The pain of emigration


The pain of emigration

Until now, ZIRK VAN DEN BERG's emotions were too raw to write about his decision 25 years ago to move to New Zealand.


IT has been a quarter of a century since I left the country. Until now I couldn't write about this — it was too raw.

Every emigrant will tell you a different story, although some will overlap. I cannot advise anyone on the desirability or practical aspects of migration. As the soul doctors like to say: there are no right or wrong decisions, only decisions with consequences.

I know what the consequences of my decision are, but not what would have happened if I had not moved. I cannot compare the life I lead now to a life I would have had in South Africa and make a value judgement.

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Had I stayed in South Africa, I would have had a longer and possibly better career as a writer, possibly an even happier marriage. But maybe I would have collapsed psychologically, or something terrible could have happened to me.

It is precisely this kind of speculation that started the whole thing. Imagination is a double-edged sword. If people ask what drove me to leave the country, I could probably come up with a list, with crime at the top, but I have to admit there was some paranoia involved, and maybe even some genetics.

Listen to this: when my father was six years old, my grandfather moved from South Africa to South West Africa. When I was six, my father packed us up and moved back to South Africa. And when my son was six, I packed up the family and moved to New Zealand.

Haunting thoughts

It is the late 1990s and I am haunted by nightmares: my wife and I and two children — a toddler and a baby — are on a narrow sickle-shaped beach, surrounded by perpendicular cliffs. There is no way out, and the tide is coming in.

The symbolism is not subtle. 

I awake in a cold sweat and am momentarily relieved that the nightmare is over, but then I prick my ears in a house full of fear and search for burglars.

Or maybe my neighbour is shooting wildly in the street again. I am afraid one of his bullets will hit my son's neck and I will have to push him around in a wheelchair for the rest of his life, knowing I could have kept him safer.

Or I dream that my baby daughter is not only raped but suffers from Aids as a result. How will I be able to look her in the eye and know there was more I could have done to protect her?

These are the thoughts that haunt me.

Elsabé and Zirk van den Berg and their two children, Anna and Bernard, at a farewell party with friends near Piketberg before they left for Nieu-Zeeland.
Elsabé and Zirk van den Berg and their two children, Anna and Bernard, at a farewell party with friends near Piketberg before they left for Nieu-Zeeland.

Friends, family and emotions

A lot of emotions are involved in the decision to go abroad, mostly about the people you leave behind.

I felt guilty but reminded myself that I could not stay for the sake of other people; they could just as well decide to go and leave me behind. Most of them were better off than me economically and in terms of job opportunities. If I don't go now, I won't be able to, I thought.

My 40th birthday was coming up and after that I wouldn't have enough points to get into New Zealand.

When we received confirmation that we had been granted residency, we had to convey the news. Our friends were mostly worried about our prospects — economically as well as emotionally, and rightly so. My career was not exactly a resounding success.

My wife, Elsabé, was reluctant about the whole thing and allowed herself to be carried along because I was so obsessed. I had to promise her we would come back if things didn't work out. Later, I broke this promise. It's not something I'm proud of.

Our relationship with some friends also suffered. Maybe they felt betrayed, or just wanted to distance themselves before we left. People do that.

The last night in South Africa we spent with my father.

I think it was the day of our departure, or the day before, when I said something about my shoes. Come with me, my father said. He let me stand on his back porch and went down the steps into the garage. He returned with a little can. I had to stand on the edge of the porch, and he was below me with my feet about level with his chest. He took a brush and polish from the can and started shining my shoes. He stood slightly bent, mindful of his task. Perspiration formed beads on his bald head below me. I felt the brush through the leather.

I think that was the most we ever loved each other.

Day one

When we descended for landing in Auckland after a long flight and a detour to Singapore, I saw green, green hills.

I didn't have a single key; I had nothing that could lock. In a pouch around my waist was a bank cheque for the paltry total of my earthly wealth — basically what was left from the sale of our house. The furniture was shipped.

Then we went through customs with children and suitcases. Bernard was six, Anna 18 months.

We took a minibus to the accommodation I had arranged. It turned out to be a backpackers and with a baby it wouldn't work. We left our luggage there and walked a few blocks to the city centre. On the way we sat down at a restaurant, glanced at the prices and left in a hurry.

At a tourist information centre in the main street I enquired where we could find a hotel room with a bath where we could stay with a baby. The woman gave this lost, bewildered little group one glance and told us to sit down, she would make some calls. There is a suitable hotel just around the corner, she informed us later, and we could walk there.

I collected the luggage and that's how we ended up in room 511 — father and mother, open suitcases and upset children.

Thursday, 13 August 1998. Day one. 

♦ VWB ♦

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