Growing Number in L.A. : S. Africans: a Story With 2 Viewpoints

Times Staff Writer

David Levinsohn was driving through Los Angeles recently when he noticed a Zulu word of greeting on the vanity license plate of the car ahead. Levinsohn, who is white, emigrated from South Africa about seven years ago. He pulled alongside the other car and, just as he had guessed, the occupants were black. He leaned out the window and called a few words in Zulu to them. They laughed and waved in response.

A few days later he was at the home of some white South African friends, emigres like himself. He was telling the story when the maid, a black South African, said to him, "Oh, was that you?"

Levinsohn related this incident later during an interview he and his wife, Jennifer, gave in their Sherman Oaks home as an example of his observation that there is an increasingly large number of South Africans in the Los Angeles area. It illustrates that and much more.

3,000 to 26,000 Families

South Africans are here. Their numbers are disputed, with estimates ranging from 3,000 to 26,000 households, or families, in Southern California. Official counts are not available: The South African Consulate in Beverly Hills said it keeps no numbers; U.S. government figures are sketchy and not broken down by region. It is certain, however, that South Africans are here in all their racial, ethnic, political and economic diversity.

They tell of leaving South Africa for varying reasons--and those reasons tend to differ between blacks and whites. Blacks often are here in exile because of their politics, and they continue to work with their political affiliates for the overthrow of the South African government and its policy of apartheid. A few have settled here in business and the professions, especially in entertainment.

Others are students planning to return. And a few are maids, brought here on visitors' visas, sponsored by their South African employers. Some of the maids are said to have good relationships with their families. Others, paid low wages if at all, leave, trying to make do in the city. Several have turned for legal assistance to the local chapter of the African National Congress, its chairman, Vusi Shangase, said recently.

Reasons for Emigrating

Whites here often describe their disapproval of apartheid, South Africa's system of racial segregation. They talk of wanting to live in a more open society, of fears of getting caught in impending violence, of losing everything they have. (Officially they are permitted to leave with 100,000 rand, about $45,000.)

Others express no such dissatisfaction. They are here for business reasons. And others are keeping the door open, keeping business interests back home, and maintaining close ties to the consulate here and the social life surrounding it.

No one interviewed spoke in favor of apartheid, but several defended it historically. One businessman refused an interview--seeing "no mileage in it for me"--but sneered at those who would not talk out of fear for their families, calling South Africa an "open-minded society." Several spoke in support of the present government's efforts to ease apartheid and evolve out of it.

Michael Culhane and Clare Rockey, two young, white travel agents here, acknowledged present-day inequities, but spoke enthusiastically about the country's future as a prosperous and just society.

South African Jews

Most of the South Africans who were contacted agreed that the largest single group here, most closely resembling a community, are South African Jews. Those Jews interviewed tended to attribute this to their relative newness in South Africa and their lack of assimilation there, and to the lessons of history.

One of them, whose father had emigrated to Johannesburg from Central Europe in the 1930s, said he had always been taught, "Don't ever leave a country when you have to run. Leave before. We didn't feel that one day we would have to run, but rather that for future years it might be more advisable for our children to be here."

There is in Los Angeles an organized group, the South African Jewish American Club, called by its acronym, SAJAC, that has 400 families on its mailing list. It was formally established three years ago, its current chairman, Dennis Abramson, said recently, by several emigres and local Jews prominent in the Jewish Federation Council to "reintegrate (the emigres) into society." It encourages them to contribute to federation causes and play a role in the larger American society.

American Ignorance

In general, however, South Africans are not a single community here any more than they were in South Africa. Some say they "steer clear" of each other. They want to put South Africa behind them. They seem to be in accord about only one thing, and they are unanimous about it: Americans are ignorant about South Africa. From an Afrikaner businessman optimistically supportive of the government in South Africa who is here to undergo primal therapy, to black African National Congress leaders dedicated to the dismantling of that government, all agree on that.

The subject of South Africa, especially now that it is increasingly the focus of attention here, makes people nervous. Some do not want to talk about it. Others want to, but are doubtful that they will be understood. Some will talk, but not about politics; others want to talk, but only about politics. Some do not want to be identified as South Africans. Others do.

One white woman, refusing an interview for herself and her husband, explained: "I don't want to comment on South Africa in any way. It's a wonderful country. I don't want to put it down in any way. We understand South Africa's problems, but of course we left because of those problems."

Two black nurses agreed reluctantly to an interview, only if they could do it together. Ground rules were discussed in telephone conversations: no names because of families in South Africa, no politics because one said it would make her "up-tight" and self-conscious to read what she had said and think it was not what she had meant. Finally, she backed out, saying, "I just don't want to talk about the whole situation."

A white businessman canceled an interview after his partners told him to pull out. He has many famous black clients, he said, and while they have no problems with the fact that he is South African, he feared that other blacks would pressure them to drop him. He does not want that and he does not want pickets in front of his business.

One couple agreed to be interviewed, then postponed it twice. When it finally took place, the wife seemed to regret it from the start. She took issue with her husband, qualified her own comments to the point of canceling their content, was visibly torn by the affection she has for the place and the people she knew there, and her disagreement with the government policies. She kept coming back to one point with certainty: "Nobody who hasn't lived there for years can understand the predicament." And then she qualified that: "But you can't condone it."

Dealing With Apartheid

"What you've got to ask people who leave," Mark Hanson, one young white emigre, insisted, "is how they dealt with the question whether it's better to stay and try and change things or leave and try to change things from abroad, or whether if you do stay, you'll wind up becoming a part of the system in spite of yourself."

His particular situation made the question moot for him. He was traveling through California when he met his fiancee. She is an American black woman.

"I didn't really have a choice" about leaving or staying, he observed. Interracial marriage or sexual relations are illegal in South Africa.

One white man in his 30s had a ready answer to the question of how to deal with apartheid. A teacher at a private school here, he said the United States should put more pressure on South Africa, close its consulates, restrict new American investments there and the sale of Kruggerands here.

He comes from an English-speaking, upper-middle-class family. His father voted against the government and let it go at that. His mother was politically active, a member of the Black Sash, an anti-apartheid interracial women's group.

He was involved politically as a student, mainly organizing and canvassing for the Progressive Federal Party.

"There is a line in South African politics," he said, describing his activity. "If you stay on one side of it, you can be very anti-government and be OK. If you cross it, you run the risk of being detained, tortured. Some people have the courage to do so. I didn't. . . . In fact, I think one can achieve a lot by leaving and trying to mobilize public opinion against apartheid," he said.

For many, the usual terms of the question do not apply, and not necessarily because they support apartheid or the government. They view their departure more personally.

Jackie Nach, an artist who with her husband, Rafael, a doctor, is now a U.S. citizen, described her feelings. "I can't fight for a cause that isn't mine, and it's wrong of me to try to make it mine. It would be almost like trying to take away (the blacks') cause from them."

One woman who is torn by the question wanted out, and then when her husband finally agreed--and took the initiative to get them out--she balked. Now her heart is there, not here.

She was critical of other white South Africans who leave, especially those who leave with all their money. "They leave for the wrong reasons. Put that down. They don't want their kid in the army. There's an economic scare. They pretend they can't live with the situation. . . . We lived like kings. They resent leaving. They blame the blacks. If it weren't for the black problem, they wouldn't have to leave there. They are not liberals."

"We lived like kings."

That comment was made often by white emigres. Usually by people for whom being in a house in Beverly Hills is a step down. They say it with a mixture of awe and regret.

The difference in living standards is sufficient enough that a joke has been circulating on the subject:

A couple returns to South Africa for a visit, and their family and friends ask how it is going in America.

"Just great," the man answers. "At last I'm somebody."

"Really? How'd you do it?"

"Easy. Every night after dinner my wife calls out from the kitchen, 'Somebody take out the trash.' I'm somebody now."

It is not necessary in the joke to explain who somebody is in South Africa. Somebody is one of the "household staff" that people refer to, a staff that often includes cook, maid, nanny, gardener, houseboy. . . .

Paternal Relationship

All white South Africans who mentioned their household staffs spoke fondly of their servants, often saying theirs was a good relationship, that they paid their servants well, treated them with respect, even loved them. They indicated that the feelings were reciprocal.

Some defended the paternalism in the relationship. One young woman, originally from Kenya and later South Africa, described an idyllic rural childhood within a harmonious world of black domestic servants and grooms and gardeners, revolving around a loving white household. She is here now, she said, because she is young and ambitious and can get ahead more quickly in American society with her import business than in South Africa, where business is restrictive of young people.

But she intends to go back some day. Her childhood in Kenya, she said, is one of the reasons she wants to return to South Africa. She wants to give the same thing to her children, although she conceded that those pleasant childhood memories probably are part of an era that has passed.

Nothing seems to have signaled the passing of that era to whites interviewed here more than recent news about the integration of the Cape Town beaches. Reports of black people in great numbers, making noise, swimming in their underwear, littering, picnicking--and of white dismay and fury--provoked a strong reaction here.

One white woman, minutes after deploring the segregation signs she had grown up with, turned with revulsion to the subject of the beaches, and declared, "And thank you very much, I do not want to be on that beach."

The reaction was not superficial. The beaches are symbolic and at the crux of their fears as the dominant minority. Put most crassly, as it sometimes is, it is their fear of being, as they say, "swamped."

A White Standard

This is an area where blacks and even the most sympathetic whites often seem destined never to meet. Whites who condemn apartheid and advocate change usually seem to be describing some process whereby if blacks are given enough advantages and rights, they will "come up to" a white standard of living.

Describing the problems in doing this, Richard Wade, a white emigre who condemns apartheid, said: "Here the civil rights movement is trying to assimilate a minority into the majority, but over there the situation is reversed. It's the minority trying to assimilate the majority into it."

It is why the beaches are so important. The subject unleashes a "we're-not-racist-but . . ." kind of distaste and dread that is mainly a matter of life style. Profoundly so. What white people do not question is whether this life style is necessarily one that black people want.

Mazisi Kunene, an exiled black South African who teaches at UCLA, said of the integrated beach uproar: "By whose standards are they not racist? There is an artificial life style in South Africa. It's unrealistic. It depends on the use of other human beings. It's difficult for these people to realize their life style is not an absolute, but an accident of a relationship."

Among black South Africans, the African National Congress, outlawed in South Africa and self-described as the government in exile, is their most prominent group. Its local chairman, Vusi Shangase, said that the chapter concentrates on fund-raising, education and building support with such local pro-disinvestment and anti-apartheid groups as the recently formed Free South Africa Movement.

An exile, Shangase is studying broadcasting. He will be leaving soon--he will not say where--saying of South Africa: "They don't give me a passport. I don't need one. I go and I come. That is all they need to know."

There are others who are neither in exile, nor here to stay, nor about to return to the status quo.

Discussing Future

Among them are three theology students living in Pasadena--a white woman and two black men, one classified officially in South Africa as "colored" (mixed race). They are young, committed, excited about South Africa's multiracial United Democratic Front organization.

Recently they discussed their future return. The young woman described her dilemma not in terms of returning--she does not want to be away from her roots--but in terms of the role she will play. Before she left she was politically active, but "safely involved. . . . Cross over, and you'll end up detained," she said.

"But the other half of me says, 'That's what I should be doing.' There are not many who are prepared to become a martyr. You figure, what is it worth? But you have to live with your conscience, that's all."

The mixed-race man, who has been here the shortest time, winced, sighed, and then laughed, saying he did not look forward to returning. He had long thought about emigrating. He could tell it would be a tough decision two years hence.

"But you know," he finally said, with rising determination, "the call of Africa and working toward a better future--you can't ignore it. To miss out on seeing the solution after having suffered from being seen as part of the problem for so long--I couldn't miss it."

Local South African emigres are profiled Sunday in View, Part VI.

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