The shades of the Rainbow

Mary Alexander

A friend of mine recently moved to New York, for work. A white guy, he’s always been a stubbornly loyal South African, one who swears it’s the best place to be on earth. He loves the diversity, the energy, the craziness and the beauty of this country.

He has skills that could take him anywhere, but he’d rather stay home. And the usual white South African refuges leave him cold. Australia, for him, is full of sheep-like suburbanites, the US a place of Jerry Springer fatsos, and the UK a misery of cold rain and paranoid unfriendliness on the Tube.

But then he got to New York, and loved it. New York, he said, is just like South Africa.

I’ve never been to New York, but any fool knows it’s nothing like South Africa. It’s the greatest city on earth, a place of astonishing wealth, culture and what I can only think of as intimidating developed-worldness. They have all those museums. They have Broadway. They have The New York Times. They have Wall Street, and all that has given the world …

I live in Johannesburg, the biggest and wealthiest city in Africa. And I know for sure that most Joburgers feel like platteland hicks when faced with the prospect of New York.

Forget that, my friend said. What New York has is diversity. So many very different people in one place. It feels just like home.

Then I remembered something I’d read in a book on National Geographic’s Genographic Project, as one does. Called Deep Ancestry and written by anthropologist Stephen Wells, the project founder, the book explains the project’s aim to track human migration over thousands of years by mapping the DNA of as many people as possible.

The book starts with what Wells considers to be the ultimate example of human migration: New York.

“New York is the world’s most cosmopolitan city,” Wells writes. “Perhaps the most diverse group of humans to ever live in a single geographic location in history.

“People from more than 180 nations in the world (and there are only 192 in the world) have made their way to its crowded streets to build a new life.

“More languages (138) are spoken in Queens, one of its boroughs, than in most countries.”

New York was founded on diversity, a result of what Wells calls “the largest mass migration in human history”.

“Between 1840 and 1920 … nearly 40-million people (more than double the US population in 1840) moved from Europe to the United States.”

Because of this, Wells says, “most Americans are deeply curious about their roots”.

“Like other nations with a large proportion of immigrants – Australia and South Africa, for instance – they yearn for a past left behind in the ancestral villages and towns of the old countries.”

Here Wells goes off track. Unless you consider migration to be a deep-time affair, only 20% of the South African population could be considered to belong to immigrant stock – nothing close to a “large proportion”. According to the 2008 mid-year population estimates, 9.2% of South Africa’s population is white, 9% “coloured” – of mixed ancestry – and 2.6% Indian or Asian.

That makes up, more or less, 20% of the total South African population. But it’s that 20% that reveals the country’s diversity, the nuances of tone in the individual colours of the Rainbow Nation.

South Africa’s non-indigenous population include those with roots in, taken at random and organised alphabetically, Britain, China, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Lebanon, Lithuania, Madagascar, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Pakistan, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Scandinavia, Scotland, Serbia, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Vietnam and Wales.

That’s not to say there isn’t huge diversity in the black population, which makes up 79.2% of the country’s total. Here there are nine different language groups, the largest of which, isiZulu speakers, make up only 23.8% of the total population. And there’s also the indigenous San people, and a tangled variety of indigenous and immigrant roots in the coloured community.

“Immigrant” is misleading. Some people Wells would call immigrants to South Africa have an ancestry here going back to the mid-17th century, when the Dutch first settled in the country. They brought with them slaves and servants from Indonesia, Madagascar and India, and were followed by other Europeans from Germany, Scandinavia, France and, from the early 19th century, the British Isles.

More recently, since the end of apartheid, South Africa has become the home of immigrants from elsewhere in Africa.

We now add to our mix people from Zimbabwe, the Congo, Nigeria, Uganda, Rwanda, Malawi and Mozambique. And with the horrific pogroms against African foreigners that broke out across South Africa in May last year, we’ve learned that this mixing is never without its hatred and violence.

But Wells is mistaken if he thinks South Africa’s immigrant communities “yearn for a past left behind in the ancestral villages”. Most of us are curious about our ancestry, but there’s little yearning involved.

I come from a mixed British Isles ancestry of Scottish, Irish, English and Yorkshire. My maternal grandmother was the Yorkshire. Yorkshire is strictly England, but she was a cantankerous somebody who looked down on everyone except those from Yorkshire, especially the English. She told us stories about growing up there: being caught poaching on the manor land by the gameskeeper; her cousins’ illiteracy while she was awarded a scholarship that eventually saw her emigrate to the colonies.

For me that’s identity, but not nationality. I loved my cranky grandmother, and with her teaching know to my bones how to make classic Yorkshire pudding (equal measures of egg, flour and milk, and a hot oven). But I have no interest in Yorkshire.

South Africa is full of South Africans with deep roots elsewhere in the world. But they still live here, because this is their country. Fourth-generation Indian South African kids may be crowding into theatres to see Bollywood movies, but this is still home. Greek South Africans may tune to DSTV’s EPT Sat television channel, but they’re still South Africans. Wasp friends of mine may be members of the Country Club, but they prefer to play tennis here, in the sun.

White South Africans are sometimes criticised for their Eurocentrism. We’ve all more or less retained the culture of our forebears, even those of us who have never stepped foot outside Africa. Many from immigrant communities are still fluent in their ancestral language – Portuguese, Tamil, Italian, Greek, Hindi.

This cultural stickiness shouldn’t be criticised, it should be celebrated. We are the Rainbow Nation, with all its subtle gradations. Despite the horrific violence of the xenophobic attacks, this gives South Africans a unique tolerance of difference, of the other. The vast majority of us accept and support that which is different in our fellow citizens, an acceptance that is rare elsewhere. Here it goes without question, for example, that Muslim girls be allowed to wear headscarves to school, while it caused outrage in France.

In fact, South Africans are in demand to manage global companies’ expansion into Africa, because they don’t get culture shock. They are able to easily adapt to new cultures, because they not only accept difference, they respect it.

Another friend of mine embodies this diversity nicely. A third-generation Italian South African, he’s never been to Italy, and speaks five languages. English and Italian are his first languages. He runs a restaurant, so he has to be efficiently fluent in isiZulu to manage his staff in a hot and busy kitchen. He also speaks Afrikaans, and studied French at school. (And he’s now learning Yiddish.)

I was recently in his restaurant when a car guard came in to exchange his coin earnings for notes. The man was Congolese, one of the many new immigrants from that war-torn Francophone African country.

I had to smile as my friend and the guard carried out their transaction. There they stood together, the grandson of an Italian prisoner of war interned in South Africa during World War II, and the refugee from a former Belgian colony, now both South Africans – and talking in French.

Mary Alexander is the editor of