South Africans Cry the Beloved Country : Some Look Back at Their Land in Dread While Others Plan to Return

Times Staff Writer

South Africans in Los Angeles are here in all their racial, ethnic and political diversity, and they have brought the complexities of their society with them. Here is a representative look at who they are .

For Pamela Wade there is danger in the temptation to go back to South Africa. Recently her husband, Richard, received an offer to teach at the University of Natal and the temptation was put to the test. They did not return.

"I got worried that life would become so easy again, and so subversive in that easiness. You do not see what you don't want to see. If you give in to the fear and the tension you cannot survive. You have to sublimate it, block it off."

Pamela and Richard Wade were a young married couple when they came here from South Africa in 1960 so that Richard, an engineer, could do doctoral work at Caltech. They have been here ever since, living in Pasadena, raising a family of four.

"When we left it really was with no intention to return," Pamela said one recent afternoon at Imperial Schools in Pasadena where she teaches music. "It was just after Sharpeville (at which police fired on a crowd of unarmed demonstrators and killed 67 black Africans, setting off wide-scale demonstrations).

Not a Healthy Future

"We felt very much that the future of the country, unless the government changed its policies, would not be a healthy one in which to have a family. . . . To raise our children in our ethics and have them live by another standard would be hypocritical."

She is from Durban in Natal, where her English ancestors settled in the 1700s, and she is proud of her African heritage, calling it her birthright.

Her attachment to South Africa seems not only intact, but also intensified by nostalgia and dread.

She has returned for two visits, the latest in 1976, a visit to her aunt and uncle's farm in a beautiful part of Natal. During that last visit, an alert had gone out while she was there: A black man had been sighted with a gun.

"The local (farmers) were all armed with submachine guns. To me it was the most heartbreaking thing in the world, to see these guns replace the old hunting rifle every farm had. To see this impending violence in that beautiful place. I started to get the shakes: 'Get me out of here. Get me back to Pasadena. I cannot live with that fear.' "

Clutching her head at the remembrance, she said she asked her relatives, "How can you live here?"

She and her husband "agree to disagree" with their relatives there, she said. She recounted one telephone exchange she had last year when she mentioned how pleased she was by Bishop Desmond Tutu's Nobel Peace Prize. It was a conversation stopper.

Threat to Safety

"What they hear when Tutu is talking," she explained, "is a threat to their safety," adding that while most of her family want "to do the right thing" and want to see "an easing," they fear losing everything they have as the alternative being demanded.

A Weekend Marriage

Currently the Wades have a weekend marriage. Pamela has remained in Pasadena where their daughter is finishing high school. Later they will join Richard in La Jolla where his consulting engineering services firm is based. However, they are holding on to their Pasadena home for their relatives, "in case anyone has to leave. I don't know if they would leave. I wish they would."

The Wades are American citizens now, and assimilated. They do not know many South Africans and do not seek them out, having had a few experiences initially, Pamela said, meeting people who "espoused things we did not believe in, for example referring to Africans as moont, kafirs, coons. We'd left to get away from that." That, and not Africa itself. They love Africa.

Richard Wade was born in the then British colony of Mauritius and spent his boyhood all over Africa, wherever his father was working as an engineer. At one point, he said during a recent weekend in Pasadena, he was the only male at a black girls' high school in northern Nigeria, studying Latin with the girls, roaming the countryside and hunting with a Hausa boy his age, realizing his friend wanted some basic things in life and that white civilization was not one of them. Nor would he want to be indentured.

The Wades found South Africa changed in many ways when they visited in 1976. The laws of petty apartheid had been relaxed so that, for example, some restaurants and theaters were integrated.

Pamela saw the changes as too little and too late to stem the mounting anger and impatience of black youth. She senses an inevitable upheaval.

"I would not have predicted those kinds of reform," Richard said of the 1976 scene. "I predicted it would have been blown up. (South Africa's) been able to avoid that with a lot of Gestapo-like tactics, I'm afraid. . . . I'll tell you quite candidly, if the political situation in South Africa were not the way it is now, I would go back."

Mazisi Kunene was sent out of South Africa in 1959, he said recently, by "the organization," the African National Congress, as part of a launching action to build international solidarity against apartheid and organize a boycott movement. He has never been back.

Now a professor of African literature and languages at UCLA, where he's been since 1976, he lives in Baldwin Hills with his wife and children. Their home, he said laughing, is something of a motel for South Africans and refugees. Still a part of ANC, he continues, at least informally, to build solidarity. He is well connected with local South Africans, including some white emigres, and seems something of a broker, putting people together, helping them out with practical needs.

Of Zulu and Swazi background, he is a Zulu poet and had been heading the department of African studies at what is now the University of Lesotho before he left Africa for London to carry on his anti-apartheid activism. Eventually, he said, he asked the ANC for permission to concentrate on his writing. That brought him to UCLA.

"Working for many years like that, naturally one wonders if the talk is leading anywhere. One feels one should explore other areas," he said. "The struggle must generate historical values and draw inspiration from them."

Philosophy of Action

He wrote an epic poem, "Emperor Shaka the Great," which he describes as "reinforcing the ethos of struggle," and "Anthem of the Decades," on the philosophy of action, examining freedom and liberation. Written in Zulu, translated into English, his works were banned in South Africa.

His conversation went back and forth between philosophical abstractions and concrete political actions as he spoke of the importance of struggling people to have a guiding vision of a future world order, lest they end up trapped in a war culture.

"The period of conflict is not the end," he said. "It's an inevitability that is unfortunate."

He is 54 now and it has been more than 25 years since he has seen South Africa and yet he speaks with an immediacy that suggests he left yesterday.

"My commitment to the liberation of the people of South Africa is not determined by where I am located," he said. "There is no hiatus or breaking point between now and the second when I said to myself, 'This is an outrage.' "

He went far back for his explanation, to his boyhood there when he would travel third class on the trains crowded with adult males who had been working their lives away in the sugar cane fields away from their families and homes.

His was an aristocratic family, he said, and he had been raised on stories of the heroic past.

"I would find myself really crying, saying to myself, 'My gosh, imagine, these were once a great people,' " he said. "I don't think I can ever outgrow that kind of anger and outrage."

For Rafael and Jackie Nach, leaving South Africa 12 years ago was something of an adventure for them. Young and newly married, they did not have entrenched wealth or status to leave behind. Raising a family, establishing a household and starting careers--he in medicine and she in art--all lay ahead of them.

And so did freedom. They had had their first whiff of it on their wedding trip to Europe, they said one recent evening at their home in West Los Angeles. They recognized instantly, and palpably, something they had not known they were missing.

For Jackie, it hit one day at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, watching school kids sit casually on the floor in front of a Rembrandt while their teacher, dressed in jeans, talked to them.

"It wasn't even political. It was just liberal thought and attitudes I was seeing," she said, still reacting to the strength of its impact. "It would have gotten a teacher fired at home."

Their growing disquietude was reinforced when they returned to Johannesburg. They got no further than Jan Smuts Airport when they saw a white man snap his fingers and call to a porter "like he was a trained animal," as the porter, an old black man, loped across the floor.

"Rafael and I looked at each other. For three months we had never heard anyone talked to in that way. That was it," she said,

Both are agreed that the fact they are Jewish probably made their leaving easier. Their parents had only emigrated there in the '20s and '30s. They never felt they "really belonged there," Rafael said, adding that the Jewish community is more isolated there, not as assimilated as in America.

Waves of Emigrants

Rafael makes a distinction between the wave of people who left in the early '70s, calling it something of a professional "brain drain," and a subsequent wave of wealthy, established people who left five or six years ago. The Nachs left because they felt life intolerable on a day-to-day basis, whereas fear for the future seems to propel the latter group.

"I think they wouldn't have left if things were smoother there," he said.

Twelve years later something of the adventure has disappeared, being replaced by nostalgia. They are citizens here now, a well-established American family with three children. Rafael has an ear, nose and throat practice; Jackie a studio. But they won't be going to their 25th high school reunions; grandparents are not part of their children's daily experience; Rafael has yet to find a friend as close as his best friend in South Africa.

More than that, Rafael has been having second thoughts about freedom, saying he worries about this country too. As he described some of his reactions, he and Jackie disagreed, with frequent "how can you say that(s)?" America seems to him to have erred too much in the other extreme. Criminals' rights before victims', freedom of the press that results in sensationalism, racist and fanatical groups given free reign, catering to minorities. . . .

"South Africa caters to minorities too," Jackie cut in.

They went back and forth over an emotional mine field, the boundaries set in advance: They both know, after all is said, that they both want to be here.

"Nevertheless," Jackie concluded, summing up their pros and cons, "while they're going along making all those wonderful changes (relaxing apartheid), it stinks to live there," adding that obviously the Nachs' relatives do not feel the same way. "They'll be there to turn out the lights," Rafael said.

Benjamin Wauchope left South Africa on the run. He left at night, crossing a 300-meter strip to Botswana, dodging dogs, patrols and searchlights. He was 19. It was 1976, a time of countrywide demonstrations, uprisings and violence that followed the Soweto riots. The police had been after him for three months, he said, as a result of his activities with an underground student organization.

"At first I hadn't decided to leave, because if I did, it would be forever, and my father, mother, brothers were there, but after a while I figured, 'My life has come to an end in this country anyway.' "

After some years in Botswana and Kenya, he said, he made it to the United States in 1983 on an exchange student visa, sponsored by the African-American Institute's South African training program.

He is 28 now, an undergraduate at UCLA studying education, working in its Office of International Students and Scholars and sharing an apartment in Palms with another student.

He shakes his head in bemusement and refers to South Africa as "such a weird place," calling the situation incredible and then laughing at himself, "I say incredible now, but at the time that is just the way things were."

The way things were: The child of Swazi and Xhosa parents, he grew up in a black township outside Springs in the Transvaal, crowded into a house that "would fit into this living room." His father was often ill between menial jobs and his mother supported the family on her 17-Rand-a-week salary as a salesclerk.

He remembers hiding behind the stove as a kid, peeking out terrified when the police would descend on them to search for people violating the pass laws ("it's as if, 'You're from San Diego? Then what are you doing here in Los Angeles? Where is your permit?' "), beatings at the boarding school ("training for the struggle of life") where he learned about white racial superiority. He used a telephone for the first time in Kenya in 1979. He made his first visit to a bank after he came to the United States.

Wauchope relates easily to people, and has a relaxed, unassuming self-confidence, seeming more like a citizen of the world than a man without a country. Once in exile, he explained, he put his life in South Africa in perspective.

"That's an insane situation," he said. "It brings out insane reactions. After a while you get over the insanity and work out your own way of relating across color lines."

Having spent almost eight years in other African countries, he has no patience with the often-heard arguments that blacks in South Africa are better off.

"What are the indices of comparison?" he asked incredulously, describing "a huge chunk" of black South Africans as rural serfs with no economy and no rights, and "huge reservoirs" of unemployed blacks ready to work under any conditions, prevented from trying to succeed. "I'm sure you can find South African blacks who get on well, but in aggregate terms I think it's sinful, morally sinful, to be so cynical."

Whether or not he ever goes back, South Africa is still very much his country and the center of his attention. He spoke with dismay about the "coziness" of America's present relationship with it, and advocates disinvestment of American economic interests and isolation, warning that otherwise anti-Americanism among blacks will grow and coalesce.

He describes the present apparent dissension among blacks there as a positive thing, saying, "What we're seeing now is a totally serious discussion about the future. It's a qualitative, quantum leap to go from saying, 'Hey, we're oppressed,' to asking, 'Where do we go from here once we've achieved our liberation?' "

In this country for three years on a permanent resident status, Michael Culhane probably will not apply for citizenship. He talked recently of having loyalties and responsibilities to both the United States and South Africa, saying he has not left South Africa permanently. When he spoke of returning, he switched to the subjunctive, saying, "Eventually, I would intend to go back to South Africa, I would think."

Part owner of Gametrackers, a travel agency specializing in personalized safaris to Southern Africa, he made those comments at his office in Glendale, where he was joined by another staff member, Clare Rockey, also a South African.

Culhane is 30. He is from Capetown, of Irish and Afrikaner descent. His educational background is in economics and his approach and outlook regarding South Africa are enthusiastic and positive:

"South Africa's is not a black/white problem. It faces the whole problem the rest of Africa faces--the redistribution of income. Eighteen percent of the population dominate the economy and wealth and there is not one country in Africa with a better distribution."

He insists on talking about South Africa as part of Africa, saying its problems, while real, are fewer than elsewhere on the continent. To him, South Africa must be seen and judged more as a Third World country than as a Western one, specifically when standards of democracy are applied.

For example, he sees the breakup of tribalism as necessary, and says it is coming about through the job structure. He predicts that "the deals" regarding South Africa's future will be cut between urban blacks and whites. At the same time, he defends restricting massive influxes of black people into the cities. He doubts it would be much different with a black government.

"In the rest of Africa it's tribal-based, and it is in South Africa too. It's the white tribe," he said. "This is not an apology for racists or for brutally racist phenomena which still occur. . . . I believe South Africa has the greatest chance of survival of any African country."

He keeps informed on political developments in South Africa, he said, and is in communication with people there three or four times a week.

As a travel agent, with half of his company's tours going to South Africa, he reacts strongly to the recent controversy here about South African Tourism Board television commercials that some viewers found offensive. For him, it gets at the crux of the matter regarding American attitudes toward South Africa.

The Double Standard

"A double standard is being applied," he said. "It's disappointing. We think of this being a liberal society but the very ones who advocate closer communication with Eastern bloc countries say 'don't talk to South Africa.' It's schizoid. . . . I think the reason why South Africa is interesting to people in the U.S. is because the areas of political sensitivity in the U.S. can be extrapolated and multiplied 100 times there. As the white/black situation is perceived there, it offers much currency in terms of the American situation. It can be used more easily to point out racial injustices here."

He described his attitudes about a necessary redistribution of wealth throughout Africa as a liberal position, clarifying it to explain he was referring to a distribution of future wealth. Comparing wealth, or the economy, to a pie, he said that to divide it up now would dispossess people of their wealth. That is not what he recommends. Rather, he hopes all concerned would see the country's salvation, he said, in realizing that by taking certain steps together they could "bake a pie five times bigger" and then divide it up.

"It's a big challenge for us as young South Africans. We have to risk a few things. We're staking our ability to bake a bigger pie. . . . It's our future."

As David and Jennifer Levinsohn sit talking in the living room of their comfortable home high above Los Angeles in Sherman Oaks, the setting is one of unpretentious affluence.

It is a jolt to hear them say, matter-of-factly, that moving here from Durban six years ago involved a step down in their standard of living.

"We haven't battled, you can see that," David said, "but we've had to rearrange our lives."

Specifically, it meant leaving with 30,000 Rand at a time when the Rand was worth $1.10--"not a lot to start a new life," David said. A hospital administrator for 15 years in Durban, he started over here as an assistant administrator and now administers Washington Medical Center near the Marina and is also a shareholder.

Returned to Work

Jennifer, "not a women's libber," said she believes a woman's place is in the home. She had not worked in 25 years, she said, but does billing for a medical group now "to keep up a standard of living," a standard less than they enjoyed in South Africa.

Among their friends here, they count many South African Jews. "We really do stick together," Jennifer said.

"It's almost like a clan developing," David laughingly added, describing the way they help new arrivals on such practical adjustments as understanding the way things work here, such as taxes, investing, government agencies. They are permanent residents here and belong to one formal organization, SAJAC, the South African Jewish American Club.

There are adjustments, from matters as simple as the chocolates they miss, to the overabundance of choices in the supermarkets here, to the lack of discipline and manners often displayed by American children, to the fact that Americans don't seem to entertain in their homes as often as South Africans do, or have it catered if they do entertain at home. . . .

Never Washed a Dish

"But, in South Africa, in a way it was catered," Richard, 15, broke in, referring to the household staff there, adding (to his mother), "You never washed a dish there!"

He did not say them as fighting words, more as earnest debate, and his mother did not argue. A difference in living standards was beside the point.

The point was they left.

"We never really believed in what was going on and brought our kids up not to believe in it," Jennifer said.

Later, listening to her husband call such South African laws as the Immorality Act (forbidding sexual relations between the races) "iniquitous, diabolical," Jennifer said, "People often say, 'Why didn't you try to do something there?' You have no idea what it means to stand up and be counted in a country with such laws as the 90-day detention act. We were frightened of the day when our kids would be soap-box orators."

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