Who is right - stayers or leavers?

5 June 2008

Willem Landman
Chief Executive Officer
Ethics Institute of South Africa

Stayers and leavers want to prove one another wrong and justify their own decisions. Those that leave are “selfish, cowards or, even, traitors”. And those that stay live “in a dream world, are full of bravado, or have their head in the sand”.
Following the ANC’s Polokwane conference, emigration is increasingly being discussed. Reasons high on the agenda are criminality, deterioration of infrastructure and discriminatory employment practices.

This year, Eskom, economic factors and xenophobic violence have given even greater impetus to emigration.

Those that emigrate come from white and black minority groups.

A third of owners of private business enterprises have already seriously considered emigrating. Two thirds of doctors are threatening to emigrate should the government regulate their fees. Core personnel in the air force are leaving, because of drastically deteriorating working conditions.

Even if only 10 per cent of these intentions materialise, it remains a potentially catastrophic situation, because of its possible snowball effect.

What is striking are the regular letters in the press about the right and wrong of emigration. Stayers and leavers want to prove one another wrong and justify their own decisions. Those that leave are “selfish, cowards or, even, traitors”. And those that stay “live in a dream world, are full of bravado, or have their head in the sand”.

Worldwide and throughout the centuries, migration has been part of being human and a reaction to a variety of causal factors.

Nearly one of every ten British subjects lives outside Britain. By 2006, 2 000 people were each week leaving the United Kingdom permanently. South Africa was seventh on the list of destinations.

We live in a country of immigrants. Over the past number of centuries, white immigrants arrived here from various parts of Europe, as did Asians from India and Malaysia, as well as black Africans.

The fact, however, that a phenomenon occurs commonly, does not make it ethically acceptable. There was indeed a time when slavery was normal and common, but that did not mean that slavery was morally correct.

In short, facts about the ongoing migration of people merely place our own emigration phenomenon into perspective, but say nothing about the right or wrong thereof.

Who is right in the emigration debate – the stayers or the leavers?

The answer is simple: neither of the two. To generalise about the right or wrong of emigration is to misunderstand the ethics thereof. We do not have an absolute moral obligation to stay here, and nobody has the moral right to demand this of us, whatever the circumstances may be.

Each person has his or her own, totally unique biography. As we live, each one of us is writing his or her own history. Various entwined common human factors influence our biographies, such as personalities and attitudes, health, levels of education and skills, financial circumstances, family ties, work circumstances and unique experiences.

Because we live in South Africa, the social and physical environmental factors that affect each of our biographies take on a unique and often upsetting and all-important form. Mindless crimes of violence are a clear example. When corruption and decay of infrastructure are added thereto, there is more than sufficient reason to emigrate.

Some, however, are too old, or too poor, or insufficiently qualified to emigrate. Others can emigrate, but are not considering it, because they love the country and feel they belong here. They make a commitment, for example: “Here I shall stay, come what may, because I want to make a contribution”. Negatively wayward experiences are then ignored, rationalised, or made to fit into this perspective.

Yet others can emigrate, because they hold foreign passports, have scarce qualifications or children abroad, or are young, adventurous or wealthy. Alternatively, they find it more difficult to digest the negatives in the country, for example, because of a traumatic experience. Then, one can easily reach the point of making a reverse commitment: “I have to seek a better life elsewhere, because I won’t make it here”. Within such a perspective, positively wayward experiences are ignored, rationalised or made to fit.

The intensely personal decision of whether to stay or leave is anything but easy, because it entails uncertainties, sacrifices and adjustments.

I can attest to both sides of the fence.

When I arrived in the USA, it was both good and bad.

When I returned after seven years, it was again both good and bad, but for totally different reasons.

Naturally, loyalty to your country of birth, where you received your education and opportunities, is an important value.

To dismiss everything here as bad is a transparent attempt to rationalise a decision to emigrate.

Loyalty, however, should never be blind and can be trumped by other factors. Just ask the person who has been tortured, or whose family member has been murdered.

Ask the person who is well qualified, but who cannot find work. Which “morality” can tell them that they are “wrong’ to emigrate?

However upsetting emigration may be, the to-and-fro accusations by stayers and leavers are unseemly and immature.

Stayers must stop tackling leavers and throw their weight in here; leavers must start a new life and stop hassling stayers.

Instead, make your voice heard about ill-considered government policy, which is chasing away expertise and skills.

Ministers’ and officials’ lack of understanding of the consequences of their actions and inactions is an injustice towards the country and all her people.