KORVA COLEMAN, host:
I'm Korva Coleman, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, Mohandas Gandhi left the world 61 years ago with just a few worldly possessions: a pair of leather sandals, a bowl and a silver pocket watch amongst them. Now those items and others are set to go to auction. While critics condemn the sale, the head of the auction house claims Gandhi would be on their side. That debate is just ahead.
First, worries about the exodus of South Africans from their home country. The South African government does not keep official counts of emigrants, but several independent organizations report departures of thousands of black and white citizens. Many are professionals seen as critical to building the country's future. They blame increased crime and fewer job opportunities for pushing them out of the country.
Almost 80,000 South Africans now call the United States their home. Today, we talk to three South Africans living in the U.S. I'm joined by Vanilla Macuacua(ph) - she's a graduate of Simmons College. Vanilla came to the United States in 2005. She's currently working in Boston. Nanette Savadis(ph) came to the U.S. eight years ago with her husband. She is currently pursuing a graduate degree in Boston. And Diane Stewart(ph) - Diane came to the United States with her family in 2001. She now runs her own business in Charlotte, North Carolina. Welcome to all three of you. Thank you very much for joining us.
Ms. VANILLA MACUACUA: Thank you for having us.
Ms. NANETTE SAVIDES: Thank you for having us.
Ms. DIANE STEWART: Thank you for having us.
COLEMAN: I'd like to ask each of you to tell me briefly why you think so many students and professionals are leaving South Africa. Vanilla, why don't you start?
Ms. MACUACUA: I left South Africa because - well, firstly, the crime rate was really high, and sometimes I just never felt safe being a woman in the country, and that bugs me because of too many incidents that were happening that were affecting friends and family. And then there was also - I don't know, for me, in the workplace it didn't seem as though the older generation wanted to pass the baton. They were holding onto positions, and it seemed like I would have to work forever to get positions that I deserved. So that kind of demotivated me, and I felt the need to just leave to go to a place where youth was much more valued and they understood that sometimes you can be young and wise at the same time.
COLEMAN: Diane, what's your view?
Ms. STEWART: Yes, I think that Vanilla has hit all the real reasons. I also felt that I wanted to secure a more viable future for my children. I didn't know where the country was going. I had lived through the incredible excitement of Nelson Mandela being released from prison. I was heavily involved with the negotiations at the World Trade Center in Johannesburg, and so I was filled with enormous hope and belief in what our future could give us.
And unfortunately, as Vanilla said, that the crime just became unbearable. When it hits you, you know, really personally - luckily, I never had any close family members victimed, but I just watched my friends around me go through the most horrendous experiences. And I've just felt that raising small children in a society where you have to be concerned 24 hours a day for their safety and protection was just something that I just couldn't bare.
COLEMAN: Nanette, what is your view?
Ms. SAVIDES: I agree that particularly as a woman, I was aware of the constant need to be vigilant in my entire life in South Africa. And it's normal in South Africa to live that way. You know, we did bomb drills at school, how we would react. I mean, it was just a constant awareness of violence. But I also feel that I know many, many friends who live in South Africa very peacefully, very successfully, very happily, and I consider it to be an incredible place that everyone should experience. So it's a both(ph) end for me, and it's a nuance thing.
COLEMAN: Do you feel badly, Diane, about being away?
Ms. STEWART: Yes, I think never in my wildest dreams did I think that at age 40 I would have to pack up my life and move to a completely foreign culture and have to start my life again. I think possibly if I had known what I would go through the last almost eight to nine years, I may have reconsidered it.
COLEMAN: Vanilla, you sound a little more excited about being away. Is that true?
Ms. MACUACUA: I think I'm much more excited about being away because I'm 25, and I don't have that many responsibilities. People my age tend to think of it as an adventure. You're going away, you're doing things. And because I know deep down my family is there - my mom, my dad. So I would like to do something in South Africa. It is a beautiful country, and it has a lot of problems, but I think the only difference that I've noted about South Africa and many countries is that in South Africa it's more in your face and people talk about it more. In other countries, people kind of ignore it. They sweep it under the rug or it's never really addressed.
COLEMAN: Nanette, you've studied the issue of national identity and how white South Africans perceive themselves. Why do you think white South Africans - professionals and students and others - why do they leave?
Ms. SAVIDES: Part of what I realized was that there was crisis of identity, and I think that both stems from the fact that a regime ran the country, and so there was an illusion about identity, particularly amongst white South Africans, and that that was broken, thank goodness, in 1994. But that after that there was a sense of crisis about identity, and I think that I agree with Vanilla in that South Africa faces its issues and they're not swept under the rug anymore, and that's a wonderful thing, but it's also a very, very complex place to live - that point, that intersection where everything is out in the open. And I think there's a great pressure on individual South Africans to reconcile themselves. The whole social system shifted, and I think that's an enormous thing to cope with.
COLEMAN: Diane, you've just talked about your own personal experience about picking everything up and leaving. You also work with families who are trying to relocate to the United States. What do your clients in South Africa tell you about their motivation for leaving?
Ms. STEWART: Most of the reasons that we've discussed - crime, job opportunities, futures for their children. A feeling that they - and these are - and I'm speaking specifically of white and colored South Africans that I've worked with a lot. They don't feel that they're part of the country anymore. They feel like they're an outsider. And they see this in general society, they see it in business, and many of them come here not realizing what an enormous undertaking a relocation or an immigration is.
COLEMAN: Vanilla, what are the employment opportunities for young South Africans who choose to stay home?
Ms. MACUACUA: I sometimes feel that the employment opportunities are there within financial services. There's medical doctors, and there's a lot happening within the mining and energy industry in terms of research and analysis. But then it just becomes really, really hard to progress and to start getting opportunities. So I've watched a lot of my friends who are just dropping out of the corporate world and seeking opportunities abroad or actually starting up businesses. I think about 80 percent of my friends have started their own businesses over the past two years because they feel that the corporate world doesn't offer them much, actually.
COLEMAN: Nanette, the South African government has an affirmative action plan. Do you think it works?
Ms. SAVIDES: I think that affirmative action causes a lot of lashback(ph). I think theoretically it's an important part of the growth of the country, and it needs to happen. The difficulty with that is I say that from the outside and as somebody who is no longer affected by it, but for the person who has to take that early retirement package or who no longer feels valued within society, it's a very, very hard pill to swallow. And so there are a lot of South Africans who take great issue with affirmative action, and yet, you know, on the overall, I can see why it's important. But it's very hard to live with it.
COLEMAN: Vanilla, does this work or not?
Ms. MACUACUA: In my opinion, it doesn't work. I mean, I feel that as a young black South African, I was exposed to affirmative action, and I had to be hired on those bases, and all those friends that I spoke about, the 80 percent that have dropped out of the corporate world, were young black women, and it didn't work for them. They're all starting their own businesses or they've left the country. So yes, affirmative action gets you through the door, but does it ensure that you actually get your promotion, that you actually get to the top? What is the beyond that? So I don't think it really works.
COLEMAN: Diane, do you ever plan to go back to South Africa?
Ms. STEWART: You know, I would love to, and I would love nothing more than to purchase a property there and be able to retire there. I think Vanilla is absolutely right. I think affirmative action has been devastating for the economy and business in South Africa, absolutely devastating.
Interestingly enough, I was talking to my sister in Cape Town, and she says there has been a very interesting trend that had suddenly started. A lot of individuals who are in the banking industry are returning to South Africa, that people who have lost their jobs - high-paying jobs around the world in the banking sector are now thinking, well, let's go back to South Africa and see what we can do there.
COLEMAN: Nanette, do you plan to return to South Africa?
Ms. SAVIDES: I would hope to go back to South Africa. I feel very proud of the choices the country made, and politically the country is in a sort of an awkward place at the moment and I feel unsure of where it's going to go, but I would hope that it continues to grow and that I can continue to support it both abroad and by going home someday.
COLEMAN: Vanilla, would you like to return?
Ms. MACUACUA: I'm just mostly going to spend at least six months in South Africa out of the year as I start to build my business and a few things. I would really, really love to work and give something back to the country. I mean, South Africa has shaped me into the person that I am today, and I feel that is something that I'm really grateful for, having been South African, to have seen and to still be seeing and witnessing.
COLEMAN: We've spoken with Vanilla Macuacua. She joined us on the phone from her home in Boston, as did Nanette Savides. Diane Stewart joined us from member station WFAE in Charlotte, North Carolina. All three of my guests are originally from South Africa and now presently live in the United States. Thank you, all three of you.
Ms. STEWART: Thank you for the conversation, Korva.
Ms. MACUACUA: Thank you very much, Korva.
Ms. MACUACUA: Thank you so much.