The Day My Father Lost His Country

In 1948, a reactionary candidate rode a wave of racial and economic resentment to power in South Africa—a reminder that moral progress does not always move forward.

A statute of former South African president Nelson Mandela (Finbarr O'Reilly / Reuters)

A few days after Donald Trump won the presidency, my father told me a story about his childhood.

My father grew up in Malmesbury, a rural farming town in South Africa’s Western Cape. His parents were Lithuanian immigrant Jews. Growing up Jewish in Malmesbury was not like growing up in Cape Town or Johannesburg, where Jews were more plentiful and more prosperous, and the surrounding whites were mostly of English descent. My father’s white neighbors, some of whom sent their children to school without shoes, were overwhelmingly Afrikaners. Many of my father’s classes were taught in Afrikaans. He spoke it fluently, I think. I can’t say for sure because when my sister and I were kids, my mother sometimes talked to him in Afrikaans so we would not understand. He always replied in English. I’ve never heard him speak the language in my entire life.

The story my father told is of being 16 years old in 1948, and hearing on the radio that D. F. Malan’s National Party had defeated the United Party of Prime Minister Jan Smuts. Smuts had been a towering figure in the South Africa of my father’s youth. Although an Afrikaner himself, and a veteran of his people’s struggle against Britain in the Boer War, he had gone on to serve in Britain’s imperial war cabinet during both world wars. He had helped found what became the Royal Air Force and played a critical role in Ireland’s birth as an independent nation. In Paris in 1919, he had helped negotiate the creation of the League of Nations. In San Francisco in 1945, he had helped draft the United Nations Charter. He had served as only the second non-British Lord Rector in the history of St. Andrews University in Scotland. (And would later serve as the first non-British Chancellor of Cambridge). He was so friendly with Gandhi that when the lawyer-activist left South Africa in 1914, he gave Smuts a pair of handcrafted sandals. (Smuts later wrote that, “I have worn these sandals for many a summer, even though I may feel that I am not worthy to stand in the shoes of so great a man.”)

By 1948, Smuts had been South Africa’s prime minister for more than half of my father’s life. He was also Malmesbury’s most famous native son.

Smuts did not advocate racial equality. Barely anyone in South Africa’s white political establishment did. He advocated a continuation of South’s Africa’s informal system of white supremacy. And he cared about global opinion, which led some liberals to hope that South Africa might eventually respond to changing global norms.

It never occurred to my father that Smuts could lose. But he did. Afrikaner nationalists distrusted his affection for Britain, and thought his international celebrity had led him to neglect problems at home. World War II had also spurred the industrialization of South Africa’s cities, which led blacks to stream in from the countryside in search of jobs. Malan’s Nationalists attacked Smuts and the United Party for not expelling them. On election day, the United Party actually won more votes. Yet an electoral system that disproportionately weighted rural districts gave the Nationalists five more seats in parliament and made Malan prime minister.

Between 1949 and 1950, he laid the foundation for apartheid. In rapid succession, he signed the Population Registration Act, which required every South African to possess an identity card stating her race, the Group Areas Act, which removed blacks from desirable urban neighborhoods, the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, which banned interracial marriage, and the Immorality Amendment Act, which outlawed interracial sex. “Grand Apartheid” culminated in 1970 in the Black Homeland Citizenship Act, which made black South Africans residents of desolate tribal “homelands” and formalized their lack of citizenship in the country in which they actually lived. The National Party ruled South Africa until the day my father emigrated.

Why, after Trump’s victory, did his thoughts return to that day in 1948? Because it’s the day he lost his country. Smuts embodied a South Africa open to the world. He showed it was possible to remain connected to a place like Malmesbury yet also participate in the grandest, most forward-thinking, movements of humankind.

His defeat represented the takeover of the South African state by the kinds of Afrikaners who made Malmesbury so reactionary and parochial. As a young man, my father yearned to attach himself to cosmopolitan, progressive currents across the globe. He hung around with Pan Africanist intellectuals. He produced jazz records. He studied architecture in Italy and taught summer courses on design in Kenya, Zambia, Nigeria and Mozambique. But these desires collided with a South Africa that was growing ever more insular and brutal. In 1955, the government banned Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It later banned the Beatles, Bob Marley, Pink Floyd, and Stevie Wonder. When my father participated in anti-apartheid protests at the University of Cape Town, he received threatening phone calls and vandals slashed the tires of his car.

Eventually, he left. He didn’t feel at home in America either, certainly not at first. As a graduate student at MIT, he played rugby, a sport as beloved in Malmesbury as football is in Ohio. But the Americans he played with were bruisers who didn’t grasp the poetry of the game. And my father disliked playing in the bitter cold. What he found in America was not a culture he understood, but a state he did not fear and revile. I remember him once recounting his amazement, after moving to Boston, upon meeting a Jewish policeman. His parents had grown up under the tsar. He had come of age under apartheid. Now, by moving to America, he had broken the chain. My sister and I might dislike the president but we would never hate the regime.

Obviously, Donald Trump is not D. F. Malan. But ever since my father told me that story, I’ve wondered whether the clean break he thought he made when leaving South Africa for the United States is now no longer quite so clean.On election night, I tweeted that, “I’ve never felt less American and more Jewish.” The comment reflected my particularly American self-confidence. I assumed I could question my own Americanness without inviting others to do so on my behalf. I was wrong. Over the following days, hundreds of respondents on Twitter did question whether I belonged in the United States, often in crudely anti-Semitic ways.

Since the election, some of Trump’s activist opponents have begun calling themselves “The Resistance.” The term has its origins in Nazi-occupied Europe. It connotes exactly what my father thought he would never see in the United States: opposition not merely to an individual leader but to an allegedly alien, illegitimate regime.

History unfolds in unpredictable ways. In 1966, my parents went to hear Robert Kennedy speak at the University of Cape Town. It was an awful time in South Africa. Two years earlier, an anti-apartheid activist friend of my father’s had planted a bomb in a Johannesburg railway station. My father visited him in prison before he was hanged. Against that backdrop, America seemed like a country of astonishing moral progress. “In the last five years,” Kennedy told the crowd, “we have done more to assure equality to our Negro citizens, and to help the deprived both white and black, than in the hundred years before.” Four years later, my father and mother made Kennedy’s country their own.

Meanwhile, back in South Africa, the United Party shriveled. It deserved to. Like Smuts, it had never backed true racial equality. In the 1970s, some of its more progressive members broke away to form what became the Progressive Federal Party, and then the Democratic Party and finally, the Democratic Alliance. These parties also seemed largely irrelevant, designed to salve the consciences of white liberals rather than bring fundamental change.

But today, a black man, Mmusi Maimane, leads the Democratic Alliance in a South Africa that overcame apartheid more than 20 years ago. And his progressive, multiracial party, which evolved in part from the United Party that Smuts once led, captured nearly two-thirds of the vote in the district that includes Malmesbury in the last national election in 2014.*

The lesson of my father’s journey is not that America in 2016 is South Africa in 1948. It is that moral progress is never the permanent possession of any one land. In different moments, different people carry the torch. As a young man, my father heard Robert Kennedy tell the students of Cape Town, who saw reason and liberty besieged in their own country, that they had allies halfway across the world. Today, I look at Mmusi Maimane, and feel the same thing.

* This article originally implied that South Africa had parliamentary constituencies. We regret the error.