Generation Exodus

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

Fort Lauderdale's Kalahari Bar is named for the 190,000-square-mile dry basin that spreads across parts of Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa. Billed as the "only authentic South African bar in the U.S.," the small watering hole is an inconspicuous oasis for South Africans far from home, improbably tucked into a cluster of shops on a side street near the intersection of Federal Highway and NE 45th Street. Next door is Meal in a Pie, a South African-owned shop that sells traditional meat and vegetable pastries along with prepackaged South African specialties such as canned curry and Ouma Rusks (thick, dry biscuits often eaten for breakfast).

Outside the Kalahari, a huge black satellite dish and a smaller white one sit together on the low-slung roof at the rear of the building, like desert flowers tilting toward the sun. Inside, the Kalahari's walls are painted a deep shade of coral. On one wall hangs a zebra hide. Behind the bar, above stepped rows of liquor bottles and a mirror, three flags are unfurled. On the far left is South Africa's flag. On the far right is Australia's. In the middle is the old South African standard, which flew during the years of apartheid.

South African Gus Fabian came to Fort Lauderdale to run Lightbulbs Unlimited, the Fort Lauderdale outpost of his family's chain of specialty lighting stores
South African Gus Fabian came to Fort Lauderdale to run Lightbulbs Unlimited, the Fort Lauderdale outpost of his family's chain of specialty lighting stores


A smaller, green-and-white flag, which is the banner of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), also hangs. Like the old South African flag, the Rhodesian one represents the era of white colonial power and segregation, and its presence likewise suggests sympathy for that government.

Here an irreverent South African may tell the joke about what his country's current national colors represent. The punch line goes something like this: The yellow stripe that creates a triangle in the left hand side of the flag is an electric fence, keeping the black from the green, which represents the nation's agriculture.

"This is not a very politically correct bar," laughs the bartender, Phillip, a 28-year-old white South African with a shaved head. Phillip's liberal views have often clashed with those of his fellow South African expatriates. Though they maintain a veneer of cooperation, he says politics divides the area's South Africans.

Perhaps that's why, on rugby night, Phillip is not among the standing-room-only crowd of 50 or so mostly male and nearly all white South Africans. They've come together around a big-screen TV to watch the Sharks, a team from one of South Africa's provinces, play the Brumbies, an Australian provincial team.

Through the open back door, a few people can be seen milling about in twos and threes. The back half of a dented green pickup truck, painted with the name of the bar, has been converted into a grill. They are having a barbecue, or in South African parlance, a bri.

Those outside have apparently given up on the game, and for good reason. With just minutes left on the clock, the South African team is behind, 36 to 6. When the match ends, the crowd clears out, and only a stalwart few stick around to drown their sorrows.

"There should be more, shouldn't there?" states Alfred, who wears a black embroidered Sharks cap. Though he is not from the Free State, the Sharks' province, he says he supports the team in America, at least. Alfred says he hails from the northern province of Transvaal, one of two original states formed by the Boers. He's dating himself: When the provinces where renamed at the end of apartheid, Transvaal became Mpumalanga.

In a way Alfred's use of the old name is appropriate. More than beer and bri, the Kalahari Bar serves nostalgia, an image of South Africa not as it is but as its South African patrons would like to remember it. Talk of politics is not especially welcome here. Peter, a 22-year-old South African, shakes his head when asked about his homeland. Staring at the leopard-patterned tabletop, he peels the label from his bottle of Budweiser. "There's all these problems," he says, exasperated. "Just leave it."

Peter and his 30-year-old brother, Jackson, don't want anything to do with South Africa. There is little future for them there, they say. They don't want to suffer for a system of oppression that wasn't their fault or worry what white flight will do to their country's economy. Tonight South Africa's Sharks have lost, and over a row of empty beer bottles, a white South African forfeits his birthplace to blacks.

"They want [South Africa]," Jackson says, "they can have it." Then he breaks into a self-conscious laugh and adds, "We [whites] will build it back up when they're through with it." He laughs again and throws his hands up in a "what the hell" gesture.

In 1995 the new South African Government of National Unity convened a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to address crimes committed by all parties during apartheid. The TRC is much like a war crimes tribunal, except that in this instance the war took place between the South African government and its own people.

Its findings are appalling. In one particularly shocking case, which required two years of investigation and depositions to complete, government officials and contractors testified to a comprehensive program of conspiracy, massacre, and sabotage. University and research scientists were lured with large sums of money and benefits (and in some cases, later threatened and coerced) to develop an arsenal of drugs and poisons later used by the government for biochemical warfare against black communities, activists, and those considered enemies of apartheid.

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