At a time when people were leaving South Africa in growing numbers Professor Simon Adams and his family were heading in the opposite direction as Australian-born Simon was asked to take up a senior position at Monash University's South African Campus.
He recently returned to Australia to Monash University's main campus in Melbourne to take up the position of Pro Vice Chancellor International Engagement for the University.
It was at the end of 2007 when Simon relocated to South Africa. He was no stranger to the country, although it was more than 12 years previously when he had done part of his PhD at the University of the Witwatersrand in the early 90's. During that time had had become actively involved in South African politics as part of the mass democratic movement.
When he broke the news to friends and colleagues in Perth that he had accepted a job in Johannesburg, Simon says “you could literally see the blood drain from their faces.” “They looked at me like a person that is condemned on the gallows.” They must have wondered what lunatic would take his wife and small children to a place like Johannesburg. It was at a time when Perth had become such a popular destination particularly for white South Africans who had left the country.
Being in South Africa during the dying days of apartheid and witnessing the tremendous optimism on all sides of the political spectrum, he leaped at the opportunity to return to South Africa at a time when people were leaving the country in growing numbers.
“My wife and I were very committed to our move to South Africa and we had this nervous apprehension about the country,” says Simon.
“On our arrival I was amazed by the amount of change, and I mean positive change – which is not to minimise the enormous problems in the country, like infrastructure, crime, poverty and corruption in local governments and elsewhere. It struck us how much the country had changed economically. New buildings and the creation of the black middle class that did not exist when we left South Africa was visible everywhere.”
He continues: “There was a growing kind of ‘getting to know each other' amongst blacks and whites. I can still recall how an event at my daughter's school in Ruimsig, Johannesburg brought tears to my eyes. They played the national anthem and everybody was singing Nkosi Sikilele with their hands on their chests. Do you remember 15 years ago? Could you imagine in hindsight an Afrikaans speaking community singing Nkosi Sikeleli – maybe not knowing the whole anthem and more comfortable when it got to the ‘Die Stem' bit, but still accepting the new anthem. Maybe it's just symbolic, but symbolism is really important, especially in a country like South Africa.”
One of the things that aggravate Simon is that there is a very dark story that has been told about South Africa; often by South Africans themselves.
“I've lived in Johannesburg for the last two and a half years and if you had any illusions you lose them quickly. Despite the enormous challenges and difficulties that would anger me as much as it would anger any South African, I'm still enormously hopeful about the country and still incredibly supportive of what's been done there,” says Simon.
“In 1995 there was a sense in which white South African friends of mine, with whom I would disagree intensely, still felt like it was their country and they still had a stake in its future and they wanted to do something that they felt contributed to rebuilding their country.”
Simon says that one thing that concerned and saddened him from 2007 onwards was the number of white people who felt like the country didn't want them and who felt that they no longer had a place or a stake in the future of the country.
“The straw that breaks the camel's back might be crime related or something else, but there is this general situation of internal displacement and I think the thing that propels people out of the country is a feeling that their skills and commitments are not really necessary wanted or needed.
“I think that is an incredibly sad crossroad for a community and a country to be at. The ability to reach out to the minority communities was lost after the Mandela era, which I think was one of Mandela's strengths. His message to all South Africans that they are as much South African as he is and that everybody has a stake in the future of the country and that he expected everybody to make a contribution was a wonderful thing for him to do and I don't think anybody since Mandela has been able to do that.”
Simon believes that is what is propelling people out of the country. What would really have to change, he says, would be the government making a very conscious effort to promote the fact there are highly skilled South Africans all over the world and the government desperately needing them to come back to help rebuild the country.
“But in order for it to become a realistic prospect the crime situation would have to radically improve. Nine out of 10 times crime is the decisive factor when people immigrate – it becomes the tipping point,” he says.
“People don't feel comfortable and they don't feel their skills are needed. They are constantly surrounded by the threat of death and it becomes the trigger that propels them out of the country.”
Simon light-heartedly tells me how his daughter, who started school in South Africa, was asked at her school in Melbourne at the beginning of this year to buddy up with another girl from another African country. When asked at home why the school thought she should buddy up with the African girl, she did not hesitate to answer “because I'm African too”.
After our interview Simon mentions to a mutual friend of ours that he feels homesick – it must be my accent – and I suddenly realise how Africa tends to get under your skin, even if you're just there for a couple of years.