Generation Exodus

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

Pannicco stresses that most South Africans don't share their views. Most, she says, are racist: "Ninety-nine-point-nine percent."

Because of such a difference in politics and cultures, South Florida's white South African community is hardly close-knit, and Pannicco says the bris once held by a local South African organization were called off for this reason. "We don't have anything in common."

The sponsoring organization was South Africans in Florida -- SAIF. Both laugh at the acronym's double-entendre. It is called that, Fabian says with a chuckle, "because we're here, safe."

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

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Such functions aren't so much social events as networking opportunities, anyway. "There aren't friends," she says of the local South African scene. "There are contacts."

Fabian navigates the couple's silver Mercedes SUV into the driveway of their Sailboat Bend home, and the moment Pannicco gets out, she is grabbed by a young Haitian boy named Kevintz, who hugs her legs in glee. He has been waiting for them to return, hanging out with the other neighborhood kids in their house. The couple made a point of living in this economically and racially mixed neighborhood. People say Sailboat Bend is "cleaning up," Pannicco notes with a grimace. "What they really mean is going from black to white."

Pannicco and Fabian spent their entire high-school careers in segregated schools, but with liberal, politically oriented families, they knew of apartheid's evils.

"We always knew that was going on. My family was involved in the ANC when it was still underground," Pannicco says. "When we were growing up, [apartheid] was an impossible reality."

Miraculously, adds Fabian, "All the things we always wanted have now happened."

Neither came to the United States for political reasons, but Pannicco says staying here is in effect a political decision. "I left because I was 19 and adventurous. Now, as an adult, I would never raise children in South Africa. But then there's the thinking that you should go and help," she says.

"That's how I feel," Fabian agrees. "If [whites] want to live there [in South Africa], they have to sacrifice." Fabian, for one, never wanted to leave South Africa. He left reluctantly to help build his family's business, a South African-owned chain with 11 stores in the southeastern United States.

"I felt I was staying [in the United States] and helping. And that's how my parents feel."

Nonetheless, coming to Fort Lauderdale was an awakening. He was shocked to see homes without bars on the windows. In South Africa, he notes, "People there have been conditioned to accept how they live. The kinds of things you deal with there and accept are unbelievable."

There are other surprises, here, too, he says, like the number of white Americans who come into his store and make racist remarks, assuming, because he's South African, he'll agree. He tries to disabuse them of this notion politely; "Lauren's more up-front."

Pannicco doesn't accept the excuse that South Africans were oblivious to apartheid. "A lot of people didn't know, which is the fault of the parents. Most people just grew up with their blinkers on." Still, she adds, "It doesn't take a brain surgeon."

Change will come only among younger generations, she says. The older folks? "These are people whose blood is racist. They lived and breathed it. They'll never lose it."

In fact Pannicco fears the continuing influx of her countrymen will augur a rising tide of intolerance.

"They're all racist, all of them -- unbelievable hatred. I'm sorry, I meet them right here in Fort Lauderdale, and I want to be sick," she says, her voice thick with disgust. "Don't bring your racist selves into my new home."


Peter is sitting at Floyd's Hostel, dreaming of the Kalahari Bar. A fair-haired 23-year-old with the broad build of a rugby player, Peter is somewhat reserved, but when he talks of watching a South African rugby team in a South African bar, drinking Castle, a South African beer, his face breaks into a grin.

Growing up in a farm town an hour inland of Durban, Peter had a relatively sheltered youth. He's adventurous nonetheless: He'd never seen snow, but that didn't discourage him from taking a job as a ski instructor at Mount Snow, Vermont. In four days he learned to ski, then taught others for $7.50 an hour.

He modestly downplays this accomplishment: "To teach someone to ski is not hard at all," he says. Now that it's summer, he cleans and repairs yachts out of Fort Lauderdale.

In gym shorts and a New Balance T-shirt, Peter calls to mind a young Woody Harrelson. He has just finished an accounting degree but couldn't wait the three years it would take before becoming eligible for transfer from South Africa to work as an accountant overseas. "I decided to clear the mind and come over here," he explains. Still, he feels a little guilty. He is one of many educated, would-be professionals the South African government would have liked to keep from leaving.

As a result, Peter says, there's a stigma to fleeing his homeland: "People frown upon you when you leave."

Nonetheless, on the yachts Peter works on here, he meets many other South Africans. He counted 160 of them working at the ski resort.

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