Every morning, Facebook greets me with a fresh stream of articles and memes on how South Africa is going to the dogs. In the evenings, “leaving this place” is a fairly constant topic of dinner-time conversation. And on the weekends, family lunches revolve around the awesomeness of Mauritius as a “retirement” haven.
At the same time, many of my South African friends have already ventured forth. They work in London, Atlanta, New York, Paris, Singapore, Hong Kong, Chicago, Tokyo, Athens, Rome, Brisbane, Perth, Sydney, Melbourne, Belfast, Luxembourg, the Caymans, the BVI, Bermuda, Barbados… It’s basically an Atlas of great-places-to-live.
And yet I am one of those people who wants to live here – in Johannesburg.
To be clear, South Africa does not make this easy. And you’d hope that it would get easier with time – but it does not.
When I first came to Cape Town to study in 2004, my undergrad study permit was processed in two weeks. When it came time to apply for my postgrad study permit, it took a bit longer. My first work permit took more than a month. Once I’d finished my articles, my next work permit took 11 months to process, requiring daily escalations with the call centre, and eventually, some direct appeals to senior officials in the Department of Home Affairs. And as for my permanent residency application – that process seems to have been in limbo for what feels like forever. So long, in fact, that I had to apply for a new temporary work permit in the interim because my old one expired.
And each time I re-engage with the Department, I spend tens of thousands of Rands on immigration practitioners, foreign police clearances, local police clearances, medical reports, radiological reports, and travel costs to “present myself” wherever required.
Here is why
Let me start by saying that this is not about “ubuntu” or any other such idealistic buzzword. It is not for the weather (although the weather is nice). And I am not a blind optimist – I am fully aware of the load-shedding, the crime, the nepotism and the looming water crisis.
But I am also not a blind pessimist. I don’t see the problems and assume “Somalia”. I don’t look at President Zuma and think “Idi Amin”*. Those are overstatements.
*Although, for fun, I’d quite like to hear Mr Zuma anoint himself: “His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshall Doctor Jay Z, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British and Boer Empires in Africa in General and South Africa In Particular”. Because that would be real Amin-stylin’.
Here in Johannesburg, for the same rental that I would pay for a flat share in London’s Zone 3, I live in a spacious townhouse. In said townhouse, I’ve turned one bedroom into a library, fulfilling one of my deepest life-long desires. At the age of 29.
If I want, I can go fine-dining – with wine lists and menus that would rival anything I’ve tasted in the “good” restaurants of the big Capital cities. Those meals will set me back £30/$50/€45 on a special night. And on an average Saturday, £20 or less, cocktails included.
From a purely economic perspective: whatever we might say about South Africa’s wealth inequality (4th highest in the world) – people often forget to consider the scale. In a developing country such as this one, the upper class can earn the same nominal incomes as the middle class in a developed economy, and yet continue to have “higher wealth inequality” by the standard measures.
And just think of what it means to be a South African professional:
- The job market is global (as shown by the departure of many of my peers).
- And in order to retain professional talent, South African employers must compete with global salaries.
- But the cost of living is set domestically, and restrained by the spending power of the entire working class.
In general, it means that if you’re part of South Africa’s professional working class, you get to live a first class life at economy class prices.
There is more.
In the South African setting where the business world is small, you get levels of networking interaction that are otherwise out of reach. Whatever dynastic wealth there is – it is not entrenched as an aristocracy. You don’t get the “Harvard”, “Yale” and “Princeton” clubs. There’s not really an “Eton” equivalent – although Grey, Hilton and Bishops do their level best.
Instead, business here is closely-interlinked, and the top Executives at listed companies occupy the same living space as everyone else.
In the evenings, you can run into them at the Alice Lane Virgin Active. Or the Bryanston one. On a Saturday morning, you’ll find them at the Neighbourgoods Market in Braamfontein. And actually – many of those executives will be the parents of people that you studied with, or parents of the people you work with. Or they’ll be friends of their parents. There are barely more than two degrees of separation – and I know this because Linkedin tells me so.
While that may seem a little immaterial – what that means is that my peer group are well-connected. And in the next few years, they are going to be ascending up the executive ranks – and then they will be the people to whom the well-connected are connected.
And we’re not talking about the far future either. It’ll be over the course of the next decade. For a few reasons…
Firstly, the non-white young professional class is being accelerated up to directorship level in order for their employers to comply with tighter BEE criteria.
And then, when it comes to the white young professional class:
- They’re either still being promoted because they’re too important to be let go; or
- They’re leaving to start their own businesses as entrepreneurs, supported by the networks of their parents and friends; or
- They’re leaving to get work experience abroad, planning to return with new networks of their own; or
- They’re leaving altogether, thereby reducing the amount of competition.
I’m just not sure if you could have a more promising platform.
The cost of an inverter for the load-shedding, proper investment in security, some administrative pain, and a water tank for the early summer times when the water levels run low…
Does that sound so terribly costly?
I’m not saying it’s for everyone.
But it is for me.
A Post Script
From the comments that started arriving pretty quickly after I posted this, people seem concerned that I’m being opportunistic by noticing all the opportunities. Firstly – guilty as charged. But more importantly: the current rhetoric (amongst the young professional class) is that there is nothing to stay for, and that the weather and natural beauty aren’t enough to keep them here. I don’t want to respond to that by saying “Oh – just ignore the lack of opportunity – think of the lovely lions at Kruger and the Knysna coastline!” The South African heart is not in question – the planned departures are in spite of it.
Also, there is a giant gulf of difference between “taking advantage of an opportunity” and “exploiting people”. Just saying.