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[OPINION] A family separated by time zones

During the 1970s two of my aunts and their families emigrated to Canada and Australia, their choice informed by seeking better and equal educational, career and living opportunities for themselves and their families. Many, many other families impacted by the limitations of apartheid were obliged to make this choice. Many others who would have chosen it were not by the means to leave. So many other families today are still not in a position to exercise this choice.

It was not until the 1990s when friends around me started feeling frustrated and moaning about how their kids are now going to have to find educational and employment opportunities overseas that I realised
others were now feeling the same loss and frustration we did.

My parents, after consulting us, chose to stay here and make it work by getting politically active and working towards the end of apartheid in our own way. My father had an established law practice and could not see himself walking to work in Canada and knowing everyone in the street as he did in Athlone on the Cape flats. This is our home; this is our country by birth and identity. We had a right, a chance and a responsibility to the children we would bring into the world. We took the necessary risks to feed our roots and firm up our foundation. Not one tangible regret is held!

For us, we made the right decision. I have not consulted my family about whether their decision was the right one for them but they did all make it work where they were. I do often wonder if my aunts and uncles long for South Africa, their familiar and shared past, their achievements, their family and friend circles. Personally, I felt abandoned when they left as we were a very close family. We spent Sundays together for lunch; we went on drives and holidays in convoy. My cousins and I were all close in age and our parents generally got on very well with each other and their independent groups of friends. We were a big, loving and fun family. We had sleepovers; our parents all had varied interests and hobbies. We did family braais at home and in public places where we were allowed to. Allowed to not because it was a designated braai area but allowed to because we were coloured. As children, this was never brought to our attention. We lived in and around the system and though our parents were impacted directly by apartheid, as children they more or less managed to shield us from our reality. We focussed on our family unit, where as children, we were role modelled by excellent examples of how families operate. It was a happy time for me. Saying goodbye to my cousins and my aunts was a very traumatic experience. Air travel and visiting was not a real option for many reasons back then.

For the first two decades we used to phone, write letters (all of which I still have), send birthday cards and photos and so it went until we were connected via the internet. By this time, many years and usual milestones had passed. We developed new supportive relationships and circles of friends wherever we were in the world. I feel like our children have been robbed of the opportunity to have the happy busy childhood with their own cousins. They have other wonderful cousins her at home and we missed out on repeating family traditions with our five cousins overseas and their eight children.

My sister married a Scotsman and they have lived abroad for 19 years. Thankfully we have social media, WhatsApp groups, Skype and other ways of being in touch daily. She flies home anytime we have an emergency or for holidays and big days. Our kids meet up annually as if they saw each other last weekend because we make an effort to keep up to speed with happenings in all our lives.

The issue is that every time she comes home, she has to leave, and we have a date and flight itinerary. Every time she leaves, we don’t know when we will see each other again. It is not ideal but a choice we live with, knowing that the world is becoming smaller and that everything and everybody is more accessible.

Still, nothing beats the warm embrace and my face in her hair when she does come home and we all sigh some relief that we are reunited for the brief time we have together. I am still unaccustomed to the knot in my tummy every time we step into the departure lounge.

When we are separated from loved ones by choice, it is easy to understand and so hard to accept because when we are together, the time is precious and qualitative. The truth is that we all have lives; our lives include choices, both easy and complex. I want our country to work so that I don’t have to visit my children overseas because the education and job scene may seem more appealing. I want them to spread their wings and fly and travel and explore, but it must be a choice and not because the system is not working. Blood, sweat, tears, sacrifices and lives were spent to give all of us who live in South Africa free and fair opportunities.

The sooner we accept that this pie called education, work opportunities and abundance is big and there is enough for all who earn a place there, the sooner we make our country a base from which all things are possible.

I want our country to be home to all who live, love and work here. I want the same for those who leave to experiment overseas and find out that the grass is green where you water it. A land of opportunity, possibility and anything we say can go. We need to understand and work on common cherished ideals for our freedom. Too many take it for granted and too many don’t yet know we are free.

Tomorrow, we are off to the airport for our thousandth "see you later", "just now", "now now". We never say goodbye, we are just separated by an ocean, a continent and a time zone. This is how we will view the gaps between our family reunions forever. No goodbyes.

Lisa Joshua Sonn is a social activist. Follow her on Twitter: @annalisasonn

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