13 December 2011
NEW YORK, NY — South Africans are gathered at a bar in Times Square for a festive monthly reunion; they assemble as members of the Springbrook Club, which promotes the South African expatriate community in New York. Everyone is wearing a nametag with his or her hometown on it—Cape Town, Johannesburg, Durban—so they can bond with their fellow South African expats. They reminisce about the food and beauty of their homeland, and recount nostalgic memories of a culture halfway across the world. But Isaac Johnson, the only black South African present amongst these white Afrikaaners, lingers at the fringes of the mingling groups, alone.
“I hate going to the Springbrook Club,” Johnson said. “I go there to give [the whites] the benefit of the doubt… but I feel so out of place.”
Johnson, who is originally from Cape Town, has been living in New York since 2003, when he moved here with his two daughters to give them a chance to attend college. In South Africa, even with an engineering degree and his own business, Johnson wasn’t making enough money. Now he participates in Springbrook events to network with the wealthier South Africans—the whites—in the hopes of starting a business here. But in doing so, Johnson has discovered that racial divides so prominent in his home country have carried over to the NYC community as well.
“[South Africans] have facades that they put up,” Johnson said. “On the surface a lot of the Springbrook members say, look, the whites and blacks are brothers. You’re welcome here. But that’s just to sugar-coat. In reality, they look at me like, ‘What are you actually doing here?’”
17 years after the end of apartheid, racial divides remain among South Africans—rooted not only in their native country, but also in American communities nationwide. These rifts, which were covered up during the transition period from apartheid to democracy, are reappearing as the ANC slips from its high ground as “Mandela’s party” and is redefined by a generation of younger leaders. Corruption within the ANC and an undemocratic attempt to hide that corruption, along with a lingering tribal mentality, have prompted many to question whether Nelson Mandela’s vision of a “Rainbow Nation” had ever truly been established, or if it had merely been a dream.
South Africa has been a democratic nation since 1994, when a “non-racial” government—led by the African National Congress (ANC)—replaced apartheid in a non-violent transfer of power. The leadership of Nelson Mandela and former apartheid leader FW de Klerk, as well as the ANC, transformed South Africa from an oppressive regime into a democratic nation, where whites and blacks could live together in peace.
“The majority of white South Africans who left South Africa probably left just when we obtained our freedom,” said Siphile Buthelezi, a Zulu lawyer who lived in NYC for four years. “Obviously leaving the country under those circumstances, they still have those unresolved issues. In a foreign country all the [expats] try and connect, but you cannot hide that there are unresolved issues.”
Johnson recalls a certain white member of the Springbrook Club who consistently taunts him with racist comments whenever he attends these New York events. “He used to brag about how he killed black people in the South African Defense Force,” Johnson said. “The first time I met him, I walked out of the place—I took it personally. You cannot say those things, because another black person would really mess him up.”
Many white South Africans fled the country after apartheid ended in 1994, once their once privileged lives were threatened. “After 1994, when things got dangerous for whites back in SA, a lot of the racist ones moved to the Southern parts of the States,” said Leon Naidoo, a South African diplomat currently living in NYC and working at the consulate. “The South Africans who left after 1994 – there you will find pockets of racism.”
While black South Africans may endure racial harassment inside and outside of their homeland, other South Africans experience a different turmoil due to their mixed ancestry. “Identity is a big issue for South Africa, and for guys like me, it’s even more complicated,” Naidoo said. Naidoo’s great-great-grandfather on his father’s side came from India—while his mother is a mix of Dutch and Zulu.
“What is a South African?” Naidoo said. “You could call it schizophrenia – from what we’ve gone through, we all have a disorder.”
The African National Congress (ANC) was the most influential party in leading the anti-apartheid movement. With Mandela at its head, the ANC established itself as South Africa’s “moral beacon,” guiding the nation through its first tough years to become the “Golden Child”—the freedom-loving success story—of Africa. Since Mandela’s retirement in 1999, the ANC has slipped into a darker phase riddled with corruption and racial wounds reopened by ANC youth leader Julius Malema’s commentary. Furthermore, the ANC’s disconcerting inability to give up power has prompted many to question whether the legacy of Mandela’s freedom fight will be short-lived.
Malema, representing a party ruled by a black majority, is known for repeatedly singing “Shoot the Boer,” a violent song aimed at Afrikaaners, the white minority who ruled the country during apartheid. South African Judge Colin Lamont ruled the song as hate speech, as an estimated 3,000 “Boers” or white farmers were murdered since 1994. “The enemy has become the friend, the brother,” Lamont stated. “This new approach to each other must be fostered.” The ANC youth league argued that Lamont banned a song that conveyed “the struggle of the people of the Republic of South Africa.”
“The race issue was never dealt with, so now and then you’ll see it coming up,” said Buthelezi. “People have pushed it aside and under the carpet. They haven’t considered it a serious issue that needs to be resolved.”
Most recently, the government passed the Protection of Information Bill, which prohibits journalists from covering information that ANC deems “secret.” The ruling reflects a step backward for democracy, and has been hotly debated both in South Africa and within the NYC community as an infringement on freedom of the press.
“I’m a little skeptical because the South African democracy hasn’t been tested yet,” said Larry Shore, a Film and Media Studies professor at Hunter College, who is originally from Johannesburg. “We can get carried away by the miracle of democracy, but we have to be vigilant.”
Perhaps the ANC no longer maintains its moral high ground because the leadership that fought against apartheid—veterans like Mandela who had been exiled or jailed for freedom—are no longer in office and have been replaced by younger politicians such as Malema, who weren’t there during the apartheid fight.
“Mandela’s greatness has cast such an enormous glow over the post-apartheid transition that the next generation of ANC has gotten away with a lot of stuff,” Shore said. “It’s been 20 years – the magic is over.”
Johnson also believes that it is time for the ANC to look beyond fighting apartheid, and to focus on the more pertinent issues threatening the young democracy, such as the Protection of Information Bill as a shield against inner-party corruption. “We’re not fighting apartheid anymore,” Johnson said. “We need to look to building South Africa as a whole.”
With 11 national languages and a history of tribal conflict, South Africa is one of the most diverse African countries—unique also because of the historical influx of a large white population from Western countries such as the Netherlands and Britain. Now that the “honeymoon” phase following the peaceful transition in 1994 — where the idea of a non-racial society seemed real – is just about over, the cracks along racial, tribal, and socioeconomic lines that were covered up are now reappearing in the ANC.
“Really, the ANC is a closet tribe that transcended all other tribes and came to power,” said Alan Brody, a South African expat living in NYC. “It could conceivably be split over racial lines again if things go bad. Originally, the ANC had the most power because it made an effort to transcend ‘tribalism’ – to overcome divides… For Zulus, the tribe idea is really part of identity. A lot of South Africa still has that [tribal] mentality, so the difference of identity is still there.”
But there are young South Africans living in New York who have a different, and perhaps fresher, view. Lizeka Fitshane, 27, is a foreign exchange student who met another South African student, Geraldine, while they were both stuck at an airport in Senegal on their way to America.
“[Geraldine] is Afrikaans and I’m black, but she’s my best friend,” Fitshane said. “Here in New York, as a South African, you find another South African and you just hit it off. It’s really about your personality more than it is about race… That’s in New York of course – it’s a different case [in South Africa].”
Progress in the long run
Many South Africans contend that while their democracy is still nascent, it is more mature compared to other African nations. South Africa’s peaceful transition from oppressive regime to democracy is a model for countries all over the world that are currently undergoing their own wars for freedom. A violent racial revolution would have been likely had the black majority not grown tolerant instead of finding revenge, and had the transition not been aided by restorative justice measures like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. And in spite of cronyism, corruption and racial conflict, the democracy has remained intact for now.
“As a teenager, you wanted to test the limits,” Naidoo said. “We’re a 17-year-old democracy so we’re brash.”
Buthelezi agrees that South Africa has made progress, and it’s also too soon for it to be at the same level as more established democracies. “The U.S. still battles race issues after 200 years—we’re just kids,” he said.
Although it may be impossible to completely erase racial or identity differences, many still have hope that through a greater common cause, South Africans can overcome the disparities between them. “One shouldn’t approach South Africa over its differences, but rather how tolerant the majority has become towards the minority,” Naidoo said. “The differences that divide the tribes are smaller than the issues that concern them all.”
Fitshane is still able to find a common identity despite the diversity. “I would say South Africans have ubuntu—which means humanity,” she said. “We’re just happy souls.”