If it were to be revealed someday that the new craze of our times, #I’mStaying, were a government funded campaign aimed at countering the growing number of departures, or of making those who have left, are leaving or are planning to leave, feel bad about themselves, I would believe it.

But since I haven’t done any comprehensive search into its bona fides, it is safe to stay with the obvious indications and limited anecdotal accounts that this campaign is indeed legitimate – until further notice, of course.

I will also not believe comments made by someone at a meeting I recently attended that some of the “followers” of this campaign are not real humans. I have seen no proof that they are bots, so I will believe the official version; not claims that at least some adherents are computer-generated. Anything is possible in our times, but proof always helps.

I really do find #I’mStaying cute in a strange, but sometimes uncomfortable, way. It is the hidden emotional blackmail in some of its messaging that I find uncomfortable to embrace. So, I joined it following an invitation by a friend, then left it after a few days.

I will probably not be allowed in again if I decide to give it another try. I saw in a recent Sunday Times article that those who are critics of the campaign are blocked. This reminds me of church; and I do not do church even though I admire the patience of those who do.

#I’mStaying is, as many say, a fascinating citizen response in a climate where many South Africans, ‘gatvol’ and frustrated by sustained negative developments in our country, have left, are leaving, or are planning to leave.

Those who leave can be divided into two broad groups. We’ll refer to the first group as “active planners” who have the financial means, the academic qualifications – including special/scarce skills – and the youth to leave and start over almost seamlessly in another country.

The second group consists of “passive opportunists” who have few or none of the attributes named above but would be the first to jump at an opportunity to leave if it were presented to them on a platter, with a job, business opportunity, or residence in another country.

Holier than thou

It is hard to say exactly where those who publicly proclaim for all to hear – t-shirt, cap, and hashtag on the ready for the cameras to see and the microphones to hear – stand when they claim that they have no plans to leave.

Some mean it, of course; but not all of them. The loud ones are often the ones who fill up the ranks of the ‘holier-than-thou’ brigades and who consider their inability/unwillingness to go as the only possible manifestation of love for and commitment to our beautiful country. Their attitude is strange and often borders on intolerance, absence of empathy, and emotional blackmail.

In fact, it is often from the ranks of such people that the silent “passive opportunists” emerge. They will not leave while they cannot leave; but they will be the first to jump when opportunities are created for them to accept a job offer in another country.

Migration is natural

The truth is that human migrations are not a new thing. In fact, our country, yes, this South Africa, is itself a product of centuries of human migration. Apart from the Khoi and the San, whose southern African origins few have disputed, the rest of us are sons and daughters born in and out of wedlock of men and women who forcibly, willingly, or enthusiastically left North, West, East, and Central Africa, Eastern and Western Europe, the Middle and Far East, Asia, Madagascar, and other parts of the world to come here.

They came as opportunistic entrepreneurs, colonialists, curious travellers and adventurists, slaves, missionaries, refugees from religious prosecution, as well as spouses and children following their partners and parents across the oceans, mountains and vast expanses of land.

Over several hundred years, millions were born here of mixed marriages of all kinds, many of which were not even allowed by the laws of the times, nor the cultural and religious mores at various points of our long human history.

To this day, many people continue to come here to seek a better life or to flee political and other forms of prosecution in their home countries. During apartheid, many left South Africa, fearing apartheid and all the inhumanities that it visited upon them. Some have returned when things seemed to get better; others stayed away, mainly because of new family ties that could no longer be undone, or for the same reasons that many who would like to leave today are not able to do so.

So we should stop the negative and divisive narrative that consists of claiming that those who leave today have no love in their hearts for South Africa; or that they’re not committed to its well-being. Instead, we should understand their reasons for leaving. We should open our hearts to the things that make them fear to stay here; or that have angered them to the point where they would rather invest their skills and accumulated wealth in other countries; countries that they believe will appreciate their contribution, whatever form it comes in.

People never leave the countries of their birth easily. No one wakes up one day and starts to pack up their personal belongings. Those who eventually do leave, do so with heavy hearts, even anger, fear and lots of self-doubt. It is like walking away from one’s life partner, or from family.

So, instead of playing nauseating holier-than-thou bots, let us reach out with empathy and let us seek to hold-hands to deal with the causes of these departures, not the symptoms which are the departures. Only the people who brought our country to its current state will be happy to see the religious fervour of online campaigns that seek only to look at the rosy side of our miserable country while they admonish those who express worry at its state.

And those who leave do not have to be treated as enemies of our country; they’re not. Instead, we should hold their hands and hope that wherever they go they remain, or are turned into, positive ambassadors of our country.

Let us work at ensuring that our diplomats across the world and those tasked with promoting South Africa as a preferred destination for tourism, investments, and a plethora of other foreign exchange earning opportunities, have supporters in the vast South African diaspora that will help this country generate the goodwill it needs in order to be an admired, winning nation. We should aim to remain united here at home and across the globe as South Africans; united against wrong here at home, but positive that we can do better as a nation, united in our diversity. This is what will make us a winning nation.