FROM the perspective of their new lives in London, New York and other places to which South African ex-pats have fled over the decades during apartheid and after it, will the revived spirit of hope brought to South Africa by new President Cyril Ramaphosa inspire any of them to consider coming back?
South Africans overseas have often felt smug looking at the country’s decline during the catastrophe of former president Jacob Zuma, when it hurtled towards becoming yet another failed African state. They, after all, had been smart enough to leave and were far from Africa’s problems.
The huge emigration of many whites and others started during apartheid, particularly after the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, continuing until Nelson Mandela’s release from jail and his ascendancy to the presidency. Amidst the euphoria, emigration slowed as South Africa seemed again a place with a future. There was talk of expats coming back.
This country’s story is about cycles of betrayal and hope, betrayal and hope, again and again. Can it now return to the spirit of hope?
Today the newspaper headlines on the street poles proclaim “goodbye Zuma” and “a new dawn begins.” Addressing the nation from parliament, Ramaphosa quoted from a song by legendary musician Hugh Masekela – known as the father of SA jazz – about everyone lending a hand.
Masekela’s life is a metaphor for this country. He left after the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, helped by anti-apartheid activist Archbishop Trevor Huddleston and international friends such as Yehudi Menuhin and John Dankworth, going to the UK, then to the US.
He married another South African icon, jazz singer Miriam Makeba. Masekela wrote well-known anti-apartheid songs, such as Bring Him Back Home, about the movement to free Mandela. He returned to South Africa in the 1990s after Mandela’s release and continued to compose and perform locally and on the world stage. The muso, affectionately known as Bra Hugh, died last month. A line from one of his songs, Thuma Mina, goes: “I wanna be there when the people start to turn it around.” Indeed, he was.
There are not many Masekelas, and it is unlikely many SA expats will return, no matter how rosy the South African dawn sounds. They have put down roots elsewhere; their children were raised as Canadians, Americans or with other identities. And the changes in South Africa are not yet solid enough. Can Ramaphosa pull off this gigantic task of renewing the country? It is not yet certain.
One consequence of this past decade is that the ANC – Mandela’s glorious liberation movement turned government – has tainted itself by supporting Zuma. Its hands are dirty. Can Ramaphosa cleanse it? Whether he succeeds or not, the manner in which Zuma was sent off into the wilderness according to strict constitutional principles, shows South African democracy’s solidity.
Many expat South Africans look down their noses at this new multiparty African democracy from the comfort of their mature European and American democracies. But maturity is a relative thing. The parliament building in Cape Town from where Ramaphosa spoke so elegantly to the nation this week, is the same place in which the apartheid rulers formulated the brutal racial policies of their time, and also the place where Zuma sat as president while his cronies looted the country’s coffers. Has betrayal turned to trust again? Can expats in London see it or not?
Ramaphosa, when he was still deputy president, was jogging recently along the Seapoint beachfront in Cape Town with former finance minister Trevor Manuel, and encountered some young Jewish women also jogging. A warm, happy selfie of all of them is circulating. Hopefully it will also reach the expats in London. He’s going to need that warmth and trust from everyone if he’s going to untangle the mess of this country.
(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org )