a city,” Mr Anderson says.