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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

South Africa Draws American Settlers

JOHANNESBURG -- As Georgetown University pre-med student Zambia McLeod was packing to visit her family here for the Christmas holidays, several of her black friends in the United States stuffed her suitcase full of resumes.


"They kept saying, 'We can't believe it. Your parents actually live in South Africa. How fantastic,'" she said. "Some want to move here."


Once the symbol to American blacks of all things evil, South Africa has become something of a mecca for them now that it has transformed itself from a white-run, racist state to a black-led democracy.


"A lot of African Americans seem to have the idea that they can come here now and find that 40 acres and a mule they never did get at home," said McLeod's father, Mackie McLeod, who directs the Lotus Trust, the American computer company's social-responsibility program in South Africa.


The McLeods are in the vanguard of a community of African Americans who have settled here in the wake of the political transition that culminated in April with Nelson Mandela's election as president.


They are corporate executives, development officials, educators, entrepreneurs, consultants. They number in the low hundreds, according to McLeod's best estimate.


Some have come to do good in Mandela's South Africa, some to do well, some to fill a personal void, some to try to win battles here that they have given up for lost in the United States.


Almost all have found the journey to be bracing. But some also have found it disorienting, as they discover how similar histories of oppression mask differences of outlook among the blacks of the two countries.


"When a black American comes to South Africa, there's this realization that here is this marvelously sophisticated country, with its impressive infrastructure, that is coming under black control," said Francis Kornegay Jr., director of the African-American Institute's South Africa program. "That's powerful coming from a society where blacks -- no matter how successful -- feel that control is tenuous, if it exists at all."


"The idea of flying in the business-class section of an airplane back to the continent where your ancestors had been dragged away in the hull of a ship -- that's pretty amazing stuff," McLeod said. But as he and others acknowledge, this is also an odyssey easy to over-romanticize -- and fraught with the potential for disappointment.


"It's the old clich? -- the African American comes to Africa and realizes just how American he is," said Kornegay, an African scholar who has visited South Africa on and off for two decades.


"Many of the American blacks who come are going to be in for a rude awakening," said Ron Carter, dean of students at the University of Witwatersrand. Until 1989, he was a dean at Boston University. "If you think you can come here, enjoy the comfort of living in Sandton (an exclusive, overwhelmingly white suburb) and just see the townships through bulletproof car windows, you're going to create resentment."


There is a rather complex relationship between South African and American blacks -- one that encompasses everything from solidarity, kinship and admiration to envy, disappointment and misunderstanding. Black South Africans have always been fascinated by America. African-American superstars of movies, television, sports and music are the dominant cultural icons of the townships. It can lead to some discomfort.


"People here look at me and think I must live like Bill Cosby and his family," said Barbara Lomax, a native Virginian who directs a union training program for the AFL-CIO and has been here two years.