Feature: Dr Asad el-Malik and the African American movement to South Africa.

Nkateko’s Analysis Corner

Is the burgeoning movement of African Americans immigrating to South Africa the rise of a neo Pan-African movement?

Asad el-Malik, PhD.

If you were to ask Asad el-Malik, PhD — an African American scholar and expat living in South Africa what one of his favourite books is, he’d probably say it’s; The Americans Are Coming!: Dreams of African American Liberation in Segregationist South Africa by Robert Trent Vinson. The book details the stirred hopes of black South Africans after encountering the “urbane modernity” of African American personalities, history, culture and entertainment between 1890–1940. Asad el-Malik had chosen the book for the AfroLit monthly book club which he facilitates online between African Americans and South Africans and in conjunction with the African Centre for the Study of the United States (ACSUS).

Bridging the gap between ethnicities and establishing connections across nationalities forms part of Dr. el-Malik’s work as the Manager of the Diaspora Project at ACSUS in Johannesburg. According to Asad el-Malik, the centre conducts research and dialogue to “develop a critical eye on the U.S. from an African perspective, that is academic and examining” of U.S. systems, history, culture and society.

The centre has three areas of focus: U.S. Businesses in Africa, Africa-U.S. Cities engagement, and the Diaspora Project. The centre hosts dialogue events and conferences, including the inaugural U.S. Business in Africa Awards and the Africa-U.S. Cities Conference. ACSUS recently published the Africa-US Cities Executive Report, in which Gilbert Khadiagala, Director of ACSUS, stated:

Given the multiple interactions between Africa and the US, it is important to capture these relationships systematically, opening inroads into partnerships with US institutions working on US-Africa relations and African institutions working on the US.”

Asad el-Malik was born and bred in New Orleans, a city known as the ‘Big Easy’ for its easy-going and laid-back lifestyle, right by the Mississippi River. In 2019, Asad and his family — his wife and two kids, visited South Africa and immediately felt at home. After several consecutive visits in 2021 and 2022, the Republic of South Africa granted them a three-year residence visa in 2023.

There used to be a sense of security living in the United States, without fear of war or civil war. But living through 9–11 and January 6th, we have learnt that we are as vulnerable as every other country in the world,” said Dr Asad el-Malik, speaking at his South African house in Johannesburg.

Asad el-Malik brings his background and expertise in intercultural relations with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Mass Communications from Dillard University and a PhD in Intercultural Relations from Columbia International University.

Asad el-Malik and his family are part of a loose coalition of African Americans who emigrate outside the U.S. in search of different opportunities.

No official statistics cover these international transplants”, as reported by USA Today, of “Black emigres who said they felt cornered and powerless in the face of persistent racism, police brutality and economic struggles in the USA and chose to settle and pursue their American-born dreams abroad.”

Four years after South Africa’s 1994 transition from Apartheid, the New York Times reported estimates of around 1,000 black Americans living in South Africa in 1998. Twelve years later during the 2010 Fifa World Cup, The Roots reported an increase to 3,000 African Americans living in the country. As of 2023, official statistics record 7,429 U.S. citizens in South Africa (across race demographics).

According to Dr. el-Malik, a “trinity of factors” recently culminated in pushing “African Americans to consider life outside of the United States” — the Election of Donald Trump, the Covid-19 pandemic and the video of George Floyd’s brutal murder.

The 2018 Marvel cinematic movie, Black Panther, and its global success, followed by Ghana’s 2019 ‘Year of Return’ tourism campaign, became critical inflexion points in the build-up of the movement that has prompted African Americans who feel alienated in the U.S. to consider Africa as a viable alternative, reflected Dr el-Malik.

Ghana’s African Diaspora Forum reported receiving phone calls from over “300 people a day, saying, ‘How can we relocate to Ghana?’” after the 2019 ‘Year of Return’ campaign commemorating 400 years since the first African slaves left the continent through the ‘Door of No Return’ and arrived in the colony of Virginia.

In what seemed like a full circle moment, Asad el-Malik and his wife, Adrienne, announced to their viewers and subscribers in a 2019 youtube video titled: Why we are planning to leave the USA-part 1 of 3. The African American couple spoke about “actively planning” to leave the U.S. and discussed the “reasoning” behind moving to South Africa after their first visit.

Throughout the three-part videos, Asad and Adrienne el-Malik compared the social and economic lifestyle, work culture, pace, sense of safety and security, future growth projections, and the emotional freedom they’ve experienced between the two countries.

The family documented each step of their journey on their youtube channel: Asad El-Malik, PhD, which they update regularly. The channel has videos which capture their visa application process, house hunting in South Africa, grocery shopping, learning about and accepting load-shedding, and an overall experience of getting used to living in another country.

What drew us to the country is [that] South Africa offers the most ease of transition for some of us who have made that long sojourn to the United States and now return to their ancestral homeland, a place where we have cultural and genetic memory,” said Asad el-Malik.

South Africa’s modern city infrastructure and amenities are comparable to any city in the U.S., continued el-Malik. Furthermore, the cultural and racial history, coupled with the widespread use of English, were identified by Asad el-Malik as contributing factors. The system South Africa uses for doing business is similar to the system in the United States, said el-Malik, which has been an added advantage.

Through his work with the Diaspora Project at Wits University, Dr. el-Malik “engages the diaspora to consider Africa as a viable option to invest, live, and raise their children.”

Asad el-Malik and the recent wave of African American migrants moving to the continent are arriving within a socio-economic space ripe with potential for transatlantic collaborations and rife with resentment, jealousy and cultural misunderstandings.

It is yet to be determined what this new movement, which draws on historical and cultural links, will eventually become. As African Americans increasingly view Africa as a viable option to visit or relocate, they will have to engage Africans at their level of development for a successful transition.

African Americans report feeling a sense of emotional relief and acceptance on their arrival to the continent. Nonetheless, the high-level technical skills African Americans often possess threaten the labour market share value of South Africa’s dwindling middle class. African Americans stand to be a potential solution or an added problem to the economic situation.

Dr. el-Malik argues that the African Americans moving to South Africa are a positive addition to the country’s economy. According to preliminary data by ACSUS, African Americans living in South Africa are often financially well-off with considerable spending power, which they direct to local businesses. A recent demographic survey administered by the centre found that nearly 30% have a household income of over $200,000 (R3.5 million) and spend over $6000.00 (R107k) per month.

According to Asad el-Malik, his aim is not to get 41.6 million African Americans in the U.S. to pack up and move to Africa. Dr. el-Malik envisions a world where 41.6 million black people in America have some form of a connection to the continent, with at least 20 million having visited Africa once in their lifetime and at least 10 million actively doing business here.

Asad el-Malik expects “a sustained trickle of African Americans to the continent”, in the coming years.