Generation Exodus

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

Operatives for "Project Coast" poisoned water systems in townships, weakening and sometimes wiping out whole communities. Cholera, botulism, and other diseases were spread through the food and water, and projects were undertaken to control the fertility of black women. In addition Mandrax (Quaalude), Ecstasy, and NGT (new generation tear gas) were either purchased or manufactured for the purposes of crowd control and manipulation. The TRC found that South Africa's surgeon general was aware of such crimes but failed to oppose them, and further, approved the budget for such research projects while advising their cover-up. The whole of this program was sponsored by the apartheid South African government and its military with tacit international cooperation and support, the report concludes.

Such extreme depravity is hard to fathom, especially from a Fort Lauderdale barstool. So when the topic of conversation turns to Project Coast, Herman du Plessis sits expressionless.

"That never happened," he says flatly, his blue eyes fixed in a flinty stare. "Not against our own people. There's no way that could ever happen."

A hostel and crew house, Floyd's is often the first stop for South Africans in search of work in Fort Lauderdale's yachting industry
A hostel and crew house, Floyd's is often the first stop for South Africans in search of work in Fort Lauderdale's yachting industry


The well-documented murder programs, which made international headlines, don't register with du Plessis. Indeed the story was barely a blip on the American media radar, and du Plessis suggests Project Coast is propaganda: "You should do some research and get some unbiased information."

Du Plessis, who has worked as an engineer on a yacht for a year and a half, hasn't come across Project Coast on the online African news sites he reads regularly. However, he is familiar with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which published the report.

At this connection he looks embarrassed and relents. "If it did happen, it only happened as assassinations," he allows, "not in a mass way."

Du Plessis is wearing a blue bivouac sweater and jeans, standing in a wide room paneled with varnished wood the color of cognac. The back room of the Quarterdeck Bar on 17th Street is crowded with yachties who have gathered on this chilly Thursday night in January over cheap bottled beers served in plastic tubs.

He is pale-skinned and baby-faced; his hair is cropped close to his head in a military-style haircut. He seems to know everyone but waves them away, takes a sip of draft beer, and continues.

"I think the whole problem with the government of South Africa is the ANC," he says, referring to the majority party of current president Thabo Mbeki. Though the ANC won the 1994 elections with 63 percent of the vote, du Plessis doesn't take that as a mandate from the South African people and resents that it paved the way for changes to the constitution.

"It's sad," he says in blanket reference to the nation's state of affairs. "The government, which happens to be black, wants to solve problems the African way, which doesn't work. There's only one way to run a country, which is the way Americans run it. They are not implementing the government in a westernized way."

He points to Mbeki's much-publicized statement that HIV does not cause AIDS and laughs derisively. "That is not a westernized way of thinking." Moreover, he notes, most of South Africa's AIDS sufferers are black: "It sounds wrong," he says, leaning forward to finish his sentence, "but [Mbeki's] killing off his own people."

Mbeki's "people" are not in attendance tonight. Of the South Africans who come to America to work on yachts or anywhere else, few if any are black; blacks rarely set foot in this nautically themed chain bar. Like the yachts they work on, the crowd tonight is uniformly white. By contrast, in his homeland, du Plessis is a minority.

"There's 7 million whites and 42 million blacks," he says. He contends affirmative action cost many of his friends their jobs, replacing them instead with less-competent black workers.

"They get on the job," he says, referring to blacks, "and in six months they're out on the street again."

Du Plessis says he made the equivalent of $8 a day as a civil engineer in South Africa, a circumstance exacerbated by the nation's relatively high cost of living, skyrocketing utility rates, and affirmative action. "The consumer is screwed," he says.

Still, he goes on to describe the grandeur of the South African landscape, its wealth of natural resources, and why he believes South Africa is the best nation in the world, full of gold, diamonds, platinum, uranium, and oil and dotted with cosmopolitan cities, beautiful beaches, and friendly people. He would go back if he could afford it. If du Plessis won $10 million today, he says, he would go back tomorrow.

"You've gotta remember one thing," du Plessis says urgently. "What we're coming out of, you have no idea."

"South Africans will always tell you everything is OK," Lauren Pannicco says a bit testily, "and that's a lie."

Pannicco and her boyfriend, Gus Fabian, are both South Africans and business owners. She owns Serenity Day Spa on Sunrise Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale, he owns Lightbulbs Unlimited on Oakland Park Boulevard. The two met five years ago at Zan(Z)Bar, the now-defunct South African restaurant on Las Olas Boulevard. They were brought together in part by their liberal politics.

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