Right, wrong and emigration

by Grace Garland | Published on 27 January 2020 for The Ethics Institute monthly newsletter

The number of emigration queries by South Africans increased by 70% from 2018 to 2019, according to a report on immigration consultancy data. In other words, an unusually high number of people are considering leaving the country, and no doubt a sizeable portion are doing so. There are various ways to interpret this statistic. One straightforward interpretation is that those who can afford to move (so, a miniscule proportion of the populace!) have calculated that the future prospects of staying have become more bad than good, and so are deciding to avoid that future. The state of South Africa’s economy, political environment, education system, healthcare system, crime rates... Pick any of these factors, and they will almost certainly feature in the reasons given by the prospective emigrants, and it is invariably in this type of language that emigration trends are reported on. Shocker headlines like ‘devastating brain drain’ and ‘emigration is killing the country’ abound. Let’s review what may be going on.  

Airport departing

 "Is there a ‘right’ way to weigh up the good against the bad, a ‘right’ way to actualise competing ideals of national loyalty and global travel?"

Framed as a straightforward calculation of negative versus positive, the decision to move is simply a response to practical circumstances in the socioeconomic environment, where the ‘minus’ beats the ‘plus’. Perhaps it is welfare that matters most to them – theirs, their families – and this is reckoned to be under threat in South Africa. In short, these people want to be happy, and seek a set of circumstances elsewhere where the odds for happiness are more favourable. No need for further ethical enquiry: they have done the right thing.

This simple explanation is a distinctly utilitarian one, and is attractive for being so simple. How can there be anything wrong with seeking the happiest situation for one’s nearest and dearest? And yet, deciding whether to stay or leave is likely to be far more complicated for most people than a calculation of good and bad. As a start, the topic of emigration tests our principles and touches on strong corresponding emotions.

Imagine a person who thinks that national loyalty is of great importance. Perhaps, from their perspective, no amount of potential ‘bad’ can ever outweigh the ‘good’ of being loyal to one’s country. Indeed, this person may think that an appropriately patriotic South African would never even think that the grass is greener somewhere else. So theirs would be an argument, from principle, against emigration. Imagine someone else who thinks that globalism, or internationalism, is an important ideal. From their perspective, moving countries is just the exercising of a human right to travel the world. The grass, to this person, is green everywhere, and so there is nothing disloyal about going in search of it. In short, theirs would be an argument, from principle, for emigration. In reality, most people will have a bit of both of these instincts and therefore be susceptible to both arguments.

So, decisions to stay or leave involve utilitarian ingredients (good and bad calculations) and principle-based ingredients (patriotic and globalist sensibilities). There is more to it, but this is enough to go on. How these ingredients mix together will be different for every person, with a different outcome: stay or leave. With this more rounded picture, we are in a better position to ask an ethical question. Is there a ‘right’ way to weigh up the good against the bad, a ‘right’ way to actualise competing ideals of national loyalty and global travel?

It is helpful to look back at historical precedents for insights. There was a similar spike in emigration among white South Africans towards the end of Apartheid. Those people would have made calculations, and consulted their principles, too. Of course, their motivating attitudes would have varied widely, so let’s hone in on just one, and review it: For some, a deeply cynical attitude, based on racist distrust of the new leadership, amplified their calculations of the negative, and offended their sense of national pride. And so they left. This is categorically not the right way to emigrate – or do anything, really – because it is motivated by a cynical and morally reprehensible attitude towards others.

Some of that racism and cynicism is probably also going on today, but to a lesser degree, and this time the people departing are racially diverse, according to the report. So, what other deep attitudes are at play, leading so many to come to the same conclusion about South Africa – its positives, its negatives, and their sense of loyalty to it? This is the interesting question about the 70% spike, a question that goes beyond the socioeconomic numbers and beyond the blunt instruments of patriotism versus globalism.

An attractive answer: They are driven by hope and a sense of adventure, and have found a way to be both South African and global citizens. In their minds, regular visits, and possibly even a long-term return, will always be on the cards. A lucky few probably do fit this description.

A more realistic and less attractive answer: The deep attitude driving many South Africans to flee the negative here and seek the positive elsewhere, to swallow the patriotism and head for the airport, is fear. It is about their very survival, or at least the survival of their lifestyle. They are also lucky to have the financial means to make such a choice, when the vast majority do not. Yet they will be doing so with a sense of regret and disappointment. Leaving will be a wrench, a departure under duress. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ here, only necessity, and that is a terrible position to be in.

The fact that so many are going through this process is a tragedy for the country, because it has become a place where fear creeps into many people’s deepest attitudes, leading them to make fear-based decisions they might otherwise not have made. The glimmer of hope is this: Those who are departing only because they feel they have to, not because they want to, are more likely to return when conditions improve, and there is historical precedent of such a phenomenon.

The task for everyone – those who are leaving and those who are staying – is to reject cynicism, and to resist the temptation to draw prejudicial conclusions why the country currently faces the challenges it does. Unless we do that, there is no positive turnaround in sight. From wherever we are in the world, we can and must summon our deepest hopes and continue to fight for a better future for South Africa.


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Grace Garland is an Associate of The Ethics Institute, responsible for communications and editorial projects. She holds a Master of Business Administration from University of Stellenbosch Business School, and is currently studying towards a Master of Applied Ethics at University of the Witwatersrand.