A few days after Donald Trump won the presidency, my father told me a story about his childhood.
My father grew up in Malmesbury, a rural farming town in South Africa’s Western Cape. His parents were Lithuanian immigrant Jews.
Growing up Jewish in Malmesbury was not like growing up in Cape Town or Johannesburg, where Jews were more plentiful and more prosperous, and the surrounding whites were mostly of English descent. My father’s white neighbors were overwhelmingly Afrikaners. Many of my father’s classes were taught in Afrikaans.
The story my father told is of being 16 years old in 1948, and hearing on the radio that D. F. Malan’s National Party had defeated the United Party of Prime Minister Jan Smuts. Smuts had been a towering figure in the South Africa of my father’s youth. By 1948, Smuts had been South Africa’s prime minister for more than half of my father’s life. He was also Malmesbury’s most famous native son.
It never occurred to my father that Smuts could lose. But he did. Afrikaner nationalists distrusted his affection for Britain, and thought his international celebrity had led him to neglect problems at home.
On election day, the United Party actually won more votes. Yet an electoral system that disproportionately weighted rural districts gave the Nationalists five more seats in parliament and made Malan prime minister.
Between 1949 and 1950, he laid the foundation for apartheid. In rapid succession, he signed the Population Registration Act, which required every South African to possess an identity card stating her race, the Group Areas Act, which removed blacks from desirable urban neighborhoods, the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, which banned interracial marriage, and the Immorality Amendment Act, which outlawed interracial sex.
“Grand Apartheid” culminated in 1970 in the Black Homeland Citizenship Act, which made black South Africans residents of desolate tribal “homelands” and formalized their lack of citizenship in the country in which they actually lived. The National Party ruled South Africa until the day my father emigrated.
Why, after Trump’s victory, did his thoughts return to that day in 1948?
Because it’s the day he lost his country.
Smuts embodied a South Africa open to the world. He showed it was possible to remain connected to a place like Malmesbury yet also participate in the grandest, most forward-thinking, movements of humankind.
Eventually, my father left. He didn’t feel at home in America either, certainly not at first. What he found in America was not a culture he understood, but a state he did not fear and revile.
Obviously, Donald Trump is not D. F. Malan. But ever since my father told me that story, I’ve wondered whether the clean break he thought he made when leaving South Africa for the United States is now no longer quite so clean.