It had been five years since I had first taken a job as Manager-Director of the Therapeutic Furniture Company. It had been twenty-five since the Afrikaners had taken control. I never thought it would be these two things that would push me out of South Africa, and leave me penniless in a new country.
“Victimized” is what they’d call me as I applied for my visa, as I moved thousands of miles across the sea, as I entered America with wife and kids and just four small suitcases in tow. Sometimes, I still wonder if I was right in what I did. But America’s the one for me. The life I’ve built here is worth the house, the car, and the thousands of dollars I left behind. Even if I could, I wouldn’t change a thing.
South Africa in 1972 was not the place to be. Every night, there was a new horror story. Even as I tried to outrun the hate, it would catch up with me – at work, at home, on the screen of my brand new two-channel TV that my son loved so much. But we managed. It’s easy to ignore your heart when your life is at stake. When I was finally offered a manager position, I promised myself I’d follow the rules. The whites get promoted and the blacks get fired, always. Too bad it wasn’t as easy as I’d thought.
When it came time to pick my assistant mangers, I faced a choice – promote the smart and savvy black employee and face the government, or go with the decidedly less qualified white man. I chose the former. From that point on, I picked my men based on ability. Black, white, Asian, it didn’t matter. This was business, and I needed someone I could trust.
It had been a few years since I took the position. It was a routine now, as all jobs eventually become. My team and I had developed a certain rhythm, and it worked. My family and I had been able to save up quite a bit of money, and I was able to purchase a beautiful Mercedes-Benz. Then, in the form of a phone call and a knock on my office door, my simple life was rudely disrupted. My secretary, an Asian, had told me this might be coming, but that didn’t make it any less shocking when the secret police arrived at my office. “Are you Keith McNaughton?” the tall one asked.
“You may want to sit down. We need to talk.” They asked to see my payroll records.
“So this is why you’ve come, then?” I said. “Because of my managers?” I handed them the papers.
The fat one looked at me with his eyebrows lowered while the other scrutinized the records. “That’s right,” he said. “Do you understand the laws of the land?”
I stared at the family photo on my wall and nodded my head.
“Well,” he said. “Then you’ve got to offer those jobs to white people.”
I thought then of my friend Alfie. He and I used to spend every day playing soccer in the field behind our school, and we didn’t even know whether we were playing with black boys or white boys because it didn’t matter. And I thought of what happened at Sharpeville and the people who died there. And I thought of Kungawo, my second-in-command, and I remembered how he’d looked me in the eye when I’d told him he was moving up.
“No,” I said. “These people have worked for me for 30 years and now you’re going to tell me they’re not good and I should demote them? I won’t do it.”
“You’re going to have to. If you don’t we are going to find you and we are going to arrest you until you stop it.” They gathered up their things and walked out of my office before I could respond. My payroll officer glanced at me from the hallway.
“Look,” I said. “We’re not going to let them do this to us. We have an account, a private account. Take the black managers off the paperwork, say they’re just regular workers, but use the money from the secret account to pay them. I don’t care what happens. I’m not losing my managers.”
The next week, the company sent me to America. Then I get a call, this time from Kungawo. “Keith,” he says, “they’re looking for you. If I were you I’d stay in Miami because they’re coming here, the secret service guys, and they are looking for you, and they want to put you in jail.”
Right that second I called my wife and I told her the truth, and I told her what we had to do. “Come to America,” I said. “Come and we’ll make a new life.”
Later that day, she called me, frantic. “My god, honey, you need to come back. They’ve frozen our bank accounts.”
When I returned, I tried to fight them. But I failed. They stole my money and they used it to fund their ridiculous projects and their abusive secret police. My family and I were pushed out of our home with nothing. We had to start over with the money we had in our pockets. It was a new life for us. We lost our house and our car, and we left our friends and family. One day, my wife asks, “Well, are we happy, are we happier here?”
And I said, “Well, in South Africa, I had a nice Mercedes and a big house and a nice office, and we came over here and I have an apartment, but never mind, we’ll start again. We’ll start from scratch and we’ll be okay.”
The last time I came back from South Africa, I kissed the ground. I knelt down and kissed it right in front of the airport. Because America’s the finest country in the world, and I can’t imagine being anywhere else.