Return to the Motherland

From the late 1950s, emigration to independent Africa became a feasible option for African Americans tired of U.S. racial segregation. After Apartheid, South Africa became too.

Hillbrow, Johannesburg (Matthew Stevens, via Flickr CC).

This film, made by the husband and wife team directorial team of Stafford U. Bailey and Judy Thayer-Bailey, follows twelve African-American entrepreneurs who decided to settle in South Africa in the early 1990s. The tone is upbeat and the subjects of the film all have similar-sounding stories.

They include Cora Vaughn, an attorney from Chicago, who started a guesthouse (“bed and breakfast” in South African English) in Houghton, a few blocks away from now-retired President Nelson Mandela’s house. There is also Charles Henderson, who grew up poor in Harlem and was briefly a drug addict. He later graduated from Harvard University and now runs a company that provides “services in leadership, emotional intelligence and customer service” to South Africans. Henderson’s businesses include a counseling service for victims of human rights abuses under the apartheid regime.

James Prevost, a promoter and real estate developer, is the youngest of the group. He first travelled to South Africa in 1995 when then-Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell visited the country with a business delegation of African Americans in tow. Prevost later returned to Johannesburg, opening a nightclub and a booking agency for both local and visiting — mainly African-American — comedians. For Prevost, business has gone up by 2,000% in four years. Now he is buying up dilapidated buildings in Johannesburg’s abandoned downtown: “Here in Africa, everything is possible,” Prevost tells the filmmakers.

Others are Karen Vundla, who with her South African husband owns one of the country’s biggest television production companies, and Eugene Robinson, a former Atlanta-based entrepreneur whose individual investments in South Africa total $30 million — in dairy farming, real estate development, and telecommunications.

The film’s subjects briefly mention the high rate of divorce among their group, but it appears the filmmakers did not want to explore this, rather choosing to engage with positive topics. Some of the documentary subjects marvel at how relatively inexpensive things are in South Africa; Hamilton, for example, paid cash for his suburban house (“I grew up in the projects. If I am going to live in Africa I am not going to live in the projects”).

Cora Vaughn estimates that her $300,000 guesthouse would have cost her at least $3 million back in Chicago. Occasionally, the group strike a discordant note. Darrel West, who owns a brokerage, talks about how he had to “deal” with the fact that employees’ rights are protected, while Jarman Hollard, a key player in the private medical insurance business in South Africa (only 7 million South Africans have some kind of insurance) proclaims: “I’m a capitalist. I am truly here to make … business.”

Not everyone keeps an eye on the bottom line only.

Jose Bright is a soft-spoken, middle-aged former aide to the mayor of Washington D.C. who served as liaison for South African trade missions to the US capital. He eventually moved to South Africa, where he started a non-governmental organization, Teboho’s Trust, working with young people in Soweto (average income R1,000 or about $100 per month) to help them to prepare for college. Jose Bright’s story is the first time the film’s narrative ventures into the townships, giving some glimpses of the racial and class inequalities of the world that these new immigrants walk into. Otherwise, the film spends most of its time in Johannesburg’s wealthier suburbs and its corporate offices where its subjects are at home.

“Blacks without Borders” gives little sense of the historical contexts of African-American immigration to South Africa in relation to the longer history of the settlement of African Americans in Africa, and that group’s relation to modern South African history.

In 1859, two free descendants of African slaves brought to the Americas—Robert Campbell, a chemist from Jamaica, and Martin Delaney, a medical doctor from the United States—traveled to what is now Nigeria to investigate possibilities of settling in Africa. Their trip included signing agreements with Yoruba authorities to settle African Americans there in exchange for contributing skills as tradesmen and entrepreneurs. Both men returned to the Americas, but Campbell would later go back and settle in Lagos with his family in 1862. He established one of the British colony’s first black-owned newspapers. Though freed slaves established the West African country of Liberia in 1822 and settled in Sierra Leone in the mid-19th century, Campbell and Delaney were the first to popularize the idea of returning to Africa among black Americans. Later Marcus Garvey’s “Back to Africa” movement garnered a strong following among urban black Americans during the first half of the twentieth century.

It was only from the late 1950s, however, with the advent of political independence for a large number of sub-Saharan African countries, that emigrating to Africa became an attractive (and feasible) option for large numbers of African Americans tired of American racial segregation. In 1957, when the Gold Coast attained its independence, Kwame Nkrumah—who had a long association with American blacks and studied outside Philadelphia—invited African-Americans to come and live in the newly independent Ghana. Many of these—including Maya Angelou and Shirley Du Bois, who started Ghana’s television service—would play key roles in Ghana’s new government, business classes, and civil society.

However, as early romantic enthusiasm for independence tapered off (Nkrumah, for one, was removed by a military coup in 1966), many of these immigrants returned to the United States, or moved elsewhere in the world.

By the mid-1970s only a few scattered committed individuals—former Black Panthers in Tanzania, Kwame Toure in Guinea, development workers and academics scattered over Southern African frontline states—remained. Despite persistent racism and inequality, blacks in the United States were making some headway in political and economic life. A number of blacks were elected to public office and private entities were under pressure to hire more minorities. For most Americans—in its media at least—the continent was increasingly associated with political and economic crises. African-Americans were not exempt. Not surprisingly, by 1997, black journalist Keith Richburg, who had worked as a foreign correspondent covering civil wars in Somalia and Rwanda in the early 1990s, wrote in his memoir: “Talk to me about Africa and my black roots and my kinship with my African brothers, and I’ll throw it back in your face, and then I’ll rub your nose into the images of the rotting flesh.” Richburg added for good measure that he was happy his ancestors escaped Africa, even if through slavery.

One country, however, sustained in the African-American imagination: South Africa. African-Americans had played some role in that country’s history since the mid-nineteenth century, especially in educating some of its nationalist leadership (among others, ANC leader John Dube, who studied at Oberlin College, Charlotte Maxeke, who started the ANC Women’s League and was educated at Wilberforce College, also in Ohio, and Alfred B. Xuma, educated at Tuskegee, the University of Minnesota, and Northwestern). In South Africa, African-American missionaries started one of the largest black independent churches, the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Later when the ANC was outlawed in South Africa, African-Americans were some of the early and most vocal supporters of the South African struggle (while mainstream US opinion largely sided with the apartheid regime until the 1980s). The mid twentieth-century South African system of apartheid mirrored the US Jim Crow system of racial violence and racial discrimination. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X both singled out apartheid for criticism.

In 1990, when Nelson Mandela, the symbol of the South African freedom struggle, was freed after 27 years in prison, he immediately travelled to the United States. Visiting eight cities in 11 days and addressing the US Congress, as the first African and only the third private citizen to do so, Mandela helped cement Americans’ popular associations with South Africa. This was what Port Elizabeth-born academic Rob Nixon described at the time as South Africa’s “idiom and psychology of redemptive politics”: deliverance from bondage, divine election, promised lands and the destiny of humanity. South Africa’s transition definitely resonated with African-Americans and some began to look to South Africa as an emigration option.

Blacks without Borders feels at times like an infomercial for an immigration firm. It shows, for example, some members of the group taking the director on “tours” of their houses in a way that reminds of the popular US television show, “MTV Cribs.” The filmmakers hint at the tensions between the African-American immigrants and black South Africans, but the film glosses over this. In a brief scene where African-Americans and black South Africans discussed “misunderstandings,” African-Americans are said to be “arrogant.”

There is also evidence of competition for business between the two groups; South Africans and Americans. There is little mention, either, of the toxic xenophobia of South Africans especially towards black immigrants or of what this means for African-Americans in South Africa. In February 2008 such xenophobia resulted in widespread violence: 42 African immigrants and refugees were killed, and thousands were left homeless by black South African demonstrators. In the filmmakers’ defense, Blacks without Borders was completed before the violence broke out, and some may argue that African-Americans are not subject to the same anomie reserved for continental black Africans. But that is enough reason for the film to explore that relationship.

Other flaws include the fact that, to illustrate the back history of apartheid, the filmmakers present footage of Australian Aboriginals or Polynesians to stand in for nineteenth-century black South Africans, while images of Cape Town stand in awkwardly for Johannesburg. This is embarrassing.

I watched this film for the first time soon after Barack Obama had been elected President of the United States; I wondered what that momentous and historical turn of events would mean for the film’s subjects. The filmmakers would do well to update the film with this in mind.

Further Reading

The culture wars are a distraction

When our political parties only have recourse to the realm of identity and culture, it is a smokescreen for their lack of political legitimacy and programmatic content. It is cynically unpolitical, and it’s all bullshit.