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February 13, 2014

How South African Expats Have Risen to the Top of Key American Sectors

Rowan Philp

Most say the same thing. They came to the US either to counter army conscription or Apartheid itself, and planned to stay just a few years in the late ‘80s. But they stayed on.

A quarter century later, this small generation of South African immigrants has risen to break through, en masse, such key leadership roles that they’re changing America.

YouTube, PayPal, SolarCity, epigenetic cancer therapy and intelligent Mars robots exist only because of these expats: one of them has led the transition from PCs to cloud computing; another leads America’s top business school; and another is replacing the Space Shuttle. But they’ve done it as individuals, and – with the notable exception of commercial spaceflight pioneer Elon Musk – almost invisibly.

Late in December, the Silicon Valley Business Journal made this remarkable statement, regarding four of their first five winners of America’s high-tech CEO awards, which feature competition from the likes of Google’s Larry Page. “Here’s something interesting about our executive of the year awards, something that hadn’t occurred to us at the time that these four executives were selected — they are all originally from South Africa.”

In Silicon Valley alone, South African-born high-tech CEO’s include Vinny Lingham, founder of Yola and; Willem van Biljon, co-founder of Nimbula; and Pieter de Villiers, CEO of Clickatell, the world’s largest online text messaging service. And these weren’t even among the award winners. Those included Gauteng brothers Lyndon and Peter Rive, who built America’s largest provider of residential clean energy, and Paul Maritz, the outgoing CEO of cloud computing giant VMware who was schooled in KwaZulu-Natal.

South African immigrants in the US number only about 100,000 – a “small number even for a big city,” according to Professor Nancy Foner, an expert on immigration achievement at the City University of New York. So small, she says, that there are virtually no figures or studies on their impact.

Yet new South African networking organizations, like the SABLE Accelerator in California, are springing up as South Africans are suddenly appearing in front of microphones as CEOs and University deans and scientific research team leaders. Apart from well-established South African communities in places like San Diego, or the tight group of pro golfers in Florida, South Africans don’t network the way they do in the UK. 

Instead, mutual recognition often happens like this: Hey - that guy running the University of Notre Dame seems to have the lazy-palate Saffer accent. Come to think of it, so does the Dean of Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. Ja, and what about the guy who was in charge of California’s High Speed Rail Authority? Or – With a name like Mahlangu-Ngcobo, that elections judge in Maryland has gotta be from home.

Some South Africans are fairly well known. Pik Botha’s grandson, Roelof, has been ranked as high as 22nd on the Forbes Midas list of venture capitalists, having funded the launch of YouTube in 2005. Among the celebrity conscription-dodgers, singer Dave Matthews probably heads the pack. Reportedly worth $200 million, Matthews was recently declared America’s most successful touring act of the decade. But most have risen to the cutting edge of American business with remarkable anonymity. Former Illovo schoolboy Steven Collis, almost unnoticed, has taken the reins of a healthcare wholesaling company, AmerisourceBergen, listed 29th on the Fortune 500, with 13 000 employees, and annual revenues of an almost ridiculous $50 billion.

It’s the same story in science. The single greatest breakthrough in cancer treatment in recent years – epigenetic therapy – has been credited to Stellenbosch’s Peter Jones, who now runs a major research center in California. And another South African, Dr. Liam Pedersen, has grabbed what could be the most exotic job in America. He leads a NASA research team to develop the brains of “intelligent” space robots that will explore the solar system in search for extra-terrestrial life. And to test his “autonomous navigation” systems. Pedersen, 42, gets to test the robots in places like Antarctica and alpine lakes in the Andes. 

In terms of sheer impact for Africa among transplants, it’s a dice between expats Dr. Trevor Mundel and Nomvimbi Meriwether. A former Soweto businesswoman, Meriwether – now owner of a Washington DC travel agency, Meticulous Tours – is the co-founder of a multimillion dollar health and basic education charity in southern Africa, the Meriwether Foundation. She told the Mail & Guardian that her fund-raising clout in the US enjoyed a major boost recently when her daughter – South African-born Nana Meriwhether, 27 – won the 2013 Miss USA crown. “We are meeting governors, presidents, billionaires, so the plight of (South Africa’s) most vulnerable children is being heard where it counts,” she said. Mundel, from Johannesburg, was appointed as president of global health for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – with a grant budget of some $10 billion, and a brief of nothing less than to eradicate polio and malaria from the earth. 

But it’s when you consider a professional field as specific as immigration law that the astonishing over-achievement of this group becomes clear. Bernie Wolfsdorf – another conscription dodger – has been named “the most highly rated immigration lawyer in the world” for consecutive years by the peer-reviewed International Who’s Who of Business Lawyers, and South Africa’s Daryl Buffenstein is a past president of America’s national body. In the same field, Chris Wright, a transplant from Johannesburg, is described as “Hollywood’s go-to lawyer – somehow securing “genius” work visas for everyone from Piers Morgan to Playboy Playmate Shera Bechard. The “O-1” work visa is normally reserved for foreigners of “extraordinary ability,” including Nobel prize winners, but Wright has controversially expanded its use to include everyone from South African musicians to a Canadian Playmate. 

South African lawyers have not yet broken through, as a group, as judges in America’s highest courts, the way they have in, say, Western Australia. But Margaret Marshall, 68 – a former student leader a Wits – recently retired as Chief Justice of Massachusetts, where, in a landmark case in 2003, she was the first justice in the US to grant gay couples the right to marry.

Compared to America’s business world, expatriates have underachieved in Hollywood itself, but its modest breakthrough artists include Charlize Theron, District-9’s Sharlto Copley, and Stelio Savante, who recently both co-produced and cracked a role opposite Matthew Perry, in the comedy The Whole Banana. 

The poster-child for the 80s immigration generation is, of course, Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla Motors and SpaceX – the rocket company charged with leading the replacement of the Space Shuttle. In an earlier interview, he told me he left the country in 1988 because the SADF promised to be “such an amazing waste of time.” Musk added that South African TV was so bad in the 80s that he was forced to read, and that off-the-shelf consumer options – like amateur rocket kits – were so limited that he was forced to learn how to build and innovate on his own.

John Affleck-Graves (executive Vice-President of Notre Dame), Collis, and Wright were among those who told me they credit their education for much of their success, but offered few other clues as to why South Africans had risen so sharply. Professor Foner says white South Africans, in particular, had “invisibly” risen to the top. “South Africans have gone unnoticed, especially the majority who are white, for whom there were few cultural barriers, if any,” she said. “But I have noticed that South Africans move right into elite circles in the US; immediately, and look where they’ve gone.”

Donovan Neale-May, founder of the SABLE Accelerator, says the ‘80s South African immigrant generation was unique in that they did not take advantage of contacts and mobility through “ethnic communities” in the US, “as, say, Indian entrepreneurs have done so effectively.” Instead, Neale-May says the conscription-avoidance generation had simply outcompeted American professionals with a multi-tasking combination of management talent, drive and pioneering vision.

Besides, South African emigration to the US has been an overwhelmingly white phenomenon. According to the Migration Policy Institute in Washington DC, only 14% of South African immigrants – around 11,000 – are black. And they’ve had to travel a far more difficult road, according to Foner. Yet a number of black South Africans have made New World leaps which are, if anything, closer to the purest form of the “America Dream” than their rich white countrymen. 

Among the exiles who remained in the US, Dr. Mankekolo Mahlangu-Ngcobo is one who has emerged as a national force in both government health policy and theology. She has testified on healthcare for the government’s Congressional Black Caucus, and, during the violent tumult in Liberia in 1997, she led a workshop there on violence against women. The author of nine books – including research works on AIDS and gender equality – Reverend Mahlangu-Ngcobo lectures on public health, and has founded both a US church and an international ministry. 

Gift Ngoepe – the first black South African to be offered a professional baseball contract – is among the more recent immigrant generation to the new world. He discovered baseball when his mother took a job as a domestic worker at the amateur Randburg Mets clubhouse. A tiny room inside it later became his home, and he simply practiced against a wall until being noticed by coaches and, later, a US mentor. Now, he plays professionally as a shotstop within the Pittsburg Pirates organization. 

Richman Mahlangu, 49, has a similarly unlikely sporting story, but, in pursuing it, has carved out a classic, John Steinbeck-style American tale. He fled Apartheid itself at the same time that Musk and others were fleeing conscription. Mahlangu’s “hook” into the US was a sports scholarship, having literally discovered the sport of tennis only by finding a broken tennis racket on a dusty street in Durban’s Lamontville township in the ‘70s. He says that – as with Ngoepe – a local professional coach was so taken by his diligent practice with that racket that he offered free lessons, and, eventually, an introduction to a US mentor. Living in Las Vegas, Mahlangu has since achieved neither riches nor professional-level excellence in his sport.

Instead, he has coached his two sons to the point where, last year, they were both recruited for scholarships by ivy-league universities. His youngest son, Yannik, 17, has held a national rank of ninth for his age group and his eldest, Nicholas – now on his way to Harvard - has starred with Andre Agassi on a TV ad. “For me, as an immigrant, this chance for my sons is my satisfaction,” he tells me, in a line that could have been inscribed on Ellis Island.

Rowan Philp is a multiple award-winning writer, news editor, journalism coach and foreign correspondent, who has covered conflict, business, public health, science, news events and foreign policy from 27 countries. Previously, he was the Chief Reporter for Africa's leading newspaper - the Sunday Times (South Africa) - for most of the past decade; a period book-ended by fellowship stints at the Washington Post and at Harvard/ MIT.