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Former Exiles Find Prosperity, Resentment, Hardship Back Home

February 2, 1996

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AP) _ Family and friends gathered to welcome home their long-gone son, a black South African who left as a teen-age revolutionary and returned 17 years later as a banker with two U.S. degrees and a cellular phone.

Their joy was genuine, but other emotions also were evident.

``This old woman said, `You burnt the country and went away, and now you come back with these privileges,‴ Majakathata Mokoena recalled.

She was summing up the resentment felt by many black South Africans as they watch countrymen return from abroad, sometimes enriched by their exile and now ready to benefit from opportunities in the new, democratic South Africa.

Some of those who fled did so with the idea of fighting apartheid _ education or military training, they reasoned, would help make them useful in the struggle.

Now they return to a changed South Africa, and to those who stayed home, too many former exiles are fat cats who had chances for education and advancement denied blacks in South Africa.

Critics say they depended on the African National Congress and foreign sponsors while abroad, and now get preferential treatment and live more like whites than blacks.

``They come back with foreign accents and an attitude of, `It’s cool to be an American.′ And I think that has irritated a lot of people,″ said newspaper executive Noel Ndhlovu.

Ndhlovu said his own disdain for former exiles who had ``come back yuppies″ made him hesitate a month before accepting a Fulbright scholarship in 1992. He made a point of retaining his Zulu accent during his two years at the University of Missouri.

Mokoena, an executive at a U.S. bank’s South African branch, lives in what South Africans call a ``former white area.″ He’s lost the street smarts he learned growing up in the crowded, crime-ridden township of Soweto, along with links to family members who still live there.

His seven sisters and brothers think he’s stingy for agreeing only to pay tuition and supply books and pencils for his nieces and nephews _ instead of buying them flashy cars and clothes.

``They’re complete strangers now,″ said Mokoena, a slight man whose intense eyes peer from behind wire-rimmed glasses. ``We think differently.″

Mokoena was an 18-year-old student activist hunted by police when he slipped out of Soweto and drove to Botswana in 1976. Six months later, he took a Swedish aid agency’s scholarship for a college preparatory program in England. Next was a scholarship to Amherst College in Massachusetts, then Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and a job with IBM.

At home, friends were imprisoned or killed as the confrontations that began in Soweto in 1976 escalated in the 1980s into some of the most violent anti-apartheid unrest South Africa had ever seen.

When Mokoena returned, he found his people celebrating the end of apartheid.

``Lots of our friends have died,″ said William Makgoba, who spent 14 years as a medical researcher in Britain and the United States and returned in 1993. ``Others have been maimed or crippled. Or they’ve been disenfranchised, disillusioned by the brutal nature of the system. Some of us were lucky enough to escape that brutality. We owe it to them to make a better future.″

Makgoba is now the first black deputy vice-chancellor of the liberal, predominately white University of the Witwatersrand. Some returnees have not fared as well.

Mluleki Mbusi, who dropped out of high school to fight in the African National Congress guerrilla army, has been ``desperately looking for work″ since he came home in 1992 after five years abroad. While away, he fought right-wing rebels backed by the South African government in Angola, trained in Tanzania and took part in a short-lived job-training program in Nigeria.

``There was no time for studying in Angola _ only military training,″ Mbusi said. ``It’s very difficult to get work in South Africa if you’re unskilled.″

He struggled with depression after his return, overwhelmed by memories of fighting and little promise for the future in a country where black unemployment is estimated at 40 percent.

Now Mbusi has enrolled in night school. He and a friend, another former guerrilla, have opened a carpentry workshop in back of his Soweto home. His outlook has brightened.

``I’m very proud of what I’ve done for the nation,″ Mbusi said. ``Politically, I’ve made a magnificent contribution. Now I want to make a magnificent contribution to the mainstream economy.″

When former President F.W. de Klerk began dismantling apartheid in 1990 by releasing Nelson Mandela _ now president _ from prison and opening talks with the ANC, his government also gave amnesty to political exiles, whose number was estimated as high as 30,000.

By 1992, the United Nations had helped repatriate more than 13,000 South Africans, not including those who returned on their own. There are no firm estimates of how many have come back, but the former exiles seem to be everywhere.

Among the returnees were prominent members of the ANC’s government in exile. Some of them met with quick success on their return, such as Deputy President Thabo Mbeki, a leading ANC figure while in exile now considered Mandela’s heir apparent.

Others did not. Tom Sebina, a well-known face and voice when he was the ANC’s spokesman at its headquarters-in-exile in Lusaka, Zambia, has been almost forgotten since coming home in 1992 after 28 years abroad.

Thin and frail after a recent hospitalization for ulcers, Sebina said he chose to withdraw from the limelight to take time ``to know the people much more closely.″

Gazing out the window of his four-room Soweto house, he sounded like he was describing himself when he spoke of other ``people who have had difficulties in re-integrating.″

``Sometimes the person himself has got difficulties in adjusting after all the experiences overseas,″ Sebina said. ``Sometimes they have high expectations.″