I didn’t expect, when I first moved to South Africa in 2009, how much it would feel like America. Every place does, more and more; or every place feels increasingly like every other place, a globe of placelessness, the world as duty-free lounge. But South Africa was even more so. It was as if the geographical strata of American society—gentrified urban, marginalized urban, suburban, country—had been compressed into a much smaller area. Outside South Africa’s cities is cowboy country, with wide, fenced ranches punctuated by townlets featuring beef-jerky stores and tractor wholesalers. Closer in are rings of suburbs with split-level houses with pools and the occasional American-style shopping mall. The cities are divided between zones of economic despair and bourgeois-bohemian enclaves reminiscent of San Francisco or Austin.
The two countries also share a similar history. South Africa had its own (eastward) expansion by white “pioneers” in ox-wagons who set up “republics” on occupied lands. Both of their origin stories were defined by exceptionalism: America was the “city on a hill,” while South Africa’s European settlers saw themselves as chosen by God to civilize Africa’s native inhabitants. Both narratives were undermined by terrible racial prejudice. Their successful civil rights struggles led portions of both countries to feel they had overcome a substantial part of their original sin and had, perhaps, fulfilled their redemptive promise in an unexpected way.
With Nelson Mandela’s ascent to the presidency in 1994, South Africa became the rare country other than the United States in which historical white power
had been substantially challenged by