Bougainvillea and Barbed Wire

First published in The Truth About The Fact, International Journal of Literary Nonfiction

Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, California, Spring 2008

The South African Airways Airbus engines roared, thrusting me into my seat. Smiling to myself, I glanced at the receding landscape. The next ground I touched would be in the magnificent, enigmatic, paradoxical land of my birth—South Africa.


Excitement and apprehension vied for supremacy in my emotions. The country had changed since my last visit more than twenty years ago. Apartheid no longer ruled. The international and local media made optimistic references to “the New South Africa,” and I wanted to believe that another era had dawned for all South Africans. But the cheap watch on my wrist spoke of my underlying fear that the stories from friends about rampant crime might be true. Soon I would stand once more on African soil, able to observe and experience South Africa, the land of contrasts, for myself.

 
In some respects I would be like the hoards of tourists who descended daily upon the country. But I intended to look past the glitzy advertisements that supposedly represented Africa, to touch the pulse of the new South Africa. I hoped to leave with the assurance that the people I still dearly loved were forging ahead on a path acceptable to all races.

 
The drive from Jan Smuts Airport to my friends’ home rekindled memories. I spotted dots of purple Jacaranda across the countryside. Cars and trucks dodged the ubiquitous, over-flowing African taxis on a well-maintained freeway. The sky was as blue as I remembered it, with cotton-ball clouds, whiter than anywhere else in the world, hovering beneath the blazing sun. The dry air hit my nostrils, filling them with the faint but unmistakable scent of Africa—a mixture of dust and sweat. I sighed contentedly. I was back in my homeland.


My friend slowed the car, and the guard raised the barrier into the subdivision. Turning a corner, I noticed a splash of deep red Bougainvillea draped over the posts of a home’s high back wall. A magnificent example of the beauty I came to enjoy. But on closer inspection I realized the blooms were supported by strands of barbed wire that ran the length of the property. Without realizing it, this unexpected incongruity formed the lens through which I viewed the new South Africa and its inhabitants over the following weeks.

 
The country, known for its natural beauty, had always been a land of contrasts. A high plateau dressed in gray-green grasses ended at the spine of the craggy Drakensberg Mountains, where the land dropped gently to the sea on the east and gathered itself in all its magnificence at the Cape of Good Hope, the tip of Africa. Rocky coastlines protected the never-ending white, sandy beaches from the ceaseless pounding of the Indian and Atlantic oceans.


Perhaps the most widely recognized contrast lies in the diversity of the almost forty-five million people occupying the land. About eighty percent of these are indigenous Africans. The white population, whose ancestors in many cases settled in the area over two hundred years ago, comprises about four million. Indians emigrated from India in the late 1800s and made the country their home, multiplying to over a million. Mixed-race descendents of the early settlers developed their own Malay culture nestled among the mountain peaks of the Western Cape. An increasing Asian population, combined with immigrants who fled the turmoil in Eastern Europe, made up the balance.

I grew up surrounded by Indian saris and curries, inimitable African music and laughter, cricket games and cups of tea, with the lilting cadences of Zulu, English, and Afrikaans filling the air. I also lived through the dark days of apartheid and struggled with the sense of powerlessness to stand against the edicts of an immoral regime.

Although racial divisions no longer rule, I discovered another form of apartheid exists: economic. The contrasts are stark and pervasive. It’s easy, when driving through the suburbs of Johannesburg or along the coast around Durban, to form the impression of a thriving economy. Sand and concrete mark the construction of another luxury subdivision. New, expensive blocks of condominiums or apartments beckon holidaymakers to the beachfronts. Plans are underway to widen the mouth of Durban harbor by 80 meters, an enormous and expensive undertaking. There is a feeling of life, activity—until you drive through certain sections of the cities, or past open areas beside freeways. Then the widening gulf between the small percentage of “haves” and the growing number of “have nots” becomes apparent.

In my childhood days, many of the African population lived a traditional, simple lifestyle in mud and thatch huts dotted around the countryside, ruled by tribal customs. The men left to work in the mines or cities, returning periodically to their homes. While the former administration used this system to justify the establishment of homelands and separation of the races, it had existed for centuries prior to the implementation of the Group Areas Act in the 1950s.

With the 1994 change in government, these country-dwellers were free to move anywhere. Promises of housing, electricity, water, jobs lured them to the cities, resulting in an influx that any urban government would find challenging. Lack of skills compounded the problem. Even low-level positions were non-existent, and squatter settlements sprang up overnight. Any piece of vacant land became home to families who constructed crude, flat-topped shelters from corrugated iron, cardboard, and plastic sheeting, ignoring the lack of running water or sewage facilities.

The government has made a concerted effort to build low-income housing over the past decade, but the need is overwhelming. Some 360,000 people in the Johannesburg area alone have registered and are awaiting transfer from “informal housing” to government-subsidized housing. Others prefer to remain in the deplorable squatter encampments—and pay no rent.

The new government introduced Black Economic Empowerment, or what is really affirmative action, in an effort to improve the lot of the black majority of the population. Seventy-five percent of all jobs are reserved for black Africans, with twenty-five percent going to the remaining three major ethnic groups. White, Indian, and Colored youth graduating from high school or university scramble to secure the few positions available to them. Consequently, the prospect of jobs in other countries, especially professional opportunities, exerts a significant pull on the country’s young talent.

SAReunited is a Web site designed to offer locals and expatriates a means of connecting with each other, similar to Classmates.com in the U.S. Prior to leaving for my trip, I surveyed the list from my all-girls high school in Durban. Of those who chose to register, fifty-one percent of graduates between 1994 and 2003 had left for the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United States, Israel, and other countries in Europe and Asia. But even prior to the employment challenges of recent years, disgust with the apartheid policies of the government and fear of the future generated white flight. The effects of this sustained brain drain are now becoming apparent as the infrastructure in the country slowly sinks.

The prior regime invested heavily in a superb road system, designed to provide access to any area of instability across the country. For now, the current government reaps the benefit of this transportation network. But roads, bridges, water systems and other services essential to a healthy society are showing signs of lack of attention. Sewage has repeatedly spilled into the Vaal River due to a problem with the pumps at a sewerage works. I heard a broadcast alert warning people of contamination in the Crocodile River. Kuberg, the electricity giant, failed to plan ahead for upgrades in capacity and service. As a result, the supply has been stretched thin, to the point where television announcements instruct homeowners to switch off hot water geysers and other appliances until further notified. Cell phones are ubiquitous and are the major means of communication, mainly because of an inability to install and maintain land lines. Thieves climb telephone poles to remove copper wire for personal use.

Lush vegetation and foliage are synonymous with South Africa. The tall Australian blue gum trees lining the sides of dusty roads, or surrounding farm houses nestled against a kopje, a little hill, always delighted me. With the departure of trained experts, a shoot-from-the-hip mentality has encroached on the landscape.

Demands on the rivers and reservoirs increase daily. The Department of Conservation reviewed the country’s trees and shrubs and mandated the removal of many of those known to draw more water. Not only did this cover the Australian blue gum trees, but also the magnificent Jacarandas that turn Johannesburg and Pretoria into a purple blaze each spring, much like cherry blossoms in Washington, D.C. The people objected vociferously to this desecration of the beauty of the area, which resulted in a modification—existing Jacarandas could stay, but new plants were banned.

Friends who live in the magnificent low-veld area near Barberton came home to find their mulberry trees, once a haven for birds and a source of fruit, destroyed by the local authorities without consultation. I saw no evidence that steps are being taken to replace the trees and shrubbery with more drought-tolerant foliage, and the countryside looked decimated—brown, bare, dusty.

“Africa for the Africans” is the slogan of the day. This attitude prompts the indigenous people to claim private property as their own, and the rule of law is being undermined by the very authorities appointed to uphold it. Tribal chiefs have the power to “negotiate” the transfer of land. Farms that have been viable contributing supports of the agricultural economic base are being arbitrarily “claimed” and turned over to African claimants, with minimal reimbursement to their owners. The people want to own the land, but do not want to work the land, in the larger sense of contributing to the overall good of the economy.

Successful, producing, banana plantations, citrus groves, and grain fields are being carved into small segments and turned over to the indigenous people whose primary interest is providing for their own daily needs. The authorities behind the “land claims” are ignorant, or choose to ignore, the impact on the food supply, both locally and as part of the export trade. Expedience dictates policy.

This mindset has directed African lifestyle for centuries. There is a child-like inability to see beyond the immediate and personal, an attitude that translates to an unwillingness to contribute to the larger concerns of a country’s financial, commercial, and industrial life. Lethargy predominates. The people look to a tribal chief, paternalistic government, or overseas charities to not only supply basic needs, but to function as a safety net in catastrophic times.

Where individual ambition surfaces, it often veers off course into corruption. If a white farmer remains on a portion of the property, the claimants expect to be able to borrow his tractor, share his seed and fertilizer, and even, if they can rig it, tap into his electricity supply. Farm owners are intimidated into compliance. In situations where the farmer leaves the area, a benevolent government is expected to come through with everything necessary to make the land fruitful for the new occupants.

Tourism, always an important factor in South Africa’s economy, has become a mainstay, a key prop among buckling supports. I found everyone connected to the industry courteous and helpful. Each interaction conveyed the message, “We need you.”

Travel brochures portray exotic scenes of lion kills, elephants stalking through long grass, hippo eyes skimming the surface of dams, while attentive Africans cater to the every wish of well-heeled travelers. Guests are whisked from the airport in a secure bus to a game park, increasingly a private park. There they are given a flavor of Africa—food, wine, décor, game-viewing—before being whisked off to the next stop on the itinerary, most often the not-to-be-missed city of Cape Town. They are pampered, protected, and privileged, and leave with the satisfaction of being able to say they have been to Africa, unaware of the mild extortion underlying the international tourist industry.

One of the perks of my 1984 visit was the favorable rate of exchange between the U.S. Dollar and the South African Rand. I loved being able to stay in an elegant beachfront hotel at a price less than an economy hotel in the U.S.
To my dismay, I discovered a new policy exists for hotels, rental cars, and other travel-related accommodations. International visitors no longer get the benefit of the current exchange rate (presently $1 = approximately ZAR 6) because the industry sets the price according to the passport holder’s currency of origin. Americans are charged a dollar amount inflated to compare to hotel rates in the U.S. The British pay in pounds based on U.K. prices. Most international visitors purchase tour packages at a set price and remain blissfully ignorant of the basis of their travel costs.

The Kruger National Park charges international visitors three times the rate of South Africans. Their intention is to make the park affordable for all South Africans. This is understandable, given the economic conditions in the country. However, the tourism industry, vital to the economy, is resting primarily on the uncertain prop of international travelers paying inflated prices.

A person’s mode of transportation has always been a status symbol in South Africa. My eyes widened with delight as I observed the number of African women driving cars—something previously unheard of. The economic conditions of many Africans have soared and they own vehicles. Others, less fortunate, use the private mini-van taxi services that snake across the cities, each driver establishing his own route. These have in effect replaced the public transportation system.

Nothing brought home to me the erratic driving habits and inherent dangers of being on the road more than a line of tow-trucks sitting at a major intersection in Durban. Each time I passed, there they were, waiting expectantly for the accident that would certainly take place.

The powerful quest for a vehicle has generated a huge market for stolen cars. Carjacking is rampant. A sign on the main N4 freeway near Witbank in Gauteng warned: CRIME ALERT – DO NOT STOP. Another sign read: HIJACKING HOT SPOT.

Gangs specialize in searching out and stealing specific car types, models, and colors, based on requests from their “clients.” One woman who was hijacked at a traffic light rode around with her abductors for hours while they ran errands. When they finally reached their destination, and after serious cell phone negotiations, the carjackers threw the keys at her with the comment, “You can leave now. The buyer doesn’t want green.”

I was beginning to understand why homeowners resorted to brick walls rimmed with barbed wire, electrified fences, and guarded entrance gates in an attempt at maintaining security. Signs everywhere alerted potential intruders that armed response units were minutes away. Once inside the gates, wrought iron burglar guards on windows and doors give the feeling of entering a fortress. And even this does not guarantee safety. Drivers throughout the country are warned to keep all doors locked and windows closed. In the U.S., we live with the possibility that something bad may happen to us. In South Africa, the people live with the probability that something bad will happen.

Thieves resort to anything to secure a vehicle. One fellow in Durban made headline news. He broke the lock on a car, hot-wired the engine, and then discovered the steering wheel would not move. Undeterred, he banged at this until the wheel broke off in his hand. In a flash of inspiration, he reached for a wrench and proceeded to drive off, using the wobbly handle to steer. The police arrested him weaving on a hilly, twisting road.

Manufacturers are now using technology to outwit carjackers. A very effective new device, once installed, can be activated via satellite—it cuts off the gas flow to the engine.

The high crime rate has created earning opportunities for entrepreneurial types. Driving into the parking lot of a strip mall, I noticed three men in straw hats standing among the cars. These are “car guards,” whose sole responsibility is to see that nobody steals a vehicle or breaks in while the owner shops. Although the mall or store management may oversee the numbers of guards at a location, their primary income is dependent upon tips from car owners. Since these guards, appointed or self-appointed, are everywhere, at every strip mall, in underground or high-rise parking garages, even in streets outside apartment buildings, it can get expensive for drivers. The occupation is little more than approved begging, but many of them have no alternative means of earning.

Unemployment at the time stood at thirty-seven percent. Government policies designed to improve the lives of the indigenous people have had an unexpected backlash. They raised the minimum wage to a level where many homeowners can no longer afford domestic help, an opportunity that always existed for Africans. One farmer and his three African employees had reached an amicable agreement whereby the farmer paid them a modest salary and provided accommodations on the farm. With the wage mandate, the farmer found he could only keep one helper and fired the other two. These two then joined the ranks of the unemployed.

There are no self-service gas stations in South Africa. Owners are required to hire six to eight attendants, and payment is by gas credit card—no cash. Each pump has an appointed employee, who waves the customer forward, handles the transaction, and then hovers for a tip.

The entrepreneurial spirit extends to hawkers, who swarm cars at stop lights, offering carved animals, or whatever product might be hot at the moment. Such behavior is not unusual in foreign countries. What made me uneasy was the knowledge that carjackers posing as vendors used spark plugs to smash windows.

In addition to the car guards in a strip mall parking lot, I noticed a uniformed, armed guard with an attack dog stationed outside a bank’s entrance. Another guard buzzed patrons into 4 ft. x 4 ft. cubicles where they waited for the interior lock to release.

The bank employees were representative of the New South Africa in terms of ethnicity. All were polite and helpful, and my teller even invited me to return to live since “It’s a different country now.”

The rising crime incidence and general deterioration in the city centers brought about a shift in the shopping habits of affluent South Africans of all races. I recall the pleasure of going with my mother down to Durban’s city center, winding our way along swept streets, through clean, elegant department stores lining West Street, where we paused for afternoon tea at John Orr’s, our favorite. Now shoppers head to mammoth, modern malls in the suburbs, where car guards keep an eye on vehicles outside and armed guards keep an eye on patrons inside. Across the country, these malls offer superb shopping, a variety of restaurants, movie theaters and, most importantly, a feeling of safety, a haven from the uncertainty outside. Take away the languages and accents, and I could have been anywhere in the United States.

The millions who fall on the underside of the economic apartheid line patronize the vendors who throng the city streets. Some have wheeled garment racks loaded with dresses, others set up tables, while most spread their wares on the ground. My most fascinating vendor sat behind a table loaded with small Smirnoff vodka bottles. Peering closely at these, I noticed the “vodka” came in different colors—green, clear, cream, and dark. Some bottles were still empty, stacked to one side. Then I understood. Here sat a traditional healer peddling her muti—the cure-all for whatever ails you.
I chuckled at the large woman squatting on the sidewalk next to her selling assorted souvenirs. How on earth did she get an Orlando Magic T-shirt?

African women have always been the workers in the family, planting, hoeing, cooking, milking cows or goats, sweeping, building fires, crushing grain, bearing and caring for children, and in their spare time, creating beautiful beadwork. Whereas previously these women did all this out in the farmlands, they now compete in the city for a few paltry sales against other women who offer almost identical wares. And at the end of the day, they must pack up and go home to conditions worse than those they left when living in the country.

The indigenous population exploded in the late 1980s and 1990s at the prompting of the African National Congress who urged procreation. “Have babies. We will win by the numbers” was their rallying cry. So babies arrived and poverty soared. So did the spread of AIDS.

Princess, an attractive young black woman who worked for my cousin, responded to the question about her weekend activities with the words, “Oh, I went to a funeral.”
“Another one? You went to one last weekend.”
“Yes, but this person was old. She was forty-two.”
“Forty-two isn’t old,” my cousin said, aghast.
“To us, forty-two is old. Our people are dying between ages seventeen and thirty.”

South Africa’s health minister at the time encouraged traditional healing methods, recommending raw garlic, beets, and olive oil as an antidote to HIV/AIDS and fueling distrust of modern drugs. Pressure from the World Health Organization increased the availability of anti-retrovirals, but the daily death toll is so high the newspapers no longer report the figures. Coffin-making is a booming business, with over 600 deaths a day from AIDS and related illnesses. Enterprising grave robbers are recycling caskets.

Witchcraft and the power of the sangoma pervade African life. A white businessman in Durban took his African employee to see a white doctor. The African was convinced he would die in two days, as predicted by the Tokolosh, a troublesome spirit allied with witches and warlocks. Dr. Dave examined him thoroughly, took blood tests, did X-rays, could find nothing wrong, and sent him home with the suggestion that he consult a traditional healer in order to allay his fears. Despite all this, the man died two days later. The unshakable power of suggestion, used so effectively in Africa, had lodged in his impressionable mind.

How do you communicate when your country’s constitution is written in eleven official languages? English has become the primary common language. However, the news and weather are presented in English, Afrikaans, Xhosa, and Zulu at varying times of the day and both are focused primarily on the continent of Africa.

Television soap operas offer the most creative combining of the languages. The characters switch languages like switching hats, one speaks in Xhosa, the response comes in English, someone adds an Afrikaans comment, and the dialogue ends in Zulu. If the soap is primarily English, subtitles cover the other languages, and so it goes. While this is a unique way of encouraging communication in different languages, what is emerging is a conglomerate language, one known only to the locals.

The talk show host on the radio commented on someone’s birthday celebration.
“Did you get there in time to eat some of your cook,” she said in English. A non-South African might rear up in alarm at this hint of cannibalism, but I immediately knew what she meant. She had used the Afrikaans word koek, meaning cake.

While it is now easy to communicate basic needs with all the peoples of South Africa, situations get sticky when the issue calls for a deeper level of comprehension. I wonder how effective the dialogue around a conference table on a weighty matter might be.

“What do you see for the future of South Africa?” I asked several people. The response was almost uniform. Each spoke of uncertainty and a wait and see attitude. The present government places tremendous importance on education. However, the present generation of youngsters will not become contributing members of society for many years.

The hope of South Africans lies in children who will grow up educated, able to take advantage of opportunities, willing to assume leadership positions, and desiring to work for the benefit of their land and their people. Their uncertainty lies in what will happen in the country between now and then.

In 2005, the government expanded the Black Economic Empowerment program by mandating that nearly all South African companies put more than 15 percent of ownership into black hands within five years and more than 25 percent within 10 years. These guidelines apply to every company that does business with the government or needs licensing, as well as to those companies’ suppliers and subcontractors.

Regrettably, such economic progress is being undermined by the stark reality of the spread of HIV/AIDS. Forty percent of the staff of Sasol, the leading oil and gasoline provider, is infected, as well as 20 percent of the Post Office staff. Who will fill the gap left by trained leaders when they succumb to the disease?

South Africa has not escaped the corruption endemic in Africa. Then Deputy President Jacob Zuma was released from his position and indicted on fraud charges. His financial advisor presently serves fifteen years in prison. Zuma commissioned almost a dozen advocates whose court fees run to ZAR 12,000 (about $1,800) per hour. Funds which could be used to benefit the people by supplying clean water and housing, boosting educational programs, fighting the AIDS epidemic, are being wasted as politicians and lawyers fight among themselves.

The day of Zuma’s appearance in court in Durban, thousands of red-shirted supporters and protestors flooded the city. Large tour buses lined up, cars jammed the parking lot, and police closed the surrounding streets.

“If the man has been involved in criminal activities, why are so many people supporting him?” I asked my cousin.
“It’s tribal,” was his response. “Zuma is a Zulu; Thabo Mbeki is a Xhosa. His guilt or innocence makes little difference.”

Such is Africa. Jacob Zuma is now South Africa’s President.

Sadness lingered with me as my return flight lifted into the air at Cape Town International Airport. I reviewed South African history and reflected on my years there during the apartheid era. Anger mingled with deep melancholy. It need not have gone the way it did. The natural resources, boundless opportunities, mineral wealth, and aspirations of the people could have produced a country where all benefited and lived peaceably together. Instead, generations have suffered, and will continue to suffer, as a result of the course chosen by powerful leaders with a distorted view of their mission and worth.

In the meantime, life goes on. South Africans work daily at trying to achieve balance in their personal lives, seeking to offset lurking terror with abundant pleasurable activities, snatching happiness while eyeing the storm clouds. Looking past the barbed wire, through the electrified fences, to the profusion of bougainvillea thriving in a near-idyllic climate.

My mood somber, I concluded the New South Africa is a country poised to soar—or sink.

On Becoming An American
(First published in the 2006 Mid Rivers Review)

I stared out the window of the Boeing 707 at the ragged edge of coastline separating water from land. Apprehension and anticipation swirled together as every minute brought me closer to touchdown in the U.S.A. It was September 19, 1971, and I would soon become one of America’s newest immigrants.

The plane landed at Washington-Dulles, and I gazed wide-eyed at the mobile lounge that came alongside to transport us to the terminal. Louis Botha Airport in my home city of Durban on the coast of South Africa had nothing so exotic. Why should it, with fewer than five flights a day? Passengers had to slosh through rain while gusts of tropical wind off the Indian Ocean swirled around the aircraft stairs.

Instead, I heard a whirr as hydraulic lifts turned the elevated lounge into a bus. The worn, dirty string around my enormous package of X-rays and legal documents, the golden key that would grant me entry into the U.S.A., gave evidence of having been clutched for 10,000 miles.

A uniformed Immigration Officer took my package of papers and disappeared. I waited anxiously, stifling the strangling fear there would be some last-minute glitch and I would be denied access into the country.

My mind drifted over the sequence of events that brought me to this point. Earlier in the year, my parents announced they planned to retire in the U.S.A., and my only sibling decided to return to her college town in Tennessee. After a break of three years in Canada, I had adjusted to life back in South Africa, enjoying the good and ignoring the bad. I loved my periodic visits to exciting America, but was always glad to return “home.”

As a result of my family’s decisions, I now faced two unappealing options: the upheaval of another change of country and culture, or being separated by a vast ocean from the people closest to me. I chose the former, threw myself into preparations for the big move, and ignored my dragging emotional feet.

As I waited in the Immigration office, questions tumbled around in my mind like clothes in a dryer. How would I adjust to this new country? Would I be accepted socially? Would I have difficulty finding work? I was starting from scratch. All I owned fit into two suitcases. Two boxes of beloved books followed by ship. My thoughts were interrupted by instructions to proceed to another room for a picture. A few minutes later the officer returned, smiling and holding out his hand.
“Welcome to the United States,” he said.

He then turned over my “green card,” granting me the right to live and work in the U.S. My new life had begun.

Those first few years were a mix of misery and wonder. It takes enthusiasm, energy, and determination to build a new life in a strange country, and I lacked all three components. My move was a result of my parents’ decision rather than my own internal motivation, and my emotional feet still dragged.

I had to embark on one of my least favorite activities—job hunting. My first temp assignment confirmed my opinion of the awfulness of my circumstances. The Southern dialect was beyond comprehension and my own distinctly different accent didn’t help communication efforts. One day I dutifully wrote out a phone message from a Mr. Baile of XYZ Company. The recipient stared at the message. After much discussion, we laughingly determined the name was “Bell”—with a Southern pronunciation.

Socially I felt a misfit. My clothes were different, my expressions unique, my manner reserved. Atlanta had not yet evolved into a cosmopolitan city, and I stuck out like an onion in a petunia patch. My privileged “green card” kept me anchored from moving to Canada where the culture was closer to my own.

On the other hand, I found many aspects of life in the U.S.A. appealing. The supermarkets were a far cry from the corner grocery store in Durban, with one type of milk and only brown or white bread. My love of food soared to extraordinary heights as I surveyed my options.

I joined the ranks of true Americans when I got my first credit card. It was just a gas card, but it gave me a minuscule sense of belonging. Consumerism was the one aspect of American life I adapted to easily.

Our schools followed the British system, providing a thorough but brief education by American standards. Nevertheless, my work ethic and personal abilities soon opened doors professionally. My two suitcases expanded into overstuffed closets in my own condominium. A lifelong dream of owning a sports car became a reality, and I added a blur of brilliant red to Atlanta’s freeways. My airline travel benefits meant I could indulge my passion for overseas vacations. At first, I felt as though I belonged somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic, no longer a South African and not yet an American. Then a subtle shift took place. I found myself adapting to the American lifestyle and had no desire to relinquish it.

In 1977, I stood before a judge in an Atlanta court house. Along with immigrants from 43 countries, I raised my hand and solemnly swore allegiance to the United States. While I did not take this step lightly, convenience motivated me. A South African by birth, I traveled on a British passport, and lived as a resident alien in the United States. Becoming a citizen would eliminate confusion.

The years flew by. I realized with amazement I was approaching the thirtieth anniversary of my immigration. Sadly, a part of me remained remote, detached from the throb of American life. The Fourth of July represented just another day off work—nothing more. Those thirty years encompassed confusing episodes and events: the wind-up of the Vietnam War, Watergate, the Pentagon Papers.

Then came the events of September 11, 2001. Riveted to the television, I felt unfamiliar emotions course through me, stirrings of patriotism. Outrage at this assault on America. Sorrow over the innocent lives lost or irrevocably changed. Pride for the selfless commitment of the rescuers. The magnanimous outpouring of support from millions of Americans and friends around the world surprised me. I rummaged in a drawer for the small U.S. flag I received when I became a citizen and proudly hung this on my mailbox, the first on my block to do so.

On September 30, the renowned Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus gave a benefit concert for the American Red Cross. Symphony Hall overflowed, with many people standing in the aisles. At the signal from the conductor, the first notes of the rousing “Star Spangled Banner” filled the auditorium. Hundreds of voices joined the chorus while a mass of small flags created a swirl of red, white, and blue. To my amazement, I discovered tears rolling down my cheeks, my emotions responding to the patriotic surge around me. I felt honored to be a participant in this display of support for my President, my country, my people.

Another year flew by and the anniversary of September 11th arrived. I again turned on my television to watch the memorial events. As I stood quietly during the moments of silence and commemoration, my mind flashed back to that dreadful day. I felt deep sympathy for those who had lost loved ones, and admiration for the many who had valiantly fought physical battles as they coped with burns and other injuries. I empathized with the individuals and family members who struggled daily with unseen emotional trauma.

A voice intoned the roll call of people who had perished at Ground Zero, like the solemn tolling of a bell. At first I was merely fascinated by the sound and variety of names: Aamoth, Adams, Alvarez, Ang, Bailey, Bhukhan, Boisseau, Belilovsky . . . Suddenly, I realized that every name represented a diversity of ethnic, national, and cultural backgrounds. Each surname carried with it the dreams of immigrants from every corner of the world, individuals and families, spread over centuries and generations. Dreams of a life of freedom from government or religious oppression. Dreams of achieving individual goals. Dreams of living in security and safety, free from rampant crime and corruption. This is what America represents. This is what unites her people.

Being an American does not lie in consumerism, or opportunity, or even the privilege of citizenship. It lies in understanding and honoring the ideal of individual worth regardless of nationality, gender, or ethnicity. It is enjoying the freedom to participate in government of the people, for the people, by the people. It is recognizing the millions of individual threads that are woven together to make the tapestry that symbolizes America. It is accepting the dark threads of weaknesses, failures, and shameful traits along with the glittering threads of strength, the will to triumph over adversity, and national and individual resolve.

Now I understand. Now I am an American.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


A uniformed Immigration Officer took my package of papers and disappeared. I waited anxiously, stifling the strangling fear there would be some last-minute glitch and I would be denied access into the country.


My mind drifted over the sequence of events that brought me to this point. Earlier in the year, my parents announced they planned to retire in the U.S.A., and my only sibling decided to return to her college town in Tennessee. After a break of three years in Canada, I had adjusted to life back in South Africa, enjoying the good and ignoring the bad. I loved my periodic visits to exciting America, but was always glad to return “home.”


As a result of my family’s decisions, I now faced two unappealing options: the upheaval of another change of country and culture, or being separated by a vast ocean from the people closest to me. I chose the former, threw myself into preparations for the big move, and ignored my dragging emotional feet.


As I waited in the Immigration office, questions tumbled around in my mind like clothes in a dryer. How would I adjust to this new country? Would I be accepted socially? Would I have difficulty finding work? I was starting from scratch. All I owned fit into two suitcases. Two boxes of beloved books followed by ship.
My thoughts were interrupted by instructions to proceed to another room for a picture. A few minutes later the officer returned, smiling and holding out his hand.


“Welcome to the United States,” he said.


He then turned over my “green card,” granting me the right to live and work in the U.S. My new life had begun.


Those first few years were a mix of misery and wonder. It takes enthusiasm, energy, and determination to build a new life in a strange country, and I lacked all three components. My move was a result of my parents’ decision rather than my own internal motivation, and my emotional feet still dragged.


I had to embark on one of my least favorite activities—job hunting. My first temp assignment confirmed my opinion of the awfulness of my circumstances. The Southern dialect was beyond comprehension and my own distinctly different accent didn’t help communication efforts. One day I dutifully wrote out a phone message from a Mr. Baile of XYZ Company. The recipient stared at the message. After much discussion, we laughingly determined the name was “Bell”—with a Southern pronunciation.


Socially I felt a misfit. My clothes were different, my expressions unique, my manner reserved. Atlanta had not yet evolved into a cosmopolitan city, and I stuck out like an onion in a petunia patch. My privileged “green card” kept me anchored from moving to Canada where the culture was closer to my own.


On the other hand, I found many aspects of life in the U.S.A. appealing. The supermarkets were a far cry from the corner grocery store in Durban, with one type of milk and only brown or white bread. My love of food soared to extraordinary heights as I surveyed my options.


I joined the ranks of true Americans when I got my first credit card. It was just a gas card, but it gave me a minuscule sense of belonging. Consumerism was the one aspect of American life I adapted to easily.


Our schools followed the British system, providing a thorough but brief education by American standards. Nevertheless, my work ethic and personal abilities soon opened doors professionally. My two suitcases expanded into overstuffed closets in my own condominium. A lifelong dream of owning a sports car became a reality, and I added a blur of brilliant red to Atlanta’s freeways. My airline travel benefits meant I could indulge my passion for overseas vacations. At first, I felt as though I belonged somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic, no longer a South African and not yet an American. Then a subtle shift took place. I found myself adapting to the American lifestyle and had no desire to relinquish it.


In 1977, I stood before a judge in an Atlanta court house. Along with immigrants from 43 countries, I raised my hand and solemnly swore allegiance to the United States. While I did not take this step lightly, convenience motivated me. A South African by birth, I traveled on a British passport, and lived as a resident alien in the United States. Becoming a citizen would eliminate confusion.


The years flew by. I realized with amazement I was approaching the thirtieth anniversary of my immigration. Sadly, a part of me remained remote, detached from the throb of American life. The Fourth of July represented just another day off work—nothing more. Those thirty years encompassed confusing episodes and events: the wind-up of the Vietnam War, Watergate, the Pentagon Papers.


Then came the events of September 11, 2001. Riveted to the television, I felt unfamiliar emotions course through me, stirrings of patriotism. Outrage at this assault on America. Sorrow over the innocent lives lost or irrevocably changed. Pride for the selfless commitment of the rescuers. The magnanimous outpouring of support from millions of Americans and friends around the world surprised me. I rummaged in a drawer for the small U.S. flag I received when I became a citizen and proudly hung this on my mailbox, the first on my block to do so.


On September 30, the renowned Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus gave a benefit concert for the American Red Cross. Symphony Hall overflowed, with many people standing in the aisles. At the signal from the conductor, the first notes of the rousing “Star Spangled Banner” filled the auditorium. Hundreds of voices joined the chorus while a mass of small flags created a swirl of red, white, and blue. To my amazement, I discovered tears rolling down my cheeks, my emotions responding to the patriotic surge around me. I felt honored to be a participant in this display of support for my President, my country, my people.


Another year flew by and the anniversary of September 11th arrived. I again turned on my television to watch the memorial events. As I stood quietly during the moments of silence and commemoration, my mind flashed back to that dreadful day. I felt deep sympathy for those who had lost loved ones, and admiration for the many who had valiantly fought physical battles as they coped with burns and other injuries. I empathized with the individuals and family members who struggled daily with unseen emotional trauma.


A voice intoned the roll call of people who had perished at Ground Zero, like the solemn tolling of a bell. At first I was merely fascinated by the sound and variety of names: Aamoth, Adams, Alvarez, Ang, Bailey, Bhukhan, Boisseau, Belilovsky . . . Suddenly, I realized that every name represented a diversity of ethnic, national, and cultural backgrounds. Each surname carried with it the dreams of immigrants from every corner of the world, individuals and families, spread over centuries and generations. Dreams of a life of freedom from government or religious oppression. Dreams of achieving individual goals. Dreams of living in security and safety, free from rampant crime and corruption. This is what America represents. This is what unites her people.


Being an American does not lie in consumerism, or opportunity, or even the privilege of citizenship. It lies in understanding and honoring the ideal of individual worth regardless of nationality, gender, or ethnicity. It is enjoying the freedom to participate in government of the people, for the people, by the people. It is recognizing the millions of individual threads that are woven together to make the tapestry that symbolizes America. It is accepting the dark threads of weaknesses, failures, and shameful traits along with the glittering threads of strength, the will to triumph over adversity, and national and individual resolve.


Now I understand. Now I am truly an American.

On Becoming An American
(First published in the 2006 Mid Rivers Review)

I stared out the window of the Boeing 707 at the ragged edge of coastline separating water from land. Apprehension and anticipation swirled together as every minute brought me closer to touchdown in the U.S.A. It was September 19, 1971, and I would soon become one of America’s newest immigrants.


The plane landed at Washington-Dulles, and I gazed wide-eyed at the mobile lounge that came alongside to transport us to the terminal. Louis Botha Airport in my home city of Durban on the coast of South Africa had nothing so exotic. Why should it, with fewer than five flights a day? Passengers had to slosh through rain while gusts of tropical wind off the Indian Ocean swirled around the aircraft stairs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Instead, I heard a whirr as hydraulic lifts turned the elevated lounge into a bus. The worn, dirty string around my enormous package of X-rays and legal documents, the golden key that would grant me entry into the U.S.A., gave evidence of having been clutched for 10,000 miles.