keith coats

In 2016 my Vicky and I, in what was a somewhat spontaneous decision, moved to London… writes Keith Coats.

We had a lovely home in Gillitts, a leafy suburb perched atop of Fields Hill outside Durban in South Africa, a close-knit group of friends as neighbours and a wonderful lifestyle. But the thought of experiencing life in another country was an idea that rooted quickly and before we knew it, we had found tenants, put our ‘stuff’ in storage and were London-bound.

“We’ll be back” we said to surprised family and friends, “this is only for 3-5 years… an extended ‘gap year’ if you like”. The scepticism amongst the hearers was palpable. After all, isn’t that what most people say before shaking the African dust from their shoes and finding a peaceful and prosperous life beyond the South African borders?

We have loved being in London.

We found a comfortable little (and ‘little’ should be emphasised!) flat that was ideal for our purposes. We quickly settled into a very different life routine and rhythm, enjoying all that the UK has to offer the curious, and experiencing the rewards given to those willing to explore.

Being immersed in a culture and context that is not your own offers rich insights and learning. Anthropologists talk of this situation as being one of, ‘making the strange familiar and the familiar strange.’ Indeed.

I always thought that the time away would be closer to the three-year mark. As that milestone came and went (along with various tenants!), the promise to return seemed even less plausible to our friends who believed that with each passing month we were settling into a new life abroad from which there would be no extraction.

From time to time, as the situation in South Africa became ever more challenging a tentative, “but why would you want to come back?” was asked. Our answer never wavered, “because this is our home”.

I think what South Africans often fail to recognise is that uncertainty is a global feature.

Not long after arriving in the UK, Brexit happened, and America had one, Donald Trump, in the White House. Some of the familiar themes of societal discord and discrimination were not hard to find in the ‘polite and well-manicured British society. Problems exist everywhere and whilst the challenges in South Africa were both stark and serious…sometimes even more so when viewed from the ‘outside’, so is the opportunity to wake up every day and know that you can make a meaningful difference.

I have likened living outside of South Africa to having the ‘souls’ of your feet get soft. In South Africa, one walks life ‘barefoot’ and the result is, ‘tough feet’; life away from this environment is like wearing shoes with the result that over time, the ‘souls’ of your feet become ‘soft’. Life away from South Africa is comfortable, safe even. The constant reports of chaos in South Africa scripted and reported without context always follow the predictable storyline of impoverished people, senseless violence but great wildlife.

It is hard not to be impacted by the drip feed of this unrelenting refrain and so, with the passing of time, your feet indeed can become ‘soft’.

We always knew that one day we would wake-up and just know that it was time to return home. That day came and so we immediately set the wheels in motion. They hadn’t yet done a full revolution when cue the chaos brought about by an unwilling ex-President to hold himself accountable to the rule of law.

Alarming reports filtered out of South Africa and we watched with concern as a whole new level ‘uncertainty’ made itself known. Events unfolding back home gave rise to a sense of foreboding and if nothing else, our return seemed to be badly timed. It seems that we are heading south when the sensible direction is north! Much like experiencing free-flowing uninterrupted travel on a motorway when traffic traveling in the other direction is gridlocked!

But South Africa is home, and we are determined to return to African soil and put our shoulder into helping move things in the right direction. The challenge to make a difference is an ever-present reality and invitation of life in South Africa, and the privilege to be able to do so, is neither to be ignored nor neglected. We are not under any kind of illusion as to the task at hand and just how sizeable the challenge. Nor are we unaware of our privileged status – but it is precisely ‘that privilege’ that we need to leverage towards our shared envisaged future.

So why return home? Well, because it is home!

The reminders, prompts and signs have been plentiful: Being in a pub surrounded by over-confident English supporters and watching the Boks lift the World Cup in 2019 was a stark reminder (not that we needed one!) that our blood is green and gold; Seeing how communities rallied together in the most difficult of times during the recent unrest and realising that these alliances were uniquely forged by something beyond race and ethnicity was to witness the green shoots of what ‘could be’; watching the inspiring documentary ‘Chasing the Sun’ (now streaming on Showmax) and seeing just what we are playing for; Seeing the vast need and accepting the personal responsibility that it invokes; seeing the inherent sense of the collective and understanding that ubuntu is in our DNA; seeing our tomorrow… and wanting it to be under the African sky!

So, it is time to walk barefoot once more. Yes, it will take time for those feet of ours to toughen up but doubtless, they will. It is time to make the ‘strangely familiar’ once more as we knowingly step back into a South Africa different to the one we left behind. If home is where the heart is, the truth is that much of our heart has, and always will be, embedded in South Africa.

We are very grateful for all that the UK has given us and for the opportunity to spend part of our journey on this beautiful Island. But at last we can say that, “we are heading home”… and I might add, “counting the days until once again, we can marvel at an African sunrise”!


This article is republished on SAPeople with Keith Coats’ kind permission. Please see his original post here