Are Germans in South Africa ‚abgekapselt‘ [isloated]?
(Editor: Alex Smit-Stachowski is speaking in her column about life as a South African now living in Germany. The South African journalist lives in Krefeld, in North Rhine-Westphalia/ Germany).
A recent interview on this website heard the view from a German journalist in Cape Town that the Germans in South Africa are ‘abgekapselt’ – isolated, living on their own island away from the rest of the community. As I grew up in a German family in South Africa, I can tell how it is from an insider’s point of view…
My father was a freshly married young civil engineer when he was offered work building the Johannesburg (now Oliver Tambo International) Airport in the late ‘60s. In that aspect he was much like the Turks who came to Germany to work during the same time. Postcards to his father in Hamburg showed pictures of long beaches in Durban, the flatland in Berea, Johannesburg and talked of how happy they were. My mother could speak English, she had studied languages but initially my dad had to use all methods to make himself understood – sheer charm and ploughing ahead meant that he now speaks a good English, although still heavily accented.
German culture and white South African culture was not that different in the ‘70s – listening to the radio and buying records, having your friends around for drinks and showing home movies was how we spent our time in the early years. It took a long time for SA to get television and in the late ‘70s when it was announced we would finally get TV, we sat around for hours watching rugby and boxing matches with the same fervor as Bundesliga games.
Families leave their homeland to move abroad for various reasons but I think, the main factor is to give their new family a good life, while remembering their roots. In our case, it meant that Christmas was always a day early, which our friends were very jealous about and we would often spend time at the German Club. All the big cities in South Africa have a German Club which is where ex-pats meet ‘um deutsch zu sprechen’ and to eat potato salad and Bockwurst, and sometimes even an Eisbein while drinking beers, and talking about their lives in SA.
Multichoice provides the television channels via subscription and one of their satellite bouquets is specifically for the German market and you can watch ZDF, ARD, RTL, Sat 1 and Deutsche Welle in the comfort of your own home. This connection to ‘home’ means Germans can keep up with what is happening without having to return. It also helps when they phone their relatives and can say, “Ah, we see it’s still snowing in Frankfurt!”
Specialist shops sell Zückertüten for children starting their first day at school and if you look hard enough, you can pick up German magazines and newspapers but be prepared to pay a high price for older publications. So, Germans based in Africa have got the best of both worlds – the weather and food in South Africa is exceptional and they have access to German culture, its food if they want it and can socialize with other Germans too.
Some move to South Africa just for business and then fall in love with the country and don’t want to leave, but have not yet committed to their new country completely. Some Germans living there are ‘abgekapselt’ but then so are many locals – they finish work, get back to their high security homes and prefer their own company, than going out to socialize with the neighbours.
It is true that immigrants hold onto their images of home and Germans are the same in that respect. A lot of Germans who worked in South Africa benefited out of apartheid – if they are less liberal or welcoming of the ANC government now, it is understandable as their lives are not as easy or profitable as they once were. Resentment and joining the other whites complaining about the new democracy is for some, sadly a way of life. Ideally I would wish that all would continue to benefit from the many perks SA has and to be instrumental in making the changes that they feel need to be made.
Young Germans are quite inspiring though – through the Goethe Institutes and the German student exchange programmes – many are travelling to South Africa to help the poor and to share their knowledge. I have met and spoken to many of these and am heartened that their view of South Africa does not begin and end with Cape Town!
I guess it is human to believe the place of your birth is home and nothing else will fill that spot. According to German law, if you are born to German parents you are German. I was born in Durban and even though my family is German, I consider myself African, so it’s how you see it!