By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
Among them was a balding 32-year-old named Jan. He operated the ski lifts, a job he remembers as easy but monotonous. "It was a way to get into the country," Jan says with a shrug. A former manager at a major bank in Johannesburg, Jan was frustrated after a robbery at the bank and two carjackings: He lost a BMW M5 (a sports conversion of the car) and later a one-year-old Opel Kadett.
After 11 years in the banking industry, Jan quit his job and set out for America surprising himself with his swift decision. "If you asked me a year ago if I would leave [that] country, I would say no. I'm too much of a conservative, a patriot."
In fact Jan, who wears a faded purple, waffle-weave shirt, proudly tells of the two years he served in the South African Defence Force, then a whites-only army that enforced apartheid. He was a signal man and worked with the Rekkies, an elite unit Jan compares to the U.S. Marines, only tougher.
Jan served in South Africa's war with Angola. The army has since integrated, though the change has not come easily, and it has been hard to shake the quintessential image of an Afrikaner drill sergeant. "The army," Jan explains, his English heavily accented with his native Afrikaans, "was the heart of apartheid."
Despite or perhaps because of this Jan does not regret his service: "Afterward you can always talk about it," he says. "You can be proud."
Peter just shakes his head. The South African government ended conscription before he could be called, which is fine by him. He's seen enough violence in the midlands where he lived: "farm killings," in which families are murdered for their land, livestock, and belongings. "Murders in our local paper make the fourth page," he says with a bitter laugh. "They have a column for all the people killed during the week and over the weekend."
As bad as it is, Peter contends that the image of urban violence in South African cities like Johannesburg is motivated more by money than race and is largely overblown. "You really get used to it," he insists.
"That's the thing," interrupts a longhaired man named Jorg, "It is that bad, but you're used to it."
Jorg, who wears a tank top and silver hoop earrings, is a South African of German descent. He is also the most liberal of the three, having attended a private integrated high school populated in part by the children of black diplomats. For years he played in reggae bands and later ran a nightclub in Cape Town and visited his black musician friends in the townships.
Frustrated after looking for work for six months, he sold his car and bought a plane ticket to Fort Lauderdale. During the past decade, the South African unemployment rate has hovered near 40 percent. Jorg heard things are different here. He hopes to make enough money working day labor to return home and start a business.
"I'm an African," he says, tucking his hair behind his ears. "Africa bites you. You go to the game farms," he says wistfully. "You smell the rain, the thunderstorms."
Besides, Peter interjects, "Even the United States has apartheid. You look at a country like Germany, they started two world wars, they're still paying reparations. What are the Americans paying to the American Indians?"
Such a comparison is common among South Africans when talking about race and segregation, as if America's segregated past rationalizes the evils of apartheid. Jorg and Jan are silent, but Peter lowers his voice and continues, "[Americans] strung up niggers for years and years," he says, implying that such violence didn't happen in South Africa.
But it did, Jorg interjects angrily: "They pulled off [blacks'] skin while they were still alive! That shit happened!"
Chastened, Peter looks down at the table. Scarlet creeps into his already ruddy cheeks. "Well," he says softly, "I was on a little farm."
Jorg continues, now riled up: "I was shopping on Church Street [in Cape Town], and I saw dogs let loose after blacks. I saw a woman being beaten by the police with sticks."
Peter shifts his weight and checks his large sports watch.
"There's a lot of that stuff. It makes you mad," Jorg says. He fidgets with a wood-handled steak knife, digging its tip into the table. "I had a maid. She was with me for 20 years. I loved her. She was like a mother to me. When you see that...." He trails off, shaking his head.
"We had the same maid for 14 years," Peter adds, brightening. "And they're good people."
Peter's maid lived ten minutes from his home, in a township he rarely visited. "Sometimes," he concedes, "just to take her home."
"To buy weed," Jorg teases.
Straight-faced, Peter reddens again: "No," he says soberly, "I never did that till I came here."
Though they stay up talking late into the night, Jorg gets up the next day at 4 a.m. in order to be first in line for the pickup trucks that drive by the hostel, gathering day laborers. By daylight Jan is back at the table, eating a bowl of runny oatmeal. He wouldn't end up working that day. "I had everything going for me there. Now," he says ruefully, "I sit at the side of the road waiting for day labor."
At 8 a.m. Jorg is still out front, waiting.