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Dr. Johann Malen was responsible for Nelson Mandela’s health before the peace talks which ended apartheid. (David Stobbe for The Globe and Mail)
Dr. Johann Malen was responsible for Nelson Mandela’s health before the peace talks which ended apartheid. (David Stobbe for The Globe and Mail)

South African diaspora a study in apartheid Add to ...

In 1989, when he was a young military doctor, Johann Malan was summoned to a clandestine meeting at the residence of South African president F.W. DeKlerk.

He was told Nelson Mandela was being transported from prison to take part in secret negotiations. Dr. Malan’s job was to care for the world’s most famous inmate if he fell ill. Those secret talks led to Mr. Mandela’s release in 1990 and ultimately the end of apartheid.

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The week after Mr. Mandela died, Dr. Malan gathered along with the large South African community in Saskatchewan to celebrate the life of the anti-apartheid hero. He is just one of hundreds of South African doctors – nearly one in three general practitioners in the province – who form the most visible segment of a diaspora of more than 40,000 South Africans in Canada.

About 10,000 arrived between 1980 and 1990, often activists and professionals fleeing a regime they hated. But after Mr. Mandela’s release from prison, as South Africa struggled to evolve into a representative democracy, immigration from South Africa swelled by about 40 per cent. Many said they feared for their safety or thought their professional ambitions would stall in the new South Africa. Canada contributed to the outflow by aggressively recruiting the country’s doctors.

Jonathan Crush, chairman in migration and development at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, has studied Canadians of South African extraction in a series of research papers. He said there is a clear difference between those who came before and after apartheid’s end.

“Those who came before 1990 were generally unwilling to live under the apartheid system and, once they got to Canada, continued to oppose it, actively or passively,” Prof. Crush said. “Many of those who came after 1994 were unwilling to live in a society in transition. They paint themselves as victims of what they call ‘reverse apartheid,’ possibly to justify to themselves and others why they left a country being embraced by the rest of the world. The South Africans who have a positive view of the country are disproportionately pre-1994 immigrants.”

Zeib Jeeva epitomizes the first group. He left South Africa in 1970 and spent the next two decades working to overthrow the apartheid regime from afar. Today he is deeply engaged in South African politics and charitable work.

But Mr. Jeeva, who runs an IT firm in the Toronto area and founded the Nelson Mandela Childrens Fund, shook his head when asked about those who arrived in Canada after apartheid ended. “The people that have come later on, if you approach them about a project in South Africa they say ‘South Africa is the past,’” he said.

Dr. Malan laughs at the notion that leaving South Africa makes him less committed to his country. He arrived in Saskatchewan a decade ago, having left a rural practice near the Lesotho border that the local government stopped funding. South Africa has a two-tier medical system and the change meant Dr. Malan would be unable to treat his poor patients.

“When I left it was because it just wasn’t good to work in a system like that. Nothing political. The system was just untenable,” he said. “I was very happy for the changes that had taken place in our country on a larger scale, even if in our province things didn’t work out too well.”

He said he is unlike his traditional Afrikaner forebears: D.F. Malan, his grandfather’s cousin, was a National Party prime minister whose 1948 to 1954 government established some of the early apartheid policies. But Dr. Malan said he is still in regular contact with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who gives him a hard time about coming to Canada. He thinks he may return to South Africa eventually.

“There’s no reason for me to turn my back on South Africa,” he added. “Never. It’s still my country. … If I had another choice, if it would be better for my career there, I’d certainly be there tomorrow.”

Colin Baskind left South Africa for Toronto in 1987, when the country was exploding with violence. “I left because I didn’t see a future in South Africa for my kids, for me as a business person. My wife was petrified walking in the streets,” said Mr. Baskind, a management consultant who is also chairman of the Southern African Jewish Association. He hasn’t returned in 20 years and doesn’t want to go back.

“I don’t like it there,” he said. “I honestly think as an immigrant you’ve got to say, ‘I’m here, let’s get on with it.’” His feelings about South Africa are in part shaped by his own reluctance to speak out politically while he lived there. “There’s an inherent issue that I regret, and I really do, that I did nothing politically,” he said.

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