South African Emigres Keep Low Profile in L.A. : Culture: Black and white, they come for many reasons. But once here, they do not publicly revel in their homeland as other transplants do.
Down to the moment of Nelson Mandela’s arrival here, the city of Los Angeles will be laboring to purge from its ledgers any connection to the apartheid state of South Africa. And yet often in the bouquets the city presents to some visiting dignitary--perhaps even to Mandela himself--is a bird of paradise blossom. It is the official city flower--and a native of South Africa.
Like the flamboyantly crested flower, South Africans too have settled into the receptive soil of Los Angeles, whose landscape and sunshine are not unlike their own. But not all of them have come here willingly, nor with the same agenda.
Black South Africans, estimated to number 200 at most, often find themselves in a kind of political exile, committed to the long-distance work of reforming a system that locked them out decades ago. Yet they do so without the support apparatus of political connections and institutional money that buttress many fellow activists in New York and London.
Whites may be as few as 10,000 or more than 25,000; no one knows for sure, not even the South African Consulate in Beverly Hills. Apart from rich and low-profile South Africans who came here to make money, the rest are not so much drawn to Los Angeles as impelled to leave South Africa for reasons less obvious than a black emigre escaping apartheid: professional considerations, the white-only draft, their own political dissent, fear of violence and social chaos, or simple guilt.
KABC radio talk show host Michael Jackson, whose spent his childhood in South Africa during World War II, says, “The ones I’ve heard of, to quote them, got the hell out. They saw the writing on the wall.”
In a city of so many immigrant settlements, this one is different.
Transplanted South Africans do not jawbone nostalgically in restaurants dedicated to home cooking and homeland gossip, nor do they celebrate their holidays with rollicking street festivals. Banned from such gatherings at home, no tradition of them has developed here.
The profiles of black and white South Africans here are also, understandably, quite different.
Among black South Africans, some are professionals--academicians, writers, doctors or film-industry people. About half are students. A few are domestics; some years ago, after an outcry when activist blacks found that some whites were bringing their domestics with them, the practice was virtually halted.
Among whites, eight in 10 are English-speaking; few Dutch-descended Afrikaners come to America. Many are Jews who disapproved of apartheid, and almost all are professionals, among them many faculty members at the UCLA School of Medicine and staff at its medical center.
It is “quite dispersed. There is no Little Jo’burg,” no Johannesburg in microcosm, says Mfundi Vlunda, 43, who is black.
Vlunda and his family have lived for two years in North Hollywood, where he writes for TV and films. Vlunda, his passport long ago revoked by South Africa, is one of the 20 active members in the 5-year-old ANC chapter here.
Common wisdom holds that white emigres still find a lower living standard here than they had at home as the privileged race.
“Most college friends are not working nearly as hard as me, and have fancy two-level houses with servants and swimming pools (in South Africa),” said Bernard Wolfsdorf. He is a white Culver City immigration attorney who got political asylum in 1979 as a draft resister who refused to serve in a “police state” army.
Emigres can take no more than about $25,000 with them when they leave, but people should not “come over here with the concept of making more money,” Wolfsdorf said. “They come over because they’re uncomfortable with the regime; their own and their families’ futures do not look very good; (or) a combination of any sort of pressing factors would do it.”
As in South Africa, blacks here do not fare as well financially as whites. Students in particular are struggling, says Sipho Nyawo, a doctoral student in urban planning at UCLA and head of its multiracial South African International Student Congress. Americans are more generous with anti-apartheid rhetoric than with scholarships, he said, and some students are all but homeless.
Black or white, South Africans find it hard to shake the shell-shock from life in a virtual armed camp. “I grew up with a police complex,” admitted one white doctor’s wife. “People here say, ‘Don’t be silly, a cop’s a cop,’ but in South Africa that’s not the case.”
For black activists, too, the suspicions remain--often with good cause.
“As late as last week, my parents (in South Africa) were visited by the police,” Nyawo said. “They searched the house. They called my sister again to find out when I am coming back. . . . Its purpose is to put pressure on my family and (it) says to me, ‘You out there. We are watching you.’ ”
Many white South Africans choose to lie low, whatever their political sympathies. “A lot are very conscious about almost hiding their identity and integrating,” Wolfsdorf said. Several refused to be interviewed, even to acknowledge their roots. A white South African active in anti-apartheid causes is proud of it--but she can’t bring herself to tell her parents back home.
To acknowledge one’s origins is to invite finger-wagging lectures about “you people,” and some newcomers expunge their statehood along with their accents. White emigres “go out of their way to integrate into the American community. . . . I have people six months off the boat, and they’re already putting on a strong American accent,” Wolfsdorf said.
Some “feel very guilty about the situation, and many of them have left because (of it), and yet they are branded as carriers of apartheid when in fact many of them have left what for many was a very comfortable existence because they felt ambivalent about it.”
Heather Allen, a South African who has traveled the world for NBC News, is now bureau chief here and longs to return home one day. “Things are happening so fast there that might seem very slow to the rest of the world . . . things I thought would never happen in 10 years.”
Understanding that requires more patience than Americans demonstrate: “The minute they hear you’re South African, you need to have every solution, you’re personally responsible,” Allen said.
Fashion designer Jocelyn Winship, who is white, said that when she meets someone new, “I must admit, if I feel it’s not a good time (to acknowledge her South African roots), I say another country.”
Winship has become friends with activist Mathabo Kunene and her husband, exiled ANC member Mazisi Kunene, whose passport was revoked 31 years ago, after he went to London, ostensibly as a student but in fact to organize for the ANC. He now teaches African literature at UCLA.
“Things are so separate in South Africa,” Winship says. “It’s a whole different thing here. The Kunenes have become really nice friends of mine and I can go to their house for dinner"--a simple act here, political suicide in South Africa.
But that new-found togetherness only goes so far.
In 1987, Mathabo Kunene asked a white South African friend to join a protest at the consulate. “He said, ‘How can I do that? How do you expect me to come over there? I still have a lot of money invested in South Africa.’ I said, ‘If you’re my friend you’ll come, and if that’s your attitude, goodby.’ ”
The man changed his mind and showed up--but practically in disguise, Kunene recalled with a laugh. “He has helped very much since then.”
Whatever the politics at home, the immediacies of American life must absorb emigres too. America feels different, and blacks especially work hard to maintain their African identity.
“It took me years before I figured out the landscape,” Vlunda said.
“It was a good feeling to be free of things like being stopped for a pass and other such insane things,” he said. “It was the first time I had ever gone to school with white folks (in Massachusetts), and I was 24 years old. I had one friend who was also from South Africa. We were blown away by just the educational facilities and the opportunities. We cherished the lack of open and overt racial oppression.”
Many immigrants only journey home in imagination. Some South Africans, especially blacks, intend someday to return to a healed and whole nation. Someday.
Said Kunene, away for 31 years: “I will go back one day. I cannot now. I am a foot soldier. What is important now is to build up the structures that will help others go back first, to help people inside and outside South Africa.”