Generation Exodus

Even half a world away from the scene of the crime, the legacy of apartheid still haunts South Africa's white expatriates

The red neon of Rio Vista Plaza overpowers the radiant colors of the setting sun. A tiger lurks on a side street, but it's just a mural on an apartment building wall. Here, among the jumbled jungle of power lines and fast-food signs along Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale, the only roar comes from the traffic.

The yeasty-sweet aroma of tomorrow's Dunkin' Donuts hangs like humidity in the air. One by one, worn-out wanderers return, by foot or bicycle, to a cluster of one-story buildings on a quiet, residential street. Once "home" they recline, half-dressed and half-asleep, on a smattering of battered patio chairs in an Eden gone to seed.

Floyd's Hostel and Crew House, like a number of its inhabitants, is on the down-low. Employees refuse to give out the address over the phone. The street number isn't included in its White Pages listing. Even those living a few blocks away seem oblivious to its existence.

Here, information is granted on a need-to-know basis, and those who need to know about Floyd's are typically not local. Other than a hand-painted sign and the $4 T-shirts for sale, Floyd's doesn't advertise. Yet in certain circles, the accommodations are known worldwide.

Word of mouth draws the international backpacking crowd to this ramble of buildings in a residential neighborhood. The one-story complex is built in the midcentury apartment architecture native to older parts of town. Within such inconspicuous confines, a unique nation-state has emerged. Conversation bubbles in English, Malay, or Portuguese. Borders are blurred so that Floyd's, like its denizens, is neither here nor there.

Among and yet apart from Floyd's ragtag crew of backpackers, yacht workers, and global nomads, a distinct clique has formed. Crowded at a picnic table at one end of the building, a group of twenty- and thirtysomethings refills mugs from an economy-size bottle of red wine, their voices rising in the night.

Some speak heavily accented English, others Afrikaans, a language that in recent years has become increasingly prevalent around here. More than 15,000 South Africans reside in South Florida, the largest concentration in the nation; several local South Africans themselves estimate their ranks to be twice that size. Moreover, it's impossible to account for the unseen population of South African "visitors." Not technically residents, they work under the table and stay as long as their tourist visas will allow -- and sometimes longer. A fortunate few secure jobs on the foreign-flagged vessels that come and go from Port Everglades like shoppers through a revolving door.

Other local South Africans have joined the mainstream. The first South African Chamber of Commerce in the United States was established in Fort Lauderdale less than a year ago, and South Africans have had an impact on South Florida's economy, most notably in the development of Aventura.

But here, smoking and drinking at a picnic table, the newest South African arrivals are still struggling to find their niche. At Floyd's they find a makeshift home and temporary family. The newest, most rootless of their countrymen living in America, they are fresh from an exodus that began at the end of apartheid seven years ago. Many insist that affirmative action, coupled with rising crime and a failing economy, has given them no choice but to leave their home. Most at first pledge to return to South Africa, but as the years pass, many break that promise.

South Africans in America often have little more than their passports in common. Their numbers include trendy surfer kids from Cape Town and Durban clad in the Billabong-and-Diesel uniform; urbane, self-professed "yuppies" with high-end cell phones and degrees from the nation's top universities; and religious emigrants, too, like the young man who attends Fort Lauderdale's Calvary Chapel and traveled with the congregation on a missionary trip to Russia.

But however diverse their backgrounds might be, nearly all members of this self-imposed diaspora have one thing in common: They're white.

South Africa's white flight has also been a brain drain: Almost half of all university-educated South African emigrants live in the United Kingdom, the United States, or Australia. As a result South Africa faces a severe professional labor shortage. Moreover, recent studies show South Africa's brain drain is worse than its government's numbers indicate. The South African government has launched several programs in an attempt to stem the tide, without much success. Without the carrot of increased salaries, South African emigrants say there is little that could convince them to stay.

"I see no future in that country," says one of those sitting around in the sunset at Floyd's. "A few people cling to a little bit of hope, but I don't think so."

It is this widespread pessimism -- or realism-- that prompts the younger generations to leave friends and family and flock to foreign hostels and crew houses like this one, where accommodations are cheap ($15 to $17 a night) and work, legit or otherwise, is not hard to find. Along with the United States, the countries of Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and Canada are the top emigration destinations. Though emigration was thought to have peaked in the years immediately following the election of Nelson Mandela in 1994, it has continued to creep upward since.

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