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Freedom and a future in North Canterbury

It’s been three years since Corne Van Der Westhuizen has slept with a gun under his pillow every night.

That’s because Corne, 48, and his wife, Antoinette, 43, are today living safely as New Zealand citizens at Pegasus, in North Canterbury.

They left their embattled – and beloved – homeland of South Africa, also leaving behind extended family, because they wanted their daughters, Kara, 9, and Mia, 6, to have freedom.

And a future.

Two things they couldn’t see happening had they remained in South Africa, where 60 people are murdered every day according to Africa Check. (Africa Check is a not-for-profit, independent organisation established by international news agency AFP.)

Antoinette says, “I didn’t want my children to grow up living behind bars.

“Kara was only six when we left. But she knew exactly what that firearm was for.”

Well over half the robberies committed (59%) go unreported, and in 2018-19 alone, a woman was murdered every three hours.

Despite its stunning beauty, the South African landscape fails to hide an ugly underbelly of crime – whether it’s robberies, carjacking, kidnapping or human trafficking.


Life-threatening shopping

“Kara may have been young, but she knew never to run away from me in public, to always stay close, and never to speak to strangers,” Antionette says.

“She knew that even with us living in a gated community with a firearm, and three Alsatian dogs [trained to defend] that we had another sliding gate at the top of the stairs completely locked off from the bottom. And, she knew that if the alarm went off, she had to get to that room.”

Corne adds, “At one residence, we had electric fencing, alarms and armed response guards. Still we didn’t feel safe.”

Antionette says if she had to go to the shops, she never took Kara and Mia unless Corne (who always carried a firearm) went with them.

“If Corne couldn’t come, I’d prefer to drive to my parents and leave the girls there, and then go shopping,” Antoinette says. “I wouldn’t take my kids to the beach because we could be robbed, or the kids could be stolen.

“I was quite paranoid at the end.”


Valuing human life

The Van Der Westhuizens felt they could never let their guard down, and while nothing happened to them personally, some of their friends were not so lucky.

Corne says, “We had friends who were farming, and they were attacked,” he pauses reflectively, before continuing, “they have never been the same since.”

In the end, living without freedom came at a price which they decided was just too high.

Antoinette says, “It’s like boiling a frog: the water is getting hotter and hotter, and the crime rates are steadily getting worse, and it’s almost like you don’t notice it ... but it’s not getting any better.”


Africa still ‘home’

The couple says despite making the decision for their daughters, their life near Cape Town was good in many ways. Corne was born in Stellenbosch, a university town in South Africa's Western Cape province. Antionette was from Somerset West – 15 minutes from Stellenbosch.

They met as teenagers, eloping and marrying in Singapore. They agree that they would have most likely stayed in South Africa because of the rest of their family – had their daughters not been in the mix.

Corne travelled the length of New Zealand before finding employment in Christchurch and settling on Pegasus to live.

He now works as a Senior Systems Engineer for Christchurch Airport. Antionette is looking for a position in Human Resources.


Smile – because you can

Adjusting to living in a safer country has not been without some lighter moments.

“Just after I got here, I lived in Wellington for a bit, and I met a few good friends and we went to stay on a farm in Napier. We were having a barbeque and when everybody was ready for bed, I asked where the keys were to lock the house up? They told me they didn’t have any keys, and they never lock the house. They told me it was New Zealand, and nothing was going to happen.

“I didn’t sleep at all that night in that open house. I sat bolt upright on the couch making sure no-one broke in.”


Fight or flight

Antionette says they visited Little River not long after she arrived. Corne, who hadn’t felt well that day, stayed in the car. She and the girls were just casually ambling around, eventually wandering away.

Then she saw a man approaching them.

“Straight away, it was a ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ situation for me,” Antionette says. “I told the girls that if it came down to it, they were to run, and I intended to fight.”

As it turns out, the man was “just a lovely local”. He’d seen them strolling, and stopped just to chat for a while. “Then he gave the girls some pretty coloured stones.”


Family approves

Antionette’s elderly parents visited New Zealand in December. With great sadness, Antionette says they will most likely not be able to make the trip again.

“It was so nice to have them here. My mother commented how nice it was to be able to safely go for a walk on the beach. They can’t do that anymore in South Africa because they feel like they are easy targets. They also loved how clean New Zealand is. I think it has helped them to make peace with our decision.”

She says leaving her parents remains one of her hardest choices.

“I definitely miss my family, and I feel guilty about being here. But my parents understand that we felt obligated to make decisions for our children’s future.”


Meeting everyone

There is a big South African community of close to 80 families in North Canterbury. With Corne and Antionette being naturally sociable, they are enjoying meeting everyone around them. 

“Our intention moving here was not just to connect with South Africans. It’s nice to see them and to speak in our own language, of course. But we have a German family next door, and we catch up with the Portuguese family across the road. And, it’s nice to have new Kiwi friends. The kids friends are all Kiwis, pretty much.”

The couple say even the massive beat-down they took on the exchange rate between the countries (ZAR$100,000 converts to NZ$9200) was worth it for them to be able to watch their daughters playing on their scooters confidently and safely outside their North Canterbury home.

Corne adds, “Everyone says we’re nuts living in Pegasus because no-one wants to live on this side of the Waimak, but it’s all worked out perfectly for us.

“This area felt the most like home for us with the lake, the forest and the beach so close.

“We’re really happy here.”

Happy because they are safe. And because their girls have freedom – and a future.

What they are saying...