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COLUMN ONE : Home to S. Africa in Hope, Fear : Whether to return is a difficult decision for expatriates in the Southland. Many don’t want to sit on the sidelines.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On that night six years ago, there was just the border and an old man. Ahead lay the road--away from South Africa.

The old man watched for army patrols as Nkululeko Sowazi and three others slipped across the border. Sowazi remembers that the man spoke few words, and how the words hung in the night air.

“You must return,” he said, “because we need you.”

Now, Sowazi is packing away the mementos of exile. He will carry them, a bachelor’s degree, and a master’s degree from UCLA, across the Atlantic. He is going home.

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Sowazi had to choose: He could stay in Los Angeles and continue his education or he could go back to South Africa, a country where he once faced imprisonment.

He has chosen to return.

“I’m going back because I never wanted to leave in the first place,” Sowazi said.

Whether to return to the uncertainties and turmoil of a changing South Africa is not an easy decision for South African expatriates.

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Recent victories in the struggle against apartheid are giving hope to the disillusioned who once saw no future there, and to the committed who always wanted to go back but did not know when or how.

It is difficult to determine how many expatriates have left Southern California to return to South Africa since major reforms began a year ago, according to human rights and immigration officials. An estimated 40,000 to 60,000 black and white South Africans are believed to live outside of their homeland--many of them political exiles. As of last month, about 700 exiles had returned home, according to South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs in Pretoria, and an estimated 20,000 more are expected.

Many South African expatriates in Southern California say that they believe the homeward bound make up more of a trickle than a flood.

But some prepare to make the journey.

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“Many of these people have spent 20 years away from home, and they’re ready to grasp at any hope that they can return and continue their life there,” said Gay McDougall, director of the Washington-based Southern Africa Project of the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

“There is now a grand debate going on in that country about the future,” said McDougall, whose project assists in the defense of South African political prisoners. “They don’t want to sit on the sidelines. And they shouldn’t. They’re needed in the process.”

Official recognition of the African National Congress and other opposition groups in February, 1990, heralded a wave of symbolic and legislative change in South Africa. Less than two weeks after his organization was legalized, ANC leader Nelson Mandela was released from prison. In the ensuing months, hundreds of apartheid laws--including the Land Laws, which forced removal of blacks from their property, and the Population Registration Act, which classified people according to race--were repealed.

In addition, the South African government agreed last year to begin a phased release of political prisoners and to grant indemnity on a case-by-case basis to exiles, enabling them to return home without fear of prosecution for politically motivated crimes. The agreement cleared the way for the beginning of negotiations between the ANC and the South African government, but the ANC suspended preliminary constitutional discussions in May to protest what it contends is the government’s inaction on ending violence in black townships.

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Last month, President Bush lifted economic sanctions against South Africa, stating that the South African government had met five conditions set by Congress in 1986. However, the ANC and some human rights organizations contend that one of the conditions--the release of all political prisoners--has not been met.

The reasons that some South Africans in Southern California are returning home vary as much as the reasons they came to the United States.

Many who fled the country for fear that they would be arrested for their political actions and beliefs said the recent reforms provide them with the precious opportunity to go back to the country legally. It is vital that they go now, at what they say is a critical juncture in their nation’s history, so they can use their education and skills to help build a new South Africa.

Perhaps most important, many want to return simply because South Africa is home. They love the land and people, if not their country’s government and bloody history.

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Fear is not absent. Many remember the South Africa of old--where the expression of ideas and emotions could result in prison, castigation, even death.

Some will take the risk of going back, but refuse to have their real names mentioned in a newspaper printed thousands of miles away. For some, such fear will accompany them all the way home to South Africa.

One man who has already bought a one-way ticket home said: “I might just be a little scared.”

Sowazi sat alone in his West Los Angeles apartment the day Mandela was released from prison. He called his family in Soweto and celebrated one of the most joyous days in South African history.

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“My mother was saying, ‘Listen, listen,’ ” said Sowazi, 28, a member of the ANC, remembering the distant sounds coming over the telephone of horns and voices making music in the streets.

He was still on the phone speaking to friends when Mandela came on his television screen. “We were all on the phone crying,” he said. “It was beautiful that he was coming out, but painful that we were not home to see it.”

Like many of the estimated 35,000 South African political exiles, Sowazi fled his homeland because he faced arrest. His departure, ordered by the ANC leadership, almost felt like betrayal.

“After all, we couldn’t all leave,” he said. “This was where the fight was.”

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He traveled through southern Africa before coming to California, where he studied at UC San Diego and UCLA. Then, in February, 1990, Sowazi heard the news that the South African government had rescinded its ban on the ANC and other opposition groups. “I knew,” he said, “it was the beginning of the end.”

He plans to be back home by the end of the summer, as soon as he can get a plane ticket and a grant of indemnity from the South African government.

“We face our biggest challenge now, walking this last mile to freedom,” Sowazi said. “And though it may be risky, because people are still dying, are still getting arrested, it’s absolutely vital that we go back now and (help) prepare our people for the future.”

Sowazi has witnessed similar challenges in this foreign land, where he sees images of home on the streets of South-Central Los Angeles--in the way unemployed men stand on corners, and people of color struggle to improve their lives.

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It is partly because of what he has seen here that Sowazi says he cannot stay in the United States. While South Africa is moving forward, preparing to rewrite its constitution and overhaul its government, the United States seems to be moving backward on issues of civil rights and equality, Sowazi says. Frankly, he says, he sees more hope back home.

“The frustration is (also) there in South Africa, but because people can see a light at the end of the tunnel, there is hope and expectation that things can only get better,” he said. If he goes back, Sowazi said, he can help make it so.

Yvonne Tsewu, 26, went home for three months in 1988 and saw firsthand the changes in South Africa. She tested them gingerly at first. Then her curiosity brushed her anxiety away. And she discovered that as small as the changes were, they were real.

“I remember the cinema in Johannesburg that was closed to blacks,” she said. “Suddenly, we could go there and watch a movie. I couldn’t believe it.”

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The movie was “Coming to America.”

But that visit was only a vacation, said Tsewu, who came to the United States on a student visa in 1985 and received a sociology degree from UCLA. This time, she plans to return for good. “No more reading about it in the news,” said Tsewu, who spoke on condition that her real name not be used. “I’m going to have to face the real thing.”

When she left South Africa, she was the young, sheltered daughter of a Johannesburg doctor. When she goes back, Tsewu said, it will be as a grown woman who will not only have to deal with the system, but also will have a chance to change it. She plans to start a catering business so she can employ her people.

Despite her hopes, Tsewu said, there is real fear that she may be returning to the same old South Africa.

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Once such fears might have paralyzed her, as apartheid did. She remembered a festival in Port Elizabeth. She was 11 years old and a white man unknowingly stood on her foot. When she tried to push him off, he looked at her coldly, raised his hand as if to strike her--and then walked away.

“I felt I couldn’t do anything,” she said, “that I didn’t have power, even though he was wrong.”

Now that recent reforms have opened a window of opportunity for change, Tsewu said, she cannot miss her chance. “It’s worth the risk. I’ll just have to adjust.”

Still, many of her American friends do not understand why she wants to return. They forget, Tsewu said, that underneath the apparatus of oppression and tedious negotiations over constitutional principles are a people--her people.

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“Now that I’m outside South Africa, I can see it better,” Tsewu said. “It’s where my roots are, my culture.”

News flashes say that the apartheid state is crumbling. Paul Bernard feels he never did his part to bring it down.

He left there in 1980, a young, single, white man who says that he benefited his entire life from the privileges of apartheid. He saw the injustices of his homeland and hated them. He made no conscious effort to stop them.

“I wanted to,” he said. “But frankly, I was too afraid. I didn’t have the commitment.”

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In January, he planned to make a commitment by taking his South African-born wife and American-born son back to South Africa. But Bernard’s wife did not want to go.

Now, he said, he is dealing with a dilemma being faced by many expatriates who have married, had children and built new lives in foreign countries. He has a white-collar career here and lives comfortably in a tree-shaded, West Los Angeles neighborhood.

“I think very few white South Africans will ever go back,” said Bernard, who spoke on condition that his real name not be used. “But for any family who wants to go back, white or black, it’s a difficult choice.”

“You want to be part of the social experiment,” Bernard said. “But who do you make the commitment to, to your family or to your country?”

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Once the answer might have been easy. Bernard did not love South Africa. “Hated it is closer,” he said. “You’re walking the streets and you see police vans arresting people for not having their (identity) passes. You saw people mishandling (other) people. One is so aware of the unfairness of it all.”

“You can’t love it, even now,” he said, “because apartheid is still there, inequalities are still there. It is still South Africa.”

Bernard said he left South Africa to avoid being drafted into a military that enforced the law of an apartheid state. As he boarded the plane that took him to the United States, he did not know whether he would ever see his parents again, he said. “I just wanted to leave.”

It wasn’t until he joined the Los Angeles chapter of the ANC in 1987 that Bernard said he began feeling an attachment again to South Africa.

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Yet, “the reality is we don’t have anybody there any more,” said Bernard, whose parents have joined him in the States. To go back now would be “almost like leaving (home) all over again.”

Vusi Shangase left South Africa as a young man. It was 1962, two years after the South African government banned the ANC and the same week Mandela was arrested.

He goes back an aging freedom fighter, still desiring to change the world, but wanting first to do a simple thing.

“I would like to see where my grandparents lie,” Shangase said. “Since I have no home, I’ll go to their graves.”

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Last month, Shangase, 56, set foot on South African soil for the first time in three decades when he attended the historic ANC national conference in Durban. Among the many things he hoped to hear from the leadership was that it was time for him to come home and finish the fight for equality.

It would mean his mission had come full circle. “When I left, we couldn’t meet, we couldn’t talk about the future of our country,” said Shangase, chairman of the Los Angeles chapter of the ANC. “When I come back, we’ll be sitting down, drawing up resolutions on how we’ll build South Africa.”

He knows it will be a different country than the one he left, as much because of apartheid as because of its dismantling. His grandparents were two of the more than 3 million blacks who lost their land under laws that removed blacks from their property and prevented them from purchasing land. His family and friends have been scattered around the country and the world because of the diaspora spawned by apartheid.

“Most of the people I grew up with are either dead or nobody knows where they are,” he said. “Most people will not even know who I am.”

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He also realizes that it will take more than the repealing of laws to eradicate the poverty, joblessness, and homelessness that are the legacy of apartheid.

Because of those problems, Shangase does not believe that all South African expatriates should return immediately, at least not “until we are able to stabilize the country, create jobs for people, have homes for them. . . . People have a right to fear what’s going to happen to them.”

He left South Africa to avoid arrest and work for the ANC abroad. After spending years in Africa, he came to Los Angeles in 1981 and earns a living counseling psychiatric patients at a state mental hospital while continuing to work with the ANC.

Shangase said he has missed his homeland. “Sometimes it hurt when you had to condemn your own country, instead of defending it as your homeland.”

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When he left South Africa, “I felt robbed of the right to live, the right to own, and the right to manhood,” Shangase said. When he returns, “I’ll be claiming my birthright to our land.”

John Dywili, 29, can remember no good times in South Africa--no park where he played, no beach or waterfall.

“All I know (there) is people being murdered, tortured, people jailed without due process,” said Dywili, who left South Africa in 1979 and later came to the United States to attend college. “But what I experienced is beside the point. I still love the place.”

Dywili--who did not want his real name used for fear it would jeopardize his application for indemnity--has already bought his $2,300 one-way ticket home. He hopes to be back there by the end of the year.

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Dywili, who fought in the ANC’s military wing, still worries that authorities may arrest him on charges for which he was not granted indemnity. He worries that the momentum of change in South Africa is not moving as swiftly as he hopes.

“It’s hard to believe that these people can recognize that we’re human beings,” he said of the whites in South Africa.

His father also worked for the ANC and was forced to flee South Africa in 1964. His mother was later forced to leave as well, and Dywili and his brothers and sisters were raised by relatives, rarely seeing each other. “Apartheid,” Dywili said, “destroyed my family.”

His father died in exile. The last time Dywili saw his entire family together was at the funeral in Swaziland in 1976.

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It is the death of his father that motivates Dywili to go back and finish the struggle. “I think, ‘Why did he die before seeing this day?’ ”

The last Dywili saw of South Africa was Army vehicles cruising the streets of a black township, its white occupants firing at children.

Now, when he thinks of the streets of Soweto, he sees a family reunion, as his family members--once as far flung as Australia and the United States--return to their country. His mother has already gone back.

What will it be like when they are finally together again? There will be a feast, he said, “and a party for days.”

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