Brothers, Sisters and Strangers: The intricate layers of Black identity, perception and conflict in South Africa


When apartheid came to an end in 1994 and South Africa became more accessible, it would be natural to believe that African Americans and black South Africans would know each other through history, media, music and heritage and have a common understanding to participate in broader cultural co-creation or symbiosis. But as African Americans traveled and immigrated to South Africa, it seemed that black South Africans and their brothers and sisters from across the Atlantic had more complex issues to work through and they came to eye each other with mixed emotions. Even though Mark Twain has suggested that travel is fatal to narrow-mindedness and facilitates “broad, wholesome and charitable views,” it appears that both sides had much learning to do about each other, far more than either of them ever might have expected.

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Brothers, Sisters and Strangers, a television documentary produced for the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) by Lena Ferugia and Robert Davies, was filmed over a three year period in the late 90s in Johannesburg, South Africa. The production – which was broadcast in October 2000 – follows several African American expatriates and black South Africans as they discuss their perceptions of each other as the country itself is changing and experiencing more immigration. A mental dialogue seems to emerge and there are obvious tensions and conflicts, as well as areas of shared history and mutual understanding. The people being profiled also have varying perspectives on what is happening in the country and how they each interpret their role and place in South Africa’s rapidly transforming society.

Black South Africans and African Americans have always had a profound shared history. Beyond the obvious connections of overcoming slavery and institutional racism, many prominent black South Africans activists, writers and musicians like Hugh Maskela, Miriam Makeba, Abdullah Ibrahim, Ezekiel Es’kia Mphahlele, Wally Mongane Serote, Willy Kgostistile and Dennis Brutus achieved international acclaim in the United States. These ties date back to 1920, when Sol Plaatje, one of the co-founders of the African National Congress (ANC), traveled to the United States and met with W.E.B DuBois of the NAACP and Marcus Garvey and his Universal Negro Improvement Association. And few people know that the iconic photograph of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. lying in a pool of blood after he was shot at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, was taken by a South African photographer, Joe Louw.  Louw had been commissioned to produce a documentary about Dr. King and was traveling with his entourage during the unexpectedly traumatic events of April 4, 1968.

Throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s, African-American activists, political leaders and students played a critical role in protesting apartheid and pressuring the United States government and American corporations to financially divest from the South Africa’s white minority regime. Many academics and historians credit the devastating impact of American sanctions on the South African economy – along with military defeat in Angola, internal dissent and opposition to the government and international criticism – with pressuring apartheid leaders to initiate secret negotiations with Nelson Mandela while he was in prison.

After Nelson Mandela walked free from Pollsmoor Prison in 1990 and the institutions of apartheid began to be dismantled, many African-American and international activists were overjoyed to see decades of their work finally coming to fruition. The fight against apartheid had been a global struggle and an extensive Diaspora of South African exiles began to return along with activists from the United States, Europe and other countries. Brothers, Sisters and Strangers was filmed during a transition period in the late 90s after Thabo Mbeki had succeeded Nelson Mandela as South Africa’s second black President and visitors from the United States were also changing; the new African-American migrants were more entrepreneurial and less activist in their orientation.

The 1994 election brought an unbridled spirit of optimism, and high hopes, but there were also some big conflicts and spectacular failures. Ebony magazine and Johnson Publishing established Ebony South Africa in 1995, but the magazine folded in 2000 due to lack of readership and advertising revenue. At its peak circulation, the magazine barely topped 23,000 South African readers. The editor, Dr. Michael Cheers, had spent years doing graduate work and his PhD dissertation on South Africa and yet he was still unable to make the magazine a success. In 1994 Pepsi tried to come into the country with a small group of financiers and African-American celebrities – including Whitney Houston, Shaquille O’Neal and Danny Glover – investing millions of dollars, only to have the venture file for bankruptcy 3 years later. Other large corporate investments failed, although some entrepreneurs have experienced notable success in entertainment and a variety of other areas.

It was in this atmosphere that Brothers, Sisters and Strangers was produced. While the film is more than 15 years old, I am sure many of the issues raised are salient today. Brothers, Sisters and Strangers potentially can provide an insightful narrative for some of the other experiences of African Americans in Africa, as these relationships are continually evolving. For most African Americans, returning to Africa is an unforgettable emotional and spiritual experience. While there is a recognition of an ancestral connection and heritage, African Americans usually see themselves as being African in heart and soul, while Africans see African Americas as essentially Americans. There is a large and growing expatriate community in Ghana, as the Ghanain government grants African Americans a “right of abode” and permanent residency (with some minor restrictions). There are also smaller expat communities in Kenya and Tanzania, although there are many African-American travelers and immigrants scattered all over the continent in countries ranging from Mozambique and Malawi to Senegal, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.  Millennial African Americans are traveling to Africa in unprecedented numbers in study-abroad programs, guided tours and as lone backpackers and adventurers. One thing is certain; there will be a continuing evolution of African-American influence in Africa that will grow stronger and deeper – despite some inherent emotional and cultural complexities – in the years to come.


Categories: Africa, Apartheid, Culture, South Africa

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

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