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South African diaspora a study in apartheid

Dr. Johann Malen was responsible for Nelson Mandela’s health before the peace talks which ended apartheid.

David Stobbe/The Globe and Mail

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.

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.

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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."

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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.

South Africans are an unusually well-educated and wealthy group of migrants. Immigration data going back as far as 1980 shows that nearly 80 per cent of South Africans came as skilled migrants and just 3 per cent as refugees. One in four earns more than $200,000 annually, roughly the top 1 per cent in Canada, according to a survey of the post-1990 diaspora conducted by Prof. Crush; more than 40 per cent earn more than $100,000, equivalent to the top 6 per cent.

A partial explanation for such prosperity is the controversial recruitment of South Africa physicians to help address Canada's doctor shortage, making South Africa the leading source of foreign-trained doctors. There are roughly 2,500 practising here today. In 2001, the South African government publicly pleaded with Canada to stop recruiting its doctors after 200 decamped in a single year. The flow has slowed to about 60 annually, still the highest of any country.

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The physicians were recruited to fill gaps in service all over the country, particularly in Saskatchewan and Newfoundland and often in rural areas and small towns. Charl Badenhorst, 62, came to Canada 10 years ago and now works in Fort St. John, B.C. He had been a top administrator at one of South Africa's largest psychiatric hospitals but felt his career was unlikely to progress in post-apartheid South Africa.

He was a liberal who had long opposed segregation. He sent his son, who is white, to a black school at a time when he was heavily criticized for doing so. But he wanted new academic challenges, which he could only find abroad, he said. He enjoys Fort St. John, where there are roughly 20 other South African physicians, but expects to return to South Africa some day.

"The older doctors like me, I think most of us want to go back at some stage," he said. "The younger doctors who came and have young children, they're more into the system here. They won't go back."

In his survey, Prof. Crush found low levels of engagement, investment and interest in returning to South Africa among those who arrived after Mr. Mandela's liberation. In his view, Mr. Mandela's death will generate a fleeting sense of positive feeling and unity.

"Almost all South Africans in Canada hold Mandela the person in extremely high regard," he said. "He has been the one moderating influence on dystopian views of the country."

The following is a condensed and edited interview with Johann Malan, a doctor who immigrated to Canada and had an intriguing and personal relationship with Nelson Mandela.

How did you meet Mandela?

In my military time in Cape Town - that's when I first got in contact with Nelson Mandela. I guess my name must have meant something because at the time, the minister of defence was an uncle of mine, General Magnus Malan, a cousin of my dad.

A few of us were appointed for duties with Parliament. The government started negotiating with the ANC leadership, which was still in prison, in secret in Tuynhuys, which is our version of the White House in Cape Town, the president's office there. I just had to be there every time they met with them, as a medical officer, just to make sure the world's most prominent prisoner doesn't die in the white president's office.

That must have been quite some secret to keep.

I was sworn to secrecy. The interesting thing was that F.W. DeKlerk, who was president at the time, had this thing about a doctor in the house. He said it's a bad omen. So I was never allowed to let him know that I'm a doctor. He thought I was a security guy. When the prisoners came in the secretary would introduce me to them and say if there is a problem there is a doctor don't worry, but just don't tell the president. I had to be there early so that my medical bag could be hidden from the president and then his secretary informed me what it was all about and he said your bag will be there if you need anything. Just don't let the president know who you are or what you are.

Did you get to speak to Mandela?

We met every time. I never had the necessity to examine him. He was a very polite man. Every time he would shake my hand and ask where I'm from, where's my family from.

The interesting thing is that it was years later, the end of his presidency, I'd left the military already, had a bit of a spat with my uncle about the slow change in the military, I left and I worked in that rural area in the Free State. There was a big international water scheme going on and Mr. Mandela had to open one portion of it. I was standing there behind the temporary bleachers. It was in Lesotho and it was a hot, December afternoon. I was trying to catch some shade when he came by, and he came up to me and said "Hi Doctor, how are you?" It was amazing.

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About the Author
Demographics Reporter

Joe Friesen writes about immigration, population, culture and politics. He was previously the Globe's Prairie bureau chief. More

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