We immigrated to the UK in 1995, not because of the regime change in South Africa, but because my father’s Scottish grandmother talked about Scotland so much that he always wanted to live there. My mother inheriting a large amount of money and, yes, change in political climate enabled us to leave.
My mother was around three months pregnant when we left. Unplanned, slightly inconvenient, but too late for us to delay leaving.
It was a beautiful summer that year. For two months we lived in Sutton-in-Craven, a little village in North Yorkshire, as my parents figured out where we should settle. The only difficulty we had were understanding what was being said to us. A thick Yorkshire accent is not the easiest of things to comprehend.
My father had always wanted to run a pub. And so we moved from Yorkshire to a village in Cambridgeshire called Gamlingay, and lived above a pub called the Wheatsheaf. We got a dog and two cats. Our belongings arrived. We were home sick, yes, but things we all right and we’d settle down.
My brother and I started school. Socially he thrived. With a charismatic personality, he made friends quickly and easily. I suppose it was also easier being 6. My first day was spent being laughed at, having my hair pulled and whispers behind my back. I made friends, but was later bullied by a group of girls in the year above, one of whom I’d originally thought was my friend. Once I’d told my parents, that was dealt with and things were ok for a while.
My mother did not have an easy pregnancy. She had a few scares, had to go to hospital and be checked out a few times. I can’t remember exactly what some of the issues were, locked as I was in my own little world. I do know she had preeclampsia, and had to be induced two weeks early.
We had been in the country 7 ish months by this point. All her medical care was on the NHS.
My father wasn’t the most popular pub owner in the village for some people, on account of our family being foreign. When my brother was a week old, the back window of our car was kicked in by a disgruntled customer who’d been told to leave as it was time to close. It was the third week of January. We had to drive an hour to Cambridge in freezing conditions with no heating to the nearest place that could fix our window for us that day.
My baby brother had pretty bad reflux. He screamed a lot. My mother had post natal depression. She shouted a lot. Things were not going well for my father, either. We lost the pub. Again, I’m not sure about the details, but I think an employee was embezzling, and my father couldn’t prove it outright. In order to ensure we were still left with something, my father got us evicted from the pub. My mother, my father, their 10 year old daughter, 6 year old son and 2 month old baby no longer had a home.
My mother couldn’t work. Her years of teacher training and experience as a pre-school teacher amounted to nothing over here. Plus she had a baby to look after. My father couldn’t find work very easily as his years of financial experience in a different country again meant nothing. We had no one who could take us in and support us until we got back on our feet.
Instead, less than a year after we came over to this country, we were given a council house. We were given benefits that allowed my parents to put food on the table. Sure the house was tiny. Yes it was a struggle to feed the family properly. But we had a roof over our heads and we weren’t starving. We moved closer to Cambridge, to a village called Linton. My father got a job. My brother and I changed schools. He adapted. Once again, the bullying started. This time it was different.
I was a gibbon from ape town and my father a donkey. We were to go back to where we came from, we didn’t belong here. I laugh at the taunts now, the ridiculousness of the names, how clever they must have felt with what they came up with. Of course I can laugh at the taunts, because they stopped once I went to secondary school. Once my accent had changed completely, allowing me with my white skin and middle class upbringing to blend in perfectly. You wouldn’t know now that I am not British, unless I tell you.
My parents eventually bought a house. My mother got a job once Jamie was old enough. They’ve paid taxes for 18 years. My brother and I have been to university over here. That little baby boy has grown up and is due to start university next year. I pay taxes. My brother pays taxes. We’ve put back into the system that helped us back on our feet.
I don’t know what help we would have gotten today. I don’t know if we would have been helped back on our feet. We would be labelled scroungers, even though we were not. Not many people come over here to live on benefits. Why would you? It’s a miserable existence.
I know that UKIP hasn’t had the meteoric rise that the media proclaim they’ve had. But the reason I’ve written this post is because too many have their screwed up thinking on immigration. As if immigrants are the cause of all the UK’s problems. As if immigrants are scroungers, benefit thieves, lazy and feckless. This is one of UKIP’s policies:
“Immigrants must financially support themselves and their dependents for 5 years. This means private health insurance (except emergency medical care), private education and private housing - they should pay into the pot before they take out of it.”
Where would that have left my family? For certain we wouldn’t have left South Africa to come to a country with that attitude. Does emergency medical care include the care my mother received when pregnant? Or would she have just been a drain upon the system? We’ve paid into the pot, apart from that brief time that we needed help, since we moved here. Most immigrants do the same. Most migrants do the same.
This sentiment, these policies, this rhetoric increases fears around immigration. When we fear something, we tend to start to blame it. Those election posters put up by UKIP were one such example of playing upon those fears and increasing them. Racism is still a problem in this country, there's no getting away from it. There are some sectors of society who hate people who are different to them, whether it’s culturally, whether they speak another language or have different coloured skin, those posters only act as incitement for those people. As soon as I saw those posters, the taunts of ‘go back to where you come from’ came back to me.
Like I said, I blend in. I am white, middle class and have a beautiful Standard English accent with just a hint of Leicester accent every now and then. I am the acceptable immigrant. I know this, because I’ve been told this. Whenever I heard people talking about ‘foreign nurses and their terrible English’ (I clearly understood every nurse I worked with) and how they shouldn’t be allowed, I would politely tell them I’m South African. ‘You’re different, you’re ok’ is what I would be told. Of course I’m different and ok: my very presence doesn’t make these kind of people feel uncomfortable, because I look and sound like them. I feel uncomfortable in this current climate of politics. I can’t imagine what it must be like for those who don’t blend in as I do. I can’t imagine what it must be like for those who are British born, but whose skin colour or name marks them out as coming from immigrant families.
This isn’t the country I immigrated to. Or maybe it was, but I was blind to it? I don’t know. All I do know is that in the past 14 years things seem to have changed. Yes, I include the former Labour government in this because they are far from innocent with their rhetoric and actions. This isn’t the country that helped my family back on its feet. I’m pretty certain that should politics and the media stop sensationalising and scaremongering, that attitudes will change. I’m also certain that the majority of people in this country aren’t like this, that it’s just politicians and certain sectors of the media playing on people’s unfounded fears.
At least, I very much hope that’s the case.