Andrew Austin: Loving the best of both worlds

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A return to South Africa triggers deep thoughts - can one person have two homelands?

People queued for hours to pay their respects to Nelson Mandela in Pretoria. Photo / AP
People queued for hours to pay their respects to Nelson Mandela in Pretoria. Photo / AP

I am having an identity crisis - am I a Kiwi or am I a South African? This is the question I have been mulling for the past few days.

I have lived in New Zealand for nearly 12 years and am a New Zealand citizen, but I was born and raised in South Africa.

The reason for this sudden bout of soul searching is that I have spent an emotional week back in South Africa covering the funeral proceedings of anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela for the APN group of newspapers, which includes the Herald on Sunday.

Mandela was a hero of mine and I was honoured to have met him several times.

It has been a whirlwind trip. I was asked by New Zealand Herald editor Shayne Currie last Saturday if I could cover the week of mourning for Nelson Mandela. He felt I would bring the South African perspective and be able to put things into context.

Next thing I knew, I was in South Africa covering the biggest story in the world. Jetlagged and sleep deprived, I threw myself into writing what I saw. I did not have time to think. I was running on adrenalin.

It all hit me when I was standing outside the Union Buildings where Nelson Mandela lay in state. Before me were thousands of people waiting patiently to view the body. I had spent an hour or so interviewing people about why being there was so important to them. It had been an exhilarating experience. Young and old told me that they felt it was their duty to be there to pay respects to a man who had shaped a better future for them.

"He spent 27 years in prison, this is the least we can do," said one young man.

They were proud to be there and to be South African. The last time I saw such pride from South Africans was at the 1995 Rugby World Cup. There was no doubt about it, this was important to them.

It put my journey into sharp perspective and made me realise how important it had been for me to be standing there at that time.

I remember the day before I left on this trip, I received a text message from Henare O'Keefe, a Hastings district councillor wishing me all the best on my "pilgrimage".

I was a bit taken back by that word, but did not really think it was the right description.

But it came back to me as I stood in front of the impressive Union Buildings, the hilltop seat of government in Pretoria. I realised I was on a pilgrimage of a sort - not a religious one but certainly an emotional one.

A woman visits Mandela's casket. Photo / AP
A woman visits Mandela's casket. Photo / AP

I was reconnecting with the country of my birth at a momentous and pivotal juncture in its history. It was a good feeling, but it did lead me to questioning my identity.

I love South Africa deeply and did not leave out of fear or disillusionment with the country. I left by happenstance and it was only meant to be for a short time. I had family in New Zealand and my wife and I thought it would be good to go and spend a few years with them and experience a different lifestyle.

Well, one thing led to another and now we have three children, two of whom are adamant that they are Kiwis (the third thinks she is South African when in fact she is more Kiwi). Life is good and we are settled.

The thought of uprooting our children and moving them back to a country that they essentially don't know did not feel right. But, still there was that profound connection with South Africa. It was - and still is - in my blood and had formed me into the person I am.

I have immersed myself in Kiwi culture and have grown to love the country. I live in Havelock North in Hawkes Bay and most early mornings, especially in the summer, you will find me walking with my dog out among the vineyards and sheep. It gives me much needed exercise, and it is also food for the soul as I gather my thoughts.

So, all these thoughts were going through my mind - if I say that I am a New Zealander am I disowning or being disloyal to South Africa? If I say I am South African, does that mean I am being ungrateful to New Zealand? The South African National Anthem, Nkosi Sikilele stirs my soul every time I hear it, but so does God Defend New Zealand.

It was then that it dawned on me. I do not have to choose; I can have both. I am lucky enough to have strong connections to two wonderful and very different countries. It reminded me of when I became a New Zealand citizen and took the oath of allegiance. The preamble said something like this: "Don't forget your past, but rather embrace it and bring it with you as you start your new life in your new country."

This is true - why deny your past when it can bring richness to your future.

I renewed my love affair with South Africa and came away realising that not only did I still love the country on the southern tip of Africa, but I also loved two little islands at the bottom of the world.

So, what am I? I am a New Zealander of South African origin.

Which rugby team do I support? Well, that's a question for another time.

*Andrew Austin is the editor of the Hawke's Bay Today newspaper.

- NZ Herald

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