“Ag, shame, man!” we South African-Americans say at our culturally hybrid braais, with the Oscar Meyer wieners lying there on the grill right next to the boerewors and sosaties. “If only they knew how much better their lives could be!” Of course we’re talking, here, about our friends and family not brave or clever enough to turn their existences upside down, like we did.
We lovingly list all the bad news from #ZuptaNation, which seems somewhat more plentiful and reliable than, say, Cape Town water or Eskom electricity. Makhosi Khoza’s death threats. The looming collapse of SAA, or was that the post office? Each sweet, delicious dollop serving as medicinal schadenfreude for our deep and abiding homesickness.
The mixture of pity and envy flowing outward from the land of sunshine and milk tart seems no kinder. For those of us based in the US, there are, of course, Trump and the Republicans, questions about whom somehow make it into every WhatsApp exchange or Skype call.
Then, on a trip home, when I mention attending South African-American socials, a lefty friend wants to know how on earth I put up with all those white racists who couldn’t face being ruled by black people.
“Well, for starters, there’s Washington, DC,” I remind her, “filled with black South African expats.” Funny, come to think of it, how little representation black Saffers get in conversations about the global South African brain drain.
As for we abelungu, we run the gamut all the way from left-wing dodgers of the apartheid draft to stereotypical God-but-the-blacks-can’t-run-anything racist reactionaries.
But is it fair to say that the sadistic pleasure expats often take in the motherland’s sufferings has a counterpart in Saffers’ views of the hardships experienced by South Africans who choose to live abroad?
When Jonny Steinberg wrote, about being a South African in Oxford, “[T]he people who pass me are wafer thin… [They don’t] matter enough,” his article got thousands of shares on South African social media.
Maybe it’s just me, but at the time I strongly suspected that not all of this attention was inspired by Steinberg’s fierce honesty, trenchant insights, or exquisite prose. Rather, what seemed to resonate most was a portrayal of South African expatriates as unmoored and irrelevant, guests in our adopted cultures, and therefore unable to shape either our new or old societies.
There, all of this South African commentary seemed to be saying. So what if we have to deal with unemployment, corrupt traffic cops, Helen Zille, and strutting amaBenzi? At least we have purpose, meaning, and belonging.
And it’s certainly true: outsider status can be limiting, even embarrassing, when one does try to grab the bull of cultural belonging by the horns.
Recently, I found myself one of two constituents in a lobbying meeting with my Member of Congress’s chief legislative aide. We were arguing for a price on carbon refunded to ordinary taxpayers, and the topic came up with a solar power company in my hometown of Sunbury, Pennsylvania, a business whose name I then tried to pronounce.
“Lenape,” I said pronouncing it to rhyme with “grape”. As an afterthought: “I’ve never understood why it was called that.” The woman responsible for advising my Member of Congress looked at me as if I’d just lost my mind.
“The Le-nah-pee Indians?” As I know now, the Lenape, or Delaware, were a well-known nation about two hours’ drive from where I live, on the border of present-day New Jersey. Somehow that factoid didn’t make it onto my South African matric history exams.
So, you know – go recommend a transformation of a country’s entire energy system, without knowing the names of its first inhabitants.
Yet this thin sense of the country in which I live can also be, paradoxically, an asset. Enmeshment in the full depth of a situation can sometimes occlude the bigger picture.
Back to Trump. After his election, American liberals’ greatest fear was a descent into the full darkness of authoritarianism: Pinochet’s Chile, say, or P W Botha’s South Africa.
As someone who actually remembers living under the Big Crocodile’s rule, though, I’ve been able to provide something of a public service for American liberals in highlighting the differences between lightweight, wannabe authoritarianism, and, well, the real, full-blown thing.
Those pictures of police shootings and Black Lives Matter protests: they would have all been banned under 1980s emergency regulations.
Maybe newspapers would have uncovered a range of scandals related to Botha and his cronies – meetings with, say, the Israelis or the Americans to turn up election dirt on Helen Suzman – but one suspects even Vrye Weekblad or the Weekly Mail would have struggled to come up with as much, as quickly, as have the Washington Post and the New York Times.
Finally, this Michael Flynn fellow – the one whom Trump tried to persuade James Comey to stop investigating for election collusion with Russia. Many political commentators here in the US have speculated, for excellent reasons, that Flynn has significant dirt on Trump to motivate such unusual political risk-taking.
Yet in 1977, when a Nationalist South African politician named Rob Smit uncovered information about slush funds in what would later become the Info Scandal, he was mysteriously murdered in his home in Springs, the words RAU TEM spray-painted across his walls – the meaning of this haunting phrase still unknown, four decades later.
For now, Flynn still strolls around Washington DC with impunity, news outlets reporting that he has founded a business consultancy called, without any apparent irony, Resilient Patriot.
As a friend noted recently, the current US political situation is in fact more reminiscent of contemporary South Africa than of apartheid, with a fumbling head of state hobbled by numerous business conflicts of interest, wasting taxpayer money on security for his home residence, and under suspicion for having made an inappropriate deal with the Russian government.
Where will my two mad home countries go in the years ahead? Caught between Trump and Zuma, South African-Americans can only shine a torch from one continent to another and back again, reassuring their friends on both sides of the divide that they are not alone in their frustrations.
Is this the truest kind of international ambassadorship, finding the shared common ground of destructive delusion between nations, and taking a bleak, perverse kind of comfort in it?
A question, perhaps, for this year’s Thanksgiving dinner, over turkey and cranberry sauce, with a side serving of mieliepap and tomato-and-onion relish. DM
Glen Retief’s The Jack Bank: A Memoir of a South African Childhood, won a Lambda Literary Award. He teaches creative nonfiction at Susquehanna University.
Photo: Michael Flynn, then National Security Advisor to US President Donald J. Trump, attends a press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, USA, 10 February 2017 and PW Botha. (EPA and Reuters)
"Don't gobblefunk around with words." ~ Roald Dahl