Taking White Privilege Abroad: On “Ex-South Africans” and the White Diaspora

They didn’t nickname Ra’anana, a posh Israeli suburb north of Tel Aviv, “Ra’ananafontein” for nothing. There, and in the neighboring town of Herzliya, thousands of White South African immigrants – all Jewish, overwhelmingly Ashkenazi – settled in a tight bubble. One can live an entire life in Israel with a social circle wholly composed of White South Africans. Curiously, many of these transplants identify as “Ex-South African.”

At first, I considered this to be a peculiar quirk of the diaspora community in Israel. Yet it turns out many other white expatriate communities also use this term. When white migrants claim to be “ex-South African,” their statement is that South Africa is no longer their country – the political implications of which, only two decades since the end of apartheid and in the era where Rhodes is still falling, are retrograde. This is famous in South Africa as the stereotype of the packer for Perth, but exists in a very real way from Auckland to London to Israel.

In the Western countries where they settle, White South African migrants benefit from systems of power that reward them for being white in skin color and Western in culture. Thus, when some lament the attenuation of such privileges in South Africa, they gain greater access to hegemonic white identities in their host states.

This performance in their host states has two consequences worth elaborating: it plays into being “good whites” and it plays into the military politics of their destination states.

Many of the émigrés take great pride in being “the right kind of migrant.” Right-wing white migrant forums and newspapers proclaim their success in things that host societies tie to a very specific sort of Western whiteness: witness celebrations of emigrants’ business success in wealthy suburbs, or proclamations of how “South Africans blend in,” or “South Africans know how the rules work.” The fact that many migrants were wealthy is celebrated as “contributing to the country” and “unusual and unique” – even though, when examining statistics, South Africans are neither unusual nor unique.

I have often heard a certain sort of South African émigré state this opinion: “we made Ra’anana Western and habitable,” or “we were the kind of immigrant San Diego needed.” The implication in regards to South Africa then becomes clearer: you can almost hear them claiming the same of Johannesburg or Pietermaritzburg. Indeed, similar comments abound on some far-right expatriate blogs like this one.

This performance of the “good migrant” feeds into a widespread support of relevant countries’ militarist nationalisms. Many migrants support the nationalist or populist parties of their adopted countries: it was not a few times in internet-based research that I found mentions of UKIP in the UK, or praise for the most reactionary of Tony Abbott’s immigration policies in Australia. Urban blight in Johannesburg was compared to nightmarish and racialized scenarios of “the Muslims taking over in Bristol,” and was followed by nostalgia for “pre-1994” South Africa or the “good old days” of safety and white police control.

It is an open secret that many white diaspora members are nostalgic for apartheid and this position is always informed and colored by the local context. Nowadays, we see this in chain emails castigating the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States. These logics extend to military action itself: the communal publications of Israel’s South African community are filled with praise for “security operations” in the West Bank and adopt a congratulatory tone for Israel’s military that is considered right wing even in Israel.

Of course this white privilege and nationalism can be read as anything but “Ex-South African.” The memories of a militaristic, apartheid-era whiteness narrated as a Western fort on the “dark continent” are never far from the surface. The pride in being the “right sort of migrant” to support “the needs of our nation” draws on the narratives of a South African whiteness that presents itself as normal, hegemonic, and good. The continued existence of “ex-South African” communities themselves demonstrate the continued identification with South Africa as a place of origin. That said, the South Africa these migrants – and the right-wing white strains of South Africa’s diaspora – identify with is the South Africa of apartheid.

Jonathan Paul Katz

Jonathan Paul Katz is an American/South African writer and MSc Migration Studies candidate at Oxford University. He is a regular contributor at the Jewish Daily Forward and until recently at New Voices Magazine.

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