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‘We Became More American’
Living Abroad, Arguing With the Brits and Witnessing Historic Changes

The author and his wife outside Cape Town, with the Cape of Good Hope, the southernmost point in Africa, in the background.
After my wife, Maureen Sullivan, and I moved to South Africa for journalism jobs in 1989, we immersed ourselves in that country’s twisted politics as apartheid ended, studied the nation’s long history of conflict and promise, and even figured out the best ways to spot the big five — lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino — in the game parks. But above all, we learned about America.

As they say, to truly understand your country, you must leave it. At a distance of 8,000 miles and seeing it as South Africans do, the United States came into much sharper focus. Besides, we were called on to explain it all the time. As two of the few Americans that people there knew, we got all the questions: Why won’t the U.S. invade South Africa and end apartheid immediately? Why do Americans feel it’s important that South Africa protect freedom of speech? Does the rise of Japan mean the American economic system is finished?

Given the typical current of anti-Americanism that runs through South Africa and other countries around the globe, many of the questioners were hostile. But many were just curious or ignorant — for this was a country on the tip of Africa that was yet to get CNN, the Internet or many international visitors. So, as did other Americans there, we became mini-ambassadors for the U.S. — on top of our day jobs writing and editing for the weekly news magazine Financial Mail. We filled the two American seats at dinner parties and were asked tough questions about why the U.S. came to Kuwait’s defense in the Gulf War or why we didn’t proceed on to Baghdad. Or, if America is such a free-market country, why do we have so many lawyers tying up the economy with lawsuits and regulations? Often we were asked to explain Americana, even things we didn’t realize were Americana, such as root beer. Maureen brought back some root beer candy from a trip home so co-workers could see what it tastes like.

Sometimes we met people who had almost no knowledge of America. All they knew might be contained in just a word or phrase. On vacation in neighboring Namibia, we met someone whose job it was to keep the hippos away from the cabins along the Zambezi River. When we said we were from America, he nodded with recognition. “Ah, nuclear weapons.”

Koppisch in 1990: in his office at the Financial Mail, with a friend in front of one of the last whites-only beach signs in Durban, and with his wife on the lip of Namibia’s Fish River gorge, the world’s second largest canyon.
Some folks aimed to be provocative: A co-worker flatly stated, “Cricket is a man’s game while baseball is a boy’s game.” Of course, we took the bait. Indeed, we were often sucked into the perennial Britain vs. America debate. Americans often turn gooey around Brits, so impressed are we with their long history, great books and upper-crust-sounding accents. But live among them for a while — and South Africa had 2 million people of English descent, including most of the people we worked with — and they start to look like regular folks. Many discussions ensued: e.g., whether The Wall Street Journal (our entire company got one copy of the paper each day — in the mail a week late) or the Financial Times was the better newspaper; or whether Americans used a more proper, less corrupted English. Brits shocked us by completely discounting our role in World War I and not fully conceding our role in — as we put it good-naturedly — saving their butts in World War II.

All this debating and explaining and defending made us bone up on the U.S. Constitution and gave us an education in what makes an economy tick, things we took for granted back home. I had earned a B.A. in economics at Catholic, but now I felt qualified for a master’s. And people had good reason to get our thoughts on these weighty issues, for South Africa was debating a new constitution and how to organize the economy. Should there be property rights? Should the country’s four provinces be divided into smaller states as in the U.S.? Should taxes be raised to make reparations to blacks, or lowered to create more jobs?

It was an exhilarating time, but coping with the day-to-day economy was daunting. The roots of the apartheid-era National Party — as well as of the African National Congress, which succeeded it — are socialist, so nothing worked very well. The government owned the two main TV stations, so there wasn’t much to watch on TV, even though we lived in the country’s biggest city, Johannesburg. The government set strict rules on when stores could be open, so that meant pulling ourselves together early enough on Saturday to do all of our shopping before the mall closed at 1 p.m. for the weekend. Taxes were enormously high — even secretaries were caught in the top (45 percent) bracket. The sales tax was 14 percent. They even charged a tax for owning a TV, which we were always able to dodge by not answering the doorbell and ducking out the backdoor whenever we saw the door to-door tax collector coming. The government owned the telephone company so there was a six-month waiting list to get a phone; calls back to the U.S. cost $4 or $5 a minute, so we wrote lots of letters, though the post office often lost our mail.

So as the debate swirling around us made it seem like Philadelphia in 1787, we appreciated the genius of the Founding Fathers more than ever. We became more American.

In 1994 South Africa held its first all-race election and Nelson Mandela became president. The campaign was tense — tanks patrolled the downtown streets not far from our office; one day we got trapped in a restaurant at lunchtime while waiting out a riot down the street. A place that seemed safe in 1989 — and booming in 1991 after apartheid ended (Newsweek put Johannesburg on its cover as the world’s next great city) — had turned frightening. Maureen had been mugged once and nearly lost our car to a hijacker another time. After more than five years, it was time to move on. We cashed in our company pensions and took a 10-month round-the-world trip.

Not ready to give up our cachet as expats and looking for more excitement, we landed in Hong Kong, figuring the handover to China in 1997 would be plenty interesting. I worked for The Wall Street Journal and Maureen became the Hong Kong correspondent for Variety. The experience was very different from our time south of the equator. If South Africa made us yearn for the economic efficiency of America, Hong Kong highlighted many things America would be wise to emulate.

Under Hong Kong’s flat-tax system, which doesn’t make deductions from your paycheck and instead bills you at the end of the year, we never paid more than 10 percent a year in income taxes, and there was no sales tax. Phone calls to the U.S.? At the end of our time there, we were paying 2 or 3 cents a minute, and the city’s latest cell phone models wouldn’t hit the U.S. market for another three or four years. Transportation? Our biggest problem was deciding whether to take the tram for 25 cents, the bus that would stop on our corner, a mini-bus that would get you there very fast, or the cab that was waving you down on the street and would charge just $2. As South Africa had been, Hong Kong was a British colony, but the Brits got this one right. After observing this freest of economies for 5 ½ years, I now felt qualified for a doctorate in economics.

The Koppisch family visiting
After nearly 12 years abroad, we returned home at the end of 2000. I still say the more British “Sorry” when I bump into someone in the hallway, instead of “Excuse me.” I head for the South African section when I’m in a wine store. We have lots of friends around the world to e-mail and maybe visit someday. And we have two fantastic “souvenirs” — our son, Timothy, and our daughter, Julia, both of whom we adopted in Hong Kong.

John Koppisch is the deputy Asian editor of Forbes magazine in New York City. At Catholic University, he was the editor of The Tower in 1977.

Something to Be Thankful For

Cover of Financial Mail
No country has a freer press than the U.S., but South Africa’s didn’t even come close to being as free. That hit home just a few weeks after we started working there in May 1989. It was against the law to publish a picture of or quote Nelson Mandela or any other banned person. But there were rumors that the government was holding talks with Mandela and might release him from detention.

For most of our weekly editorial meeting at the Financial Mail, we debated whether or not to put Mandela on the cover. Would the issue be confiscated? Would the editor be jailed? Would the magazine be shut down?

We went ahead and became the first South African publication to run Mandela’s picture in 25 years, which was the length of time he had been in prison. It was a 25-year-old picture. Other magazines and newspapers quickly followed suit with their own 25-year-old pictures. And within months, Mandela was released.

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Revised: November 2008

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