Academic journal article Refuge

The Meeting of Myths and Realities: The "Homecoming" of Second-Generation Exiles in Post-Apartheid South Africa

Academic journal article Refuge

The Meeting of Myths and Realities: The "Homecoming" of Second-Generation Exiles in Post-Apartheid South Africa

Article excerpt


Exile in this article has been defined as a "condition" or "process" (1) that is both historically and contextually specific, associated with forced separation, physical "banishment," and geographical dislocation compelled by a political regime. (2) In the South African context, exile has been associated with a strategic space characterized by transnational political struggles against "norms of a nation." (3) It is estimated that from the early 1960s, 40,000 to 60,000 South Africans were exiled, and that between 1990 and 1995 approximately 15,000 to 17,000 former exiles returned to South Africa. (4) In the secondary literature, exile and return has been described narrowly as an adult experience with emphasis on the perceptions and memories of adults who waged political struggles against the apartheid state. In light of this dearth in information, this article will discuss the unique experiences of children and youth who returned to post-apartheid South Africa.

On the basis of forty-seven life-history interviews with second-generation exiles who were born and/or spent their formative years in exile, it will be argued that although many children had little or no lived experience or memories of South Africa, "myths of homecoming" were constructed under the influence of their parents' narrated memories and hopes of a "new" South Africa, their personal relationships with political stalwarts in exile, the international media's portrayal of political developments within South Africa, and dominant political discourses at the time. These myths were constructed around images of joyous interpersonal reunions, the realization of liberation principles, and the meaningful democratization of political processes. These myths in turn heightened expectations of homecoming. Notwithstanding the legal-policy and service-provision measures in place for voluntary returnees (and their children), disillusionment was fuelled by the reality of unbridgeable schisms in familial relationships and broader socio-political networks; inequitable racial, socio-economic, gendered, and gerontocratic hierarchies; and "false promises" pertaining to recognition, compensation, and democratic governance.

Despite these dashed expectations, it will be argued that disappointment has not fuelled passivity among the second-generation exiles in my study, many of whom have embraced agentic roles in their communities, precisely because of the manner in which their childhoods were constructed in exile, with emphasis placed on obligations and responsibilities towards their parents, the liberation movement, and the nation. The politicization of their childhoods has shaped the way that they view the post-apartheid present and future. Hence, despite the rupture brought about by the exile experience, continuity is evident in their sense of self, aspirations, and perceptions of "home." The time when notions of "home" were formed in the life cycle should, therefore, be considered when analyzing the experience of exile and return for children and youth.

Conceptualizing Homecoming

Said referred to the "perilous territory of not-belonging" (5) occupied by the exile caused by the "rupture of the true self and its true home." (6) In this territory, notions of home are laden with a sense of love and loss for "one's native place" (7) and for the "space where affections centre," (8) a space from which exiles have been forcibly separated. These affections support the idealization of the "homeland" and "myths of return." (9) "Home" in these myths is often centred on location, space, and geography, (10) but may be linked to habitual notions, traditions, and cultural practices, (11) even when exile locations are perpetually shifting. (12) A shared history, relationships, and networks may also constitute notions of home in transnational exile communities. (13) Importantly for this study, home may be linked to visions of a "triumphant ideology or a restored people. …

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