South African Americans

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by Judson Knight and Lorna Mabunda


South Africa is a nation of 471,445 square miles (1,221,043 square kilometers), slightly smaller than the combined areas of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. As its name implies, it is located at the southern tip of Africa, with Namibia to the northwest; Botswana to the north; and Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Swaziland to the northeast. The nation of Lesotho is entirely contained within South Africa, one of the few places on earth where such a phenomenon occurs. As for the western, southern, and eastern boundaries of South Africa, these are formed by oceans. The Atlantic lies to the west, and the Indian Ocean to the south and east. A line along the twentieth parallel east, near Cape Agulhas, forms the boundary between the two oceans.

The population of South Africa, almost 43 million people in 1998, is extremely diverse ethnically, and indeed ethnic divisions form a central theme of South African history and culture. Racially the nation is 75 percent black; 14 percent white; 9 percent "Colored," a term designating persons of mixed racial heritage; and 2 percent Asian. Ethnically these groups are further divided, with the largest black minorities comprised of 5.6 million Xhosa, 5.3 million Zulu, and 4.2 million Sotho. Of the nation's 6 million whites, about 3.6 million are of Afrikaner heritage, and 2.4 million are English. The 3.6 million Coloreds come from a variety of origins, their ethnic makeup a mixture of white, black, and Asian ancestry. Finally, there is the Asian population, of which Indiansone of the largest communities outside of India itselfmake up the majority.

Sixty-eight percent of South Africa's population is Christian, and another 29 percent is made up of persons, mostly black, who adhere to traditional religions. The other 3 percent consists of Jews, as well as the predominantly Hindu Indian population. As a further mark of its ethnic diversity, South Africa has 11 official languages, including Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, and Sotho. With such a mixture of peoples, it is perhaps fitting that South Africa has three capitals, one for each branch of government: Cape Town (legislative), Pretoria (executive), and Bloemfontein (judicial). The national flag, adopted in 1994 to replace the orange, white, and blue stripes of the old South African standard, is also fitting in its multicolored character. A green stripe shaped like a capital letter Y, with the ends opening to the left, dominates the flag. It is bordered in white on one side, with a red trapezoid in the upper right and a blue one in the lower right. To the left is a black triangle bordered in gold.


The earliest known inhabitants of South Africa were Pygmies and Khoisan. The latter, speakers of the so-called "click language," included the Hottentot or Khoi people, and the San or Bushmen. The Khoisan, hunter-gatherers with a rich oral tradition who produced some of Africa's most striking rock art, arrived in the area many thousands of years ago, but were ultimately displaced by the Bantu peoples. The Bantu, a large language group whose common characteristic is their word for "people," bantu, originated in and around what is now Nigeria in about 1200 b.c. Though they did not develop a written language, they were an Iron Age civilization whose higher level of technological advancement gave them dominance over the native peoples of southern Africa. Ultimately they seized the best land, forcing the Pygmies into the less desirable rain forest while the Khoisan retreated to the Kalahari Desert. By the fourteenth century a.d., most of southern Africa belonged to the Bantu.

The first Europeans arrived a century later, when the Portuguese reached the Cape of Good Hope in 1488. Explorer Bartholomeu Dias (c. 1450-1500) actually called it the Cape of Storms, and only later did it receive its more optimistic-sounding name. Permanent white settlement began in 1652, with the establishment of a Dutch supply station at the Cape. Subsequent decades saw an influx of slaves from the West Indies; French Protestant refugees known as Huguenots; and German dairy farmers and missionaries.

In 1806, the British seized the Cape of Good Hope, which they named the Cape Colony. The Boers or Afrikaners, as the descendants of the Dutch called themselves, ceded the Cape to Great Britain in an 1814 treaty. By 1836, the Boers of the Cape had become so dissatisfied with British rule that some 16,000 undertook a mass migration inland which came to be known as "The Great Trek." Their seizure of Bantu lands led to conflict with the Zulu tribe, who under the leadership of the legendary chieftain Shaka (c. 1787-1828) conquered most of what is now Natal Province. King Shaka was assassinated by his half-brothers in 1828, however, and the Boers defeated his successors at the Battle of Blood River in 1838.

The Natal became the site of sugar cane plantations, which saw the arrival of large numbers of indentured Indian laborers beginning in about 1860. The Boers discovered precious resources in their areadiamonds in 1867, and gold in 1882and thereafter South Africa would be famous for its vast natural wealth. However, it would also be famous for conflict, with the next stage of political tension in the region centering around British ambitions to conquer the entire land. The Boers had founded two republics, the Transvaal or South African Republic in 1852 and the Orange Free State two years later. Britain annexed the Transvaal in 1877, and in 1880 the two sides went to war. Results of the First Anglo-Boer War (1880-81) were inconclusive, and this led to the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). The latter, sometimes simply known as the Boer War, was not merely the first important military conflict of the twentieth century. It established British imperial power in the region as an unshakable reality, and also saw the first use of modern concentration camps. In 1910 the former Boer states merged with Cape Province and Natal to form the Union of South Africa.


As a part of the British Empire, South Africa took part in World War I, its principal action being the seizure of German Southwest Africa. In 1919, following the end of the war, South Africa received a mandate to the former German colony, the present-day nation of Namibia. It fought against Nazi Germany in World War II as well, but around the same time, a new political ideology arose among South African whites which called for separation of the racesfor which the Afrikaans word is apartheid.

Apartheid had its roots in the long Boer tradition of ethnic separation, inculcated during the hard years of the Great Trek and thereafter, but it had other antecedents as well. It could not have existed without the Afrikaner labor movement, a group which at one point adopted a slogan which symbolizes the mixture of socialist and racist ideas which went into Apartheid: "Workers of the world unite and fight for a white South Africa!" Eager to maintain their job status against encroachment by the black majority, who would work for lower wages, white labor unions supported the new policy, and the British tradition of self-rule for nations within the Empire allowed it to take hold. The establishment of apartheid became official with the victory of the Nationalist Party in 1948, but the ideology of Apartheid had been forming for many years, with the ideas of Hendrik Verwoerd (1901-66) forming an intellectual basis.

Among the areas of principal concern in both the theory and practice of apartheid were labor; the vote, whereby a virtually all-white franchise was established; land and municipal segregation, with minorities segregated into areas variously called homelands or Bantustans; and separate educational facilities. These steps were followed by so-called "petty apartheid," which established a set of practices even more severe than those that prevailed in the American South prior to the Civil Rights movement of 1960s. Public transportation, restrooms, and even beaches and park benches were segregated. In 1950, the Nationalist-dominated parliament of South Africa passed the Group Areas Act, establishing residential and business sections in urban areas for each of the four recognized races: Whites, Blacks, Coloreds, and Asians. Existing "pass laws" that required blacks to carry documents authorizing their presence in restricted areas were strengthened as well.

Growing Afrikaner resistance to British rule led to a decision, through a 1960 referendum among whites, to give up status as a British dominion. A new republic was born on May 31, 1961, and South Africa withdrew from the British Commonwealth. The 1960s and 1970s saw an increase in laws relating to apartheid, along with growing unrest among the black populationand increasing worldwide disapproval of South Africa. Laws forbade most social contacts between races; restricted races to certain jobs; curtailed black labor unions; and abolished non-whiteincluding Asian and Coloredparticipation in the national government. Political rights of the black majority were confined to participation in tightly controlled urban councils in the townships, or in the ten ethnically distinct, government-created homelands. Though each of these ten homelands retained varying degrees of autonomy, Bophuthatswana, Ciskei, Transkei, and Venda were granted independence, though South Africa was the only nation on earth to recognize them as independent nations.

The first major anti-apartheid riots broke out at Sharpeville, where government troops killed 69 black protesters. A series of riots in 1976 led to the deaths of some 600 blacks, and the murder of resistance leader Stephen Biko (1946-1977) in 1977 led to increased tension. Around this time, world concern over apartheid resulted in a number of actions. South Africa was banned from many international cultural exchange programs, and after 1960, its athletes were not allowed in the Olympic Games and other international competitions. The United Nations imposed an arms embargo, and passed resolutions condemning apartheid. A widespread popular reaction in the West, simmering for several decades, exploded in the 1980s, with anti-apartheid protests on many college campuses. A number of artistic works, ranging from British novelist Graham Greene's 1977 novel The Human Factor to an array of songs by recording artists, registered the disapproval with which most Europeans and Americans regarded apartheid. Under pressure from stockholders, many foreign banks and multinationals broke their South African ties, and many in the United States called for full economic divestiture from South Africa. Meanwhile, South Africa was embroiled in wars with the Communist governments of nearby Angola and Mozambique during much of the 1980s, and also fought a sustained conflict with the Southwest African People's Organization (SWAPO) in Southwest Africa, which it had retained as a colony against international protests.

Significant changes to apartheid first came in 1983, when a new constitution extended the vote to Asians and Coloreds. Two years later, the government repealed laws banning interracial sex and marriage. Progress was the result not only of organized groups, both of leading figures both black and white. One notable figure was Archbishop Desmond Tutu (1931 ), who in 1986 won the Nobel Peace Prize and called on all Western nations to apply economic sanctions against South Africa as a means of forcing an end to apartheid. Even more prominent was Nelson Mandela (1918 ), leader of the African National Congress (ANC). Jailed since the early 1960s, Mandela was an important symbol of the anti-apartheid movement, as the ANC was the principal political organization. Whites prominent in the anti-apartheid movement includedHelen Suzman (1918 ), an outspoken member of parliament, and Communist leader Joe Slovo (1926-1995).

As the nation tottered toward civil war, President P. W. Botha (1916 ) in 1986 ordered an end to pass laws and allowed blacks to take an advisory role in government. But he also launched attacks against ANC strongholds in neighboring countries, and a massive strike by some 2 million black workers in 1988 helped lead to his resignation in 1989. Under the administration of F. W. de Klerk (1936 ), the government removed its ban on the ANC and released Mandela in 1990. In 1991, de Klerk announced plans to end apartheid, and in 1994 the nation held free elections in which the ANC won the majority, making Nelson Mandela the first president of the "new" South Africa. The end of apartheid has not brought an end to tension in the country, however. Fighting between the ANC and the Zulu Inkatha Party has killed thousands, and many whites have fled the country. Racial tensions between blacks and other groups has continued as well.


It is difficult to discern patterns of South African immigration to the United States prior to the mid-twentieth century. This is true for a number of reasons, andin a pattern typical of all matters South Africanthese reasons differ according to ethnic group. Before the end of apartheid in the early 1990s, immigration by white South Africans, either of Afrikaner or British heritage, was in very small numbers. Most were immigrants of conscience who fled their nation's repressive system, in many cases under orders from the government or at least threats from the police. White immigrants were typically of English heritage, since it was in the very nature of Afrikaner identity to stay put: this indeed was integral to the mentality which spawned apartheid. Then, of course, there were the black immigrants, who also were fleeing apartheid, though not simply as a matter of conscience but rather for survival. Immigration by blacks was limited as well, but again for different reasons: though the standard of living for blacks in South Africa was higher than for most people living on the African continent, economic conditions still made immigration difficult.

The end of apartheid, of course, brought significant waves of white emigration, but the white exodus from South Africa in the 1990s was not as severe as many had predicted. Mandela, who stepped down from the presidency in 1999, sought to retain as many whites as possible, and urged multiracial policies in an attempt to counteract a potential black backlash against former oppressors. Nonetheless, racism has remained a powerful force in South Africa, a factor which could motivate migrations in the future. This racism is not simply white against black, though that has continued, albeit in reaction to government policy rather than as a part of that policy. Yet as the Africa News Service reported in 1999, much of the racism is black on black. South Africa has always been a net "importer" of people, with much higher immigration than emigration, but according to the News Service report, black hostility towards other Africans increased in the 1990s: "South Africans even have derogatory ways of referring to black foreigners: makwerere the local name given to insects that survive on cow and human feces; or girigamba: people from nowhere."


Of the whites who left South Africa in the years leading up to and following the end of apartheid, most did not go to the United States. They were far more likely to settle in Australia or New Zealand, countries which share South Africa's British heritage. Furthermore, the climate in Oceania is similar to that in South Africa, and the location of these countries far south of the Equator means that the seasonal changessummer at the beginning of the calendar year, and winter in the middle of the yearare similar to those in South Africa. In 1989, M. J. Polonsky and others presented "A Profile of Emigrants from South Africa: The Australian Case" in International Migration Review. Polonsky et al. found that South African immigrants in Australia shared several characteristics: high levels of technical skill; significant professional qualifications; families with young children; and little or no financial assets remaining in South Africathus indicating a decision to leave the country for good. White South Africans also settled in Britain and Canada. Thus a 1998 article in the Canadian magazine Maclean's reported that "South African doctors are still flocking to Canada, seeking a foreign haven from rising crime, a falling currency, and wrenching changes to the health-care system."

As for those whites who have moved to the United States, both before and after the end of apartheid, a relatively large number have settled in Midwestern states such as Minnesota and Illinois. Thus some stores in Chicago, for instance, sell Marie biscuits, cookies often served by South Africans with tea. There are also pockets of South African immigrants on the East Coast, in areas such as Atlanta, which has a large population of South African Jews. A number of South Africans have also settled in Mid-Atlantic states such as Maryland, and in New York.

Throughout the western United States, for instance in Arizona, California, and in the Pacific Northwest, there are small South African populations, though it would be hard to discern a pattern to such settlements. Unlike, say, the Irish, South Africans in generalboth white and blackhave tended to come to America individually rather than in large groups. Thus they can be found throughout the country.

Acculturation and Assimilation

Whether in the 1990s or before, immigrants from South Africa seemed to bear an invisible A as a mark that set them apartan A that stood for apartheid. This was true not only of white but of black immigrants, and issues from South African life have tended to carry over to life in the United States. Thus in 1989 Mark Mathabane (1960 ), a black writer and immigrant who settled in North Carolina, wrote in the autobiographical Kaffir Boy in America : "I marveled at the reach of apartheid: it could influence the way people thousands of miles away thought, felt, and acted; it could silence them at will; it could defeat them without a shot being fired." Sheila Roberts, a white writer who moved to Michigan in part because she opposed apartheid, wrote that "From the beginning I was seen by American friends and colleagues as not only an authority on South Africa but also a representative of the 'opposition. "' It is ironic, given their complex and multifarious heritage, that South Africans of all groups have been thus stereotyped and reduced to a mere political identity. The same ethnic diversity that has often made South Africa a focal point of tension has also produced a richly varied culture.


It is important to note that Afrikaners consider themselves Africans, not Europeans. Interestingly, Afrikaners and South African blacks share much of the same folklore, and indeed, in a further detail which illustrates the racial complexity of South Africa, many of those shared traditions can be traced to Asian roots. There are, for instance, goel or ghost stories originated by indentured laborers from India and Malaysia, tales adopted by whites and blacks alike. Many of these stories revolve around the harsh southeastern wind, known as the "Cape Doctor," that blows over Cape Town in the summertime. In contrast to Afrikaners, English South Africans have a cultural heritage more tied to that of Great Britaina heritage shared by British, Australians, New Zealanders, and Canadiansrather than to that of southern Africa.

Of course the Zulu, Xhosa, and Sotho peoples each have multifaceted cultural traditions all their own. According to Zulu myth, at one time people did not die, but simply continued living, and thus in Zulu culture, old age is seen as a blessing. A Zulu legend recounts how the Creator told a chameleon to go and tell the people of the world that they did not have to die; but the chameleon took so long to do the job that finally the angered Creator sent a lizard in his place to tell them that indeed they would die. The lizard got his work done faster, and it is only for this reason that death exists.

Like the Zulu and indeed like most groups of people throughout the world, the Xhosa have their own tales of human origins, which in their case revolves around a heroic Adam figure known simply as Xhosa. There is a large body of Xhosa folktales, called intsomi, as well as praise poems or isibongo regarding the adventures of past heroes. The Xhosa have several interesting dietary restrictions: women are typically not supposed to eat eggs, and a man is not supposed to drink milk in a village where he might later take a wife.

The Sotho, known as excellent horsemen, are distinguished by their bright blankets and cone-shaped hats. An example of the latter appears on the flag of Lesotho, whose population is primarily Sotho. The Sotho tradition also includes praise poems and folk tales, one of the most prominent of which is a tale concerning a boy named Santkatana, who saves the world by killing a giant monster.


The cultures of South Africa are more rich in colorful terminology than they are in proverbs. The nation's various black ethnic groups have a wide array of piquant expressions, but so too does the white population, and there is much crossover between cultures in this regard. Many ethnicities, for instance, recognize tom as a word for money. Bundu, a variant of boondocks, is the South African term for what Australians would call the "Outback"; and whereas Americans go "four-wheeling," South Africans go bundu-bashing in a four-wheel drive vehicle. South Africans share a number of expressions with colloquial British English, including ta as a slang term for "thanks." Salty insults include brak, meaning a dog or mongrel. Gatvol is an off-color term meaning "fed up," as in "I'm gatvol with this traffic," and an expression for dismissing a requestsomething like "forget it," only strongeris "Your mal auntie. "


As in many other aspects of South African life, the national cuisines are as varied as the ethnic groups. Afrikaners favor a meat-and-potatoes diet that includes items such as boerewors, a sausage made of pork; putu pap, a type of porridge; and brai or barbecue. English South Africans, as one might expect, eat a diet similar to that of the British, though with local variations such as bredies, or stew. Vegetable dishes are often mixtures, such as spinach and potatoes, or roasted, sweetened pumpkin. The Zulu diet places a heavy emphasis on products of the cow, including beef and milk products such as amasi, or curdled milk. Mealie-meal, or cooked corn meal, and yams are also favorites. Among the Xhosa, goat, mutton, and beef are popular, as are corn and bread. Particularly notable is a spicy hominy dish called umngqusho. Coloreds eat bredies, and enjoy an Indian-style meat pastry called samoesas.

South African culture, obviously, is full of many and varied terms for items of food. There are, for instance, Marie biscuits, a hard, dry cookie made for dipping in tea. Cream crackers, light and puffy sweets, are also popular. Other favorite dishes include morogo or imifino, a wild leaf stew; bobotie, a minced beef curry; bitlong, which is dried meat similar to jerky; a fried bread called vetkoek ; and sosaties, which are made of marinated lamb and apricots. Meals may be washed down with homemade beer, fine wines, coffee, or mechow, a drink made from corn meal. A strong English tea called Red Bush tea is very popular, as are Chinese and Indian teas. These are often sweetened with condensed milk.


The range of peoples, cultures, and traditions in South Africa is reflected in the diversity of the nation's music, and traditional music, though confined to more rural areas, continues to influence contemporary urban forms. Traditional instruments include homemade horns, drums, and stringed instruments, and among neo-traditional styles are variants on the indigenous music of the Ndebele, Pedi, Shangaan, Sotho, and Zulu. For example, the Tsonga are associated with the mbila, a traditional instrument played along with drums and horns; often Tsongan music is used to accompany the tribe's traditional dance forms. From the countryside have come such forms as mbube, a complex choral gospel music.

In the 1930s, marabi became very popular. Like its cousin, American big band jazz, marabi is a characterized by the repetition of short melodic phrases. Kwela gained popularity in the 1940s, with its distinctive blend of homemade guitar, saxophone, and pennywhistle. By the 1960s, whites too had become avid fans of township jazz, which had sprouted into kwela' s instrumental music and mbaqanga, a vocal jazz style. The Cape Malays developed their own Cape jazz, marked by strains of Eastern sounds from their Indonesian heritage. The social upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s, however, prompted many artists to leave the country. Self-imposed exile brought international fame to some, including Miriam Makeba (1932 ), Hugh Masekela (1939 ), and Abdullah Ibrahim (1934 ).

In the 1980s, the townships gave birth to their own brand of pop music. Just as the heavily synthetic sounds of new wave splashed through the Western world, "township music" was punctuated by synthesizers and drum machines, though it maintained the vocal harmonies for which South Africans are famed. South African music also got a boost on the world scene when American pop singer Paul Simon teamed up with a cappella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo for his highly acclaimed album Graceland in 1986. In the 1990s, vocal artistry developed into the praise poetry of rap and hip-hop, which borrows from American styles to create uniquely South African forms. Another style that developed in the 1990s was kwaito, which blends traditional sounds with those of house music, rhythm and blues, and hip-hop.


Though black South Africans in urban areas tend to dress in a fashion indistinguishable from that of whites, their traditional costumes are much more colorful and varied. Zulu men, for instance, sport the amabheshu, a type of apron of goatskin or leather worn at the back. Beads are common among men, women, and children, and popular items for men are frilly goatskin bands worn on both arms and legs.

The Xhosa, too, are known for the striking attire, including blankets with detailed patterns, which both men and women wear as shawls. The Sotho also have their brightly colored blankets, worn as coats, but these are typically store-bought since they have no tradition of hand-making these items. In areas north of Johannesburg, a great influence of the Ndebele is evident. The Ndebele are famous for their beadwork and the geometric designs that they paint on their houses. Indians and other Asians, of course, have their own styles of dress associated with their cultures. For the most part, however, South Africans wear Western-style clothing, and following the example of President Mandela, attire tends to be comfortable and casual, even for business meetings.


Singing and dancing is a significant part of black South African traditional life, and praise poems form an important element in their songs. The Xhosa practice group singing and hand-clapping, but have also borrowed from Western styles introduced by missionaries. An example of the missionaries' influence, which centered around Christian hymns, is the hymn-like "Nkosi Sikele' iAfrika" or "God Bless Africa," written by a Xhosa schoolteacher in 1897. It later became South Africa's national anthem.

A popular song among Afrikaners is "Daar Kom Die Alabama," or "There Comes the Alabama. " The song celebrates the C.S.S. Alabama, a Confederate raider which pursued the U.S.S. Sea Bride all the way to Cape Town in August 1863. All of Cape Town, is it said, came out to greet the ship from far-off America.


South Africans celebrate a number of secular and religious holidays. These include the following, some of which are national public holidays: Family Day, April 5; Freedom Day, April 27, commemorating the first day on which black South Africans were allowed to vote; Worker's Day, May 1; Youth Day, June 16, in honor of protestors killed during riots in the Soweto township in 1976; National Women's Day, August 9; Heritage Day, September 24; Reconciliation Day, December 16; and Boxing Day or the Day of Goodwill on December 26.

English and/or Afrikaners celebrate Founder's Day on April 6, the anniversary of the founding of the Cape Colony in 1652; Republic Day, on May 31, anniversary of the declaration of the Republic of South Africa in 1961; Kruger Day on October 10, the birthday of early Afrikaner leader S. J. P. Kruger (1825-1904); and the Day of the Vow on December 16, which commemorates the Boer defeat of the Zulu in 1838.

Religious holidays include Good Friday, along with the non-religious Easter Monday holiday; Ascension Day in April or May; and Christmas. New Year's Day, of course, is also a holiday.


South Africa has 11 official languages: Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Southern Sotho, Swati, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa, and Zulu. Though none of the major languages is spoken by a majority of the populace, 98 percent of South Africans use at least one of them as their home or first language. Most blacks, in fact, are multilingual, speaking their tribal languages along with English and possibly Afrikaans, which at one time was a school requirement.

Accommodating such a plethora of languages has been a challenge, and indeed the June 16, 1976, riots at Soweto began as a protest by black students against the use of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction in black schools. At the time, Afrikaans was predominantly the language used to conduct matters of politics and internal administration, while English was used to communicate with the outside world in matters of business and science.

In the new South Africa, television broadcasts can be heard in the most prevalent languages: English, Sotho, Xhosa, Zulu, and Afrikaans. Radio broadcasts are even more varied. English, however, remains the principal language used by most people, with the other languages primarily confined to regions where native speakers predominate.

Family and Community Dynamics

The subjects of family and community, as applied to South Africans in generaland particularly to South Africans in Americaare closely tied to the complex political and racial history of South Africa itself. For South Africans in America, the legacy of apartheid has continued to be haunting, though of course not to the degree that it was prior to the early 1990s. In part because of their troubled national past, many South Africans living in America still feel a sense of connectedness to the old country in a way that many other immigrant groups may not. This affects family and community relations, tending to strengthen the bonds of Afrikaner to Afrikaner and black South African to black South African.

For English South Africans, on the other hand, this dynamic has not been so strong, simply because their accents make many of them indistinguishable, as far as most Americans were concerned, from British or Australians. Yet this, too, has created tensions within families. Thus Sheila Roberts wrote of her son, "By the time he was twelve and able to understand the full infamy of South African racism, he grew so ashamed of his South African heritage that he not only began inventing a different past for himself, but he expected me not to tell people I was from South Africa. Rather, I should say I was from Britain: my accent would carry the lie. At times I went along with his request if he was with me, particularly if there was not much opportunity for a following conversation in which I would have to fabricate an intricate and unlikely past. Other times I would resist. I didn't like the lie."


In Zulu traditional culture, a birth is celebrated by the sacrifice of animals to ancestors. Also important is a young girl's puberty ceremony, signifying the fact that she has come of age and is eligible for marriage. The Xhosa have much more intricate coming-of-age ceremonies for both sexes. Boys are segregated from the rest of the group for several weeks, during which time their heads are shaved and they undergo a number of rituals such as the smearing of white clay over their entire bodies. This rite of passage culminates with circumcision. As for girls, they are also separated from the group, though for a shorter period, and during this time the community celebrates with dances and animal sacrifices. The Sotho have similarly complex rituals surrounding puberty and circumcisions, which are performed on girls as well as boys.

English and Colored South Africans celebrate birthdays in a manner familiar to most Americans brought up in Anglo-Saxon traditions. The same is true of Afrikaners, though birthday parties are perhaps a bigger part of life than they are with other groups. This is the case in particular with regard to one's twenty-first birthday celebration, at which the young person is presented with a key to symbolize their passage into maturity.


Afrikaners are known for their highly conservative views, not only regarding racial relations, but also with regard to women's roles. This in part comes from a strong fundamentalist religious tradition, which arose from a strict interpretation of family guidelines provided by the Apostle Paul in the New Testament. In the 1990s, however, employment opportunities for Afrikaner women increased, a change accompanied by a decline in the practice of gender separation which typified many social interactions among Afrikaners.

Gender relations in black South African ethnic groups have also been characterized by patriarchy. The Xhosa, for instance, have a tradition of polygamy, and the man is king in the typical Xhosa home, a fact also true among the Zulu. The latter have their own polygamous tradition, one that today even extends to dating: thus it is not uncommon for a young Zulu man to have several girl-friends. As for English, Colored, and Asian families, these all tend to be more or less traditional and patriarchal, depending on the family and the degree to which they embrace cosmopolitan or Western lifestyles.


Baptisms, of course, are not a factor in the tribal life of black South Africans: though a large number of the latter tend to be Christians, the religion is of course an import, and thus plays little role in the traditional culture. The same is true of Asians. Almost all newborn Afrikaners are baptized, and infant baptism plays a significant role in the lives of English and other South African groupsincluding blackswho embrace either the Anglican or the Catholic faiths.


In the past, gender relations among Afrikaners were conducted according to highly conservative guidelines. Thus males and females spent much of their time apart, and when a young man of appropriate age took an interest in a girl, courtship was formal and traditional. Should the young man wish to marry, it was incumbent on him to ask the girl's father for her hand in marriage. On three Sunday mornings prior to the wedding, the couple's name would be read in church, and if there were no objections, the marriage would be performed. This practice had declined by the 1990s, however, and courtship was conducted more along lines familiar to American and European youth.

Courtship among Coloreds has tended to be highly formal as well, in part because apartheid-era laws banning interracial dating required people of both sexes to be highly circumspect. Arranged marriages have played a significant in lives of South African groups ranging from Asian Indians to Sotho. The Zulu, on the other hand, have their own traditional courtship practices which deviate somewhat from the patriarchal standard typical of most tribal societies. Thus a Zulu girl is the one who initiates contact by sending a "love letter"actually, a string of beads whose colors each carry specific meaningsto the young man who interests her. The Xhosa have perhaps the most relaxed practices, with boys and girls typically meeting at dances, some of which last all night.


Religions among persons of South African origin fall into three broad categories: Judeo-Christian, traditional and tribal faiths, and Asian religions. The latter is by far the smallest group, in South Africa at least if not among immigrants, with the majority being made up of Indian Hindus. A small portion of South Africans are Muslims, Buddhists, or Jains.

Among Afrikaners, the Reformed Church of Holland, a Protestant denomination that arose during the 1600s, is a significant factor. Reformed Church beliefs, however, have been mixed with Calvinism to make up the Afrikaner's unique brand of Protestantism. Apartheid was justified in part by virtue of the fact that John Calvin (1509-64) himself supported separation of the races, as well as a strong role for the church in government.

English, Coloreds, and black South African Christians typically belong to either the Anglican or the Catholic churches. The prominent role of Bishop Tutu, an Anglican minister, illustrates the more interracial character of these churches in contrast to the Afrikaner version of the Reformed Church. The 1980s and 1990s saw the rise of charismatic movements, which place an emphasis on healing and other powers of the Holy Spirit, primarily among black South Africans. Finally, there is a significant community of Jewish South Africans, many of whom have immigrated to the United States.

Although large numbers of Xhosa, Zulu, and members of other black ethnic groups have accepted Christianity, traditional beliefs have not died out, and in many cases are mingled with Christian practices. Adherents to the Xhosa traditional religion worship a supreme being called uThixo or uQamata, and the Zulus a deity named uNkulunkulu ("The Very Big One.") In both cases, the supreme being has little role in the personal lives of believers, but rather acts primarily as creator. The Sothos' worship of Modimo is mingled with ancestor worship, and indeed ancestors play a significant part in most traditional black African faiths.

Employment and Economic Traditions

A number of South African entrepreneurs have established successful businesses throughout the United States. Atlanta is a case in point. Goldberg's Deli on Roswell Road is practically across the street from Avril's Exclusives, a car detailing shop. Both are owned and operated by Jewish immigrants from South Africa, as are numerous other businesses within a small radius in the prosperous northern sector of the city.

Atlanta is also the home of Firearms Training Systems, Inc, or FATS, a facility for training law enforcement, military, and security personnel in the use of firearms through simulations of real-world situations. Its founder was South African race-car driver Jody Scheckter, who in 1979 won the Formula One championship for Ferrari. "There was a lot more tinkering than profiting in the early days," Scheckter told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Geoff Lonsdale, Scheckter's head of European operations, gave Corporate Location quite a different appraisal of Scheckter's entrepreneurial abilities: "He runs this company like he drives carsflat out." Perhaps because of his Afrikaner origins, it was natural for Scheckter to develop contacts in the Netherlands, whose Ministry of Defence is a significant FATS client. By 1996, when Scheckter sold FATS to a New York-based investment firm, its annual revenues had reached $65 million.

Seattle entrepreneur Paul Suzman is another South African success story. One of the first things that impressed him when he initially visited the United States in 1971, Suzman told Nation's Business, was the fact that commerce in America operated 24 hours a day. "That was something that stuck in my mind," he said, "this incredible 24-hour energy." A mushroom farmer in South Africa, he established a farm in the Pacific Northwest, and went on to open a highly successful bakery that a Nation's Business headline characterized as "Paul Suzman's $2 Million Hobby."

Politics and Government

In his 1989 memoir Kaffir Boy in America, Mark Mathabane recalled staying at "the I-House," a dormitory for international students in New York City. There he experienced tension with fellow black South Africans and others of African origin, he wrote, when he "made it known that I would not isolate myself from other students out of some false sense of black pride or solidarity." He also met two white South Africans active in the United Democratic Front (UDF), an anti-apartheid group supported by Mandela, Tutu, and others. From them, Mathabane learned "about the shock of finding themselves reviled by Americans as racist simply because they were white South Africans . . . . But what was even more shocking to [them] was being shunned by most black South Africans at I-House." He listened to them expressing their frustrations, then told them, "I consider you brothers, too. But remember that to people in whom apartheid has bred paranoia, your very connection with the UDF is reason to be wary of you since all the opposition groups in South Africa, particularly the UDF, are full of government informants."

Sheila Roberts also encountered the hostility that often greets white South Africans in America, a fact illustrated by an incident that occurred when she was buying tickets to a movie with her son in Lansing, Michigan, in 1986. The theatre clerk noticed her accent and asked where she was from, and "As soon as I said, `South Africa,' my son walked away, ashamed as always at any reference to our country. The young woman looked at me with cold curiosity. As she handed me the tickets, she announced that `we' should nuke `that place.' Then she used a catch-phrase from the Vietnam War, though she was too young to know where it came from. She said we should turn it into a parking lot."

Both Mathabane and Roberts were perplexed by the ignorance of Americans with regard to the situation in South Africa. In Roberts's case, this revolved around her treatment as a representative of all white South Africans, or of the white opposition to apartheid. Mathabane, on the other hand, was frustrated by situations such as a discussion he had in the 1970s with an American who asked him, "What exactly is apartheid?" "I could hardly believe my ears," Mathabane wrote. "Phillip, an American, a college student, the product of what I thought was the best educational system in the world, did not know what apartheid was. What on earth was being taught in American schools?"

During the 1980s, of course, Americans suddenly became aware of the situation in South Africa, but most responses tended to be based in emotion rather than intellect, with Roberts's theatre clerk being an extreme example. And though former South Africans opposed to apartheid naturally applauded their neighbors' growing awareness, it did little to address the complex social problems in Americaor South African immigrants' equally complex feelings about their home country. Roberts experienced a situation typical of many immigrants, with her children readily becoming assimilated while her own heart remained tied to the motherland. "The idea of returning" to South Africa, she wrote, "stayed with me as a consoling, if impossible, escape through the hard years of my children's teens."

Individual and Group Contributions


Athol Fugard is a playwright who has written such plays as Boesman and Lena, Master Harold and the Boys, Sizwe Bansi is Dead, Statements, and Valley Song ; John Kai has been seen acting in such films as Ghost and the Darkness, Soweto Green, Sarafina, An African Dream, Master Harold and The Boys, and The Grass Is Singing. ; Actor Winston Ntshona has been seen in such movies as Tarzan and the Lost City, The Air up There, Perfume of the Cyclone, and A Dry White Season ; Actor Zakes Mokae has portrayed many different characters in movies such as Krippendorf's Tribe, Vampire in Brooklyn, Dust Devil, Percy and Thunder, A Rage in Harlem, A Dry White Season, The Serpent and the Rainbow, and Master Harold and the Boys.


Perhaps the most famous South African American literary figure was not a writer at all: rather, he inspired works such as A Rush of Dreamers by John Cech, a novel published in 1997. The figure in question was Joshua Norton, a Jewish South African who settled in San Francisco, where he proclaimed himself Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. An amused and indulgent city honored him as royalty throughout his life.

A more traditional South African American literary figure is Sheila Gordon (1927 ), author of fiction and nonfiction, both for adults and juvenile readers. Most South African American writers, however, have tended to write nonfiction: thus Meyer Fortes (1906-83) wrote a number of works in the social sciences, as has anthropologist Philip V. Tobias (1925 ), while physicist Gerrit L. Verschuur (1937 ) has concentrated on the natural sciences. Mary Lillian Miles (1908 ) has authored a number of devotional works; and Johan Theron (1924 ), who for many years worked with the United Nations (UN), has served as editor of UN documentation. Nancy Harrison (1923 ), an American citizen though she resides in England, wrote an acclaimed biography of Winnie Mandela (1936 ), the controversial wife of Nelson Mandela who later became estranged from her husband.



A bimonthly magazine containing news of interest to South Africans in America.

Address: P.O. Box 34095, Bethesda, Maryland 20827.

Organizations and Associations

South African Club of Atlanta.

E-mail: [email protected].

South African USA Network.

Telephone: 1-800-SAUSANT.

E-mail: [email protected].

Southern African Development Community.

E-mail: [email protected].


Springbok Club of Northern California.

Address: 1227 Oakshire Court, Walnut Creek, California 94598.

Springbok Club of Southern California.

Address: P.O. Box 3573, Mission Viejo, California 92690.

Springbok Southern Africa ClubPhoenix, Arizona.

Telephone: (602) 926-6859.

E-mail: [email protected].

Sources for Additional Study

Mathabane, Mark. Kaffir Boy in America: An Encounter with Apartheid. New York: Scribner, 1989.

Roberts, Sheila. "An Incomplete Replacing: The White South African Expatriate." In Displacements: Cultural Identities in Question, edited by Angelika Bammer. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994, pp. 172-81.

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South African Americans