08 April 2010

To leave or to stay?

Is the grass really greener on the other side? As many South Africans debate whether to leave SA for good, we look at the stress of leaving versus the stress of staying.

Politics, Eskom, crime;  these are three of the reasons many South Africans are citing as reasons why they're considering emigrating. To that list can now be added a perception that racism is on the increase.

But is it worthwhile? How does the stress of staying weigh up against the stress of leaving?

A local survey conducted two years ago showed that twenty percent of South Africans were planning to emigrate or were seriously considering it. This goes to show the extent of the problem. The survey was released in 2008 by global market research company Synovate. Spokesman, Jake Orpen, said 600 respondents were interviewed in all nine provinces of South Africa, using face-to-face interviews and the results were weighted to ensure representation across province, age, gender and race. Apparently, the option to emigrate was most popular amongst young and middle-aged South Africans (18 to 44 years).

The US emerged as the most popular choice of destination, followed by the UK, Australia and New Zealand.

But what happens when you get there? The outbreak of xenophobic violence in South Africa two years ago (and there have been ongoing sporadic xenophobic violence since then) shows that there can be an ugly side to immigrating to a foreign land. Yet many are still convinced the grass is greener on the other side. But at what cost to your mental and emotional health?

Dr Helgo Schomer (registered psychologist and UCT academic) believes the trauma of any form of moving - be it moving town to town or to another country - should not be underestimated and ought to be a major consideration before such a life-changing step is taken.

Goodbye familiarity

"There are many reasons why people move, but any move involves uprooting yourself. You will possibly break family ties and leaving behind a social system that's part of your everyday life, from knowing the bus timetable to your local police station's address. These are all things you'll have to learn from scratch, and most of the rules will be new," he says.

Moving is said to be one of the most stressful things one can go through in a lifetime, and Schomer agrees that emotionally it is a huge stressor which can take its toll mentally, and even physically, if not handled correctly.

"Emigration means moving into an unknown realm, and adults don't adjust as fast as children do. It's not just the furniture that's being moved – you're moving your future.

"Emotionally you need to be prepared to cope with being in an alien setting, a place where you can't go to a familiar place for comfort. It's a brand new experience on a number of levels and mentally it's important to be prepared," Schomer advises.

Crime the major motivator

Yet, while Schomer denies advocating emigration is the only alternative option, he also believes that people have their limits, and says it's not for anyone else to judge their reasons for wanting to leave.

"Crime is a justified concern for many, I have also been a victim of crime, and the trauma I see sometimes from people who have been touched by crime is often unbelievable.

"I would love to say that people should stay and fight, but it's not up to us to criticise people who leave," he says.

Schomer also advises people who have been a victim of crime, or have been touched by it in any way, to seek counselling – regardless of whether they are leaving or staying.

"I am a shrink, and after my second hijacking I needed help. Everyone needs someone professional to talk to after something like that and it's no good being arrogant about it. It will make a huge difference to your life," he adds.

Survey reveals top reasons for leaving and staying

According to the Synovate survey, the primary factor for emigrating from South Africa was violence, crime and corruption, 55 percent of respondents said. Other push factors were the country's volatile economy and the cost of living (19 percent), governmental problems (13 percent) and infrastructure concerns (6 percent).

Family reasons (14 percent), such as joining extended families abroad and better education for children, were also mentioned. Four percent even admitted to having encouraged their children (of university-going age) to leave and a further three percent said they would encourage their children when they were old enough.

Some 85 percent of respondents said that they had not been encouraged by anyone to leave South Africa. Fifteen percent said they had been encouraged by others to emigrate, of which 8 percent said that when considering emigration, friends were the main influences.

A third of the respondents surveyed said they knew someone who had emigrated from South Africa in the past five years. Those who had emigrated were perceived to have left for work- or crime-related reasons.

Fortunately it was not all doom and gloom, with 47 percent of respondents reporting they had no intention of leaving and a further 17 percent said they hadn't thought about it. So why did they want to stay? According to 46 percent, the climate and nature were the main attractions. Eighteen percent of respondents loved the people and fifteen percent pointed to the freedom South Africans had been granted and 14 percent pointed to the diverse cultures that existed in South Africa. Just over a tenth loved South Africa because it was home to family and friends.

What if the grass isn't greener on the other side?

However, if you're still intent on leaving, a key consideration when emigrating to a foreign country is to ensure you are prepared for the kind of welcome the locals will give you. A look at the xenophobic violence in SA in 2008 should be enough to convince you that not all locals in your new home may be too eager to roll out the welcome mat.

For those emigrating to countries such as Australia and New Zealand, such extremes are not generally the norm, says Schomer.

"In countries such as these, there are already a substantial number of South Africans, so one can fall into a pre-existing, established network. Some countries also want you for your skills and will absorb you into a system that's prepared."

This, he believes, is one of the primary reasons for the anger of locals towards the immigrants in South Africa. "Fear is a primal instinct and some perceive the immigration of others into their land as an invasion – one which will eventually erode their identity and affect their way of life," he says.

Leaving or staying – the stress could kill you

Yet whether you decide to pack up and jump ship, or stick it out for the long haul, the stress that comes with such major decisions is most certainly something which could adversely affect your health in both the long and the short term.

If you experience any of the following symptoms of the acute “flight-or-fight” stress reaction, you could be stressed:

  • Fast beating, racing heart, often palpable
  • Blood pressure soars
  • Fast racing breath
  • Digestion slows down
  • Sweaty palms. Stress causes extreme heat in the body. Without perspiration to cool the body down, we would spontaneously combust!
  • Dry mouth
  • Muscles tense
  • Blood clots faster
  • Glucose and fats pour into the blood to provide energy for all the action taking place inside the body
  • Rushing thoughts
  • Irrational fears and anxiety

Left unchecked, stress can not only cause, but also worsen the following conditions:

  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Allergies, hives, hay fever
  • Asthma
  • Migraines
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Eczema
  • Psoriasis

Thankfully, stress can be stopped or at least alleviated. If you're feeling a bit overwhelmed, try some of the following before making any radical decisions. If none of them work and you still want to leave, then as the good Dr Schomer says, it's not for anyone to judge.

  • Take charge of your stress and find coping mechanisms
  • Let your self-talk be positive
  • Get active and get those feel-good hormones flowing
  • Watch what you eat and keep your blood glucose levels regulated
  • Get adequate sleep to restore the body and rest the nervous system
  • Take time out at least once a day to yourself and read a book or listen to music
  • Interact with kids as their free spirits and light-heartedness almost always help us to see things differently
  • Pamper yourself with a massage or something luxurious
  • Chat to a friend and share the load
  • Write it down and unpack your mind
  • Learn to say “no” if you're overwhelmed
  • Try to get into a routine to calm you down

Sources: Dr Helgo Schomer, registered psychologist and UCT academic;

(Amy Henderson,, updated April 2010)

Read one man's story about his experiences after moving to South Africa:
My other country


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