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.
Rolling Alpha posts opinions on finance, economics, and the corporate life in general. Follow me on Twitter @RollingAlpha, and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/rollingalpha.
Anonymous September 8, 2015 at 14:56
Great post … came back from the UK 9 months ago after 12 years. The grass is not always greener. £150 for the “good” meals vs £40 … Jo’burg gets my vote!Reply
Jayson September 14, 2015 at 22:28
Thanks! 🙂 And it definitely gets mine!Reply
Anonymous September 8, 2015 at 23:58
Great post Jason… I’ve always maintained that SA is the best place I’d choose to live and work in. Like yourself I’ve lived from permit to permit since my UCT days in 05 till now well beyond articles. Unfortunately for SA and for me I do not see myself hanging around much longer because I cannot take the uncertainty of work permits anymore.. been denied PR on petty technicalities by DHA and after 11 yrs living here and after sizeable financial outlays I’m nowhere near permanent residency. . . It is for that reason that I have given up on SA and will chart a different and more welcoming path despite SA’s many pros. .Reply
Boyd Hayes September 9, 2015 at 05:46
On top of all that, there is SO MUCH that needs done. Talk about opportunity. There are deficiencies everywhere that need correcting. People need fed and educated. Corruption needs solved. Power shortages need remedied. Votes need cast and news needs written. There is LOADS to do. I’ve been lucky enough to be doing my undergrad in the States, but once I’ve graduated, I relish the opportunity to come back with skills and connections. South Africa will never work out unless South Africans make it work. Perhaps I am a blind optimist. So? I always have hope for the future of South Africa.Reply
Anonymous September 9, 2015 at 17:19
Im also a Young professional (from SA) that recently took up an Engineering job in UK and I absolutely agree with each and every point you have made. It is much easier for a young professional to quickly build wealth, a strong work network and a great career with very comfortable life in SA (Ive told most of my friends back in SA they are living like kings by comparison) – There is no way I will have the same opportunities here as are still available to me in SA now. I’ll still decide if I want to head back, Im giving it 12 months and lets see where we are.
Jayson September 14, 2015 at 22:27
Thanks! And good luck with the decision-making.Reply
Sally Hatchwell September 9, 2015 at 18:26
Fascinating! 24 years in Canada and STILL pining. Feel we lost our lives for ‘security.’Reply
Heretic September 14, 2015 at 22:20
“if you’re part of South Africa’s professional working class, you get to live a first class life”
Commuting between one walled-off ghetto and another with chronic electricity and water shortages and an economy lumbering towards a fiscal crisis is a “first class life”? If you say so.Reply
Jayson September 14, 2015 at 22:26
I do say so. Life is pretty plush in the walled-off ghettos – and ‘chronic’ electricity and water shortages are easily solved with an inverter and a water tank.
As for the fiscal crisis – well, that’s everywhere.
But no one is forcing you to believe that life is first class. If you’d like to believe otherwise – that’s entirely up to you 🙂Reply
Heretic September 15, 2015 at 00:32
There’s more to providing for your standard of living than your personal electricity and water needs. Your ghettos are not self-sustaining, not by a long shot. And you know very well that fiscal crises have much more acute effects on smaller, under-developed economies like SA. I think it’s going to become very clear to you over coming years that your “first class” life will not be at “economy class” prices. But hey, at least you get the luxury of a second bedroom. Sorry, I mean “library”.Reply
Jayson September 15, 2015 at 07:43
Propheting the Doom, eh?
Well, it’s a fun exercise. And, I guess, if you call it for long enough, it eventually happen to you. In some way, shape or form.
But I am a Zimbabwean. I have lived through a lot of doom. And my empirical observation is that there are always people who survive and then flourish. None of them are pessimists, or benefitted from the bewailing – they were almost all, collectively, pragmatic opportunists.
Like I said – ultimately, it’s your choice if you choose to focus on all that is and might be wrong. My life is first class – and that is an internal paradigm as well as a relative value judgement. Which is my way of saying: I am an active participant in that reality, not just a passive recipient of all that my environment chooses to dole out.
And I think that is my main gripe with naysayers. You’ll moan about your circumstance as an end in itself. As a pragmatist, my personal lifestyle choices go something like this: if it’s raining, buy an umbrella; if it rains harder, go inside. But when someone chooses to stand outside in the drizzle, cold and shivering, asking us all to mark his words, because the hurricane’s a-coming, then his argument is invalidated. By his own determination to be a victim, if nothing else.
That said, clearly, this is unhelpful to you. So why pay any attention to it?Reply
Brian May 25, 2016 at 20:09
So I agree with you regarding both the opportunity and not being the eternal pessimist however I think one of the major things to consider here is Risk in terms of livelihood and experience and the significant disparity between experience.
Let me explain,
Overseas you may not be that wealthy or live that plush a lifestyle, but for the most part your lifestyle is fairly consistent.
in this country you may live very nicely as both you and I are it would seem but then some major events drastically changes that.
As per usual a crime example, someone who was a little older (42 to be exact) so maybe not a little was recently raped and murdered in her own home at night.
She had security but something was not working and so they broke in and it happened at night.
She had a 10 year old child and was a single parent.
That child is now in a very difficult situation and well.. she is gone.
These situations are not all that uncommon and do occur not just negligibly.
Yes you can take precaution but they are not fool proof,and yes you may say she was just very very unlucky but hey do you want to be the unlucky one?
This kind of event, besides for terrorism does not occur overseas and certainly not in a statistical sense.
So no I am not deciding to move overseas and still love it here but i don’t know how dramatically my opinion would actually change if something like this had happened to me, assuming of course i wasn’t killed in the event itself.
Or how long I am necessarily willing to play this kind of roulette and hope the criminals target my neighbour and not myself or if they target me and break through my security defences are not blood thirsty murderers?Reply