Homegoing in the 21st Century
The last twenty years have seen the near-collapse of empires of old and the rapid, steady rise of eight regional superpowers—the Eight Jewels, as they are called—here on the African continent. I know you are all proud that South Africa is among them, even as you, as insiders, as citizens, want more. I’d like to use the honour of being a guest of the Johannesburg School of Politics, Policy and Governance, as a representative of the Homegoers’ Solidarity Network, and as an outsider—a refugee to the African continent, if you will—to outline events, opportunities and challenges that I believe are crucial to understanding one of the most popular topics for punditry nowadays: What has the impact been of the stream of Black Americans who’ve moved to the African continent, the Eight Jewels in particular, over the past 20 years; Black Americans who are rebuilding their lives here, as I have been in Ghana, since the 28th Amendment, which wedged open the loopholes the 13th, re-introduced overt racism into the Constitution of the United States? What will come of the rising tensions?
Let me start by saying I don’t know what the future holds. What I do know is hindsight makes the past seem linear and logical, which is how the push-and-pull factors behind this migration trend of the past 20 years might appear even though they were anything but. And I’ve decided to lay out the push factors in particular in fuller detail in the hopes of impressing upon you that this moment is an opportunity for us to agitate for a more just and equitable future for us all. The future, as has become our motto at the Homegoers’ Solidarity Network, is ours to make.
The reality today, in 2040, is that the United States is a much poorer, more unequal place. A woefully inadequate response to the climate emergency and wilful refusal to re-imagine its economy are shown in the decayed public infrastructure and declining health of its population. Industries that sprang up around green technology have typically only set up shop in the northeast and the west coast, the country has no mass transit bullet train like Eurostar or Shanghai’s MagLev, and vast tracts of land in urban areas in places such as Montana and Wyoming struggle for good 6G coverage. As a result, two thirds of the country lives in conditions comparable to those in countries emerging from decades of war. It is why, for the majority of people living in the south or on the east coast, the recent hurricane has resulted in weeks of food insecurity, bankruptcy, and worse.
And while 99 percent of the population lives in cities, up from 83 percent in 2020, only New York, Chicago and Boston have large subways systems, with the hyperloop in another two out west, in San Francisco and Seattle. Begrudgingly following California’s lead, states now require that half of cars sold be electric or hybrids after the precipitous decline in air quality across many cities as people accelerated their moves from rural areas in search of economic and other opportunities. But these efforts came too late: health outcomes in U. S. cities are at their worst recorded levels and corollate to wealth. Attempts to wean Americans from fossil fuels also came up against a nativism hard-coded into the country’s car culture. So, even today in some states, people can still buy big-V8s, gas-guzzling pick-ups and SUVs, and, on weekends, enjoy NozCar—a new gasoline-powered racing championship that positions itself as the true successor to the now fully electric NASCAR. It is no coincidence that in these states that cling religiously to the internal combustion engine, the Confederate flag still flies high and proud on public buildings.
This is worth stressing: structural and systemic racism lie at the heart of the decline of the United States—or, as I sometimes think of it, the country’s fulfilment of its destiny. Outsiders have been surprised when I’ve said this. Many seem to have understood the economic decline of the United States to have preceded the return of overt racism to its Constitution with the passage of the 28th Amendment in 2029, a regression made possible by the politics that brought us the Donald Trump presidency in 2017, which his re-election in 2024 emboldened under the ticket of putting every American back to work by any means necessary.
This is worth stressing: structural and systemic racism lie at the heart of the decline of the United States—or, as I sometimes think of it, the country’s fulfilment of its destiny.
The coronavirus pandemic did indeed give rise to a crisis that called for greater public investment in healthcare as well as green, community-owned industries and infrastructure that would be more resilient and support public health efforts should there be another pandemic. But what we got instead of greater public investment amounted to little more than bailouts and handouts for incumbent corporations and specious political arguments—which played well at the state and local levels—that a small government that supports private enterprise was best. The subtext here was that poorer people, often synonymous with darker-skinned minorities and immigrants, would benefit more from these kinds of public investments. This thinking dovetailed into the exclusively white experience of what was euphemistically called ‘demographic anxiety,’ a close cousin of the apartheid regime’s ‘swart gevaar,’ black danger, here in South Africa—with both being convenient myths to justify the oppression, domination and exclusion of anyone not categorised white. Add to it the strand of religious-right thought grounded in the selective memory of a glorious American past where each person resolutely did for themselves and pulled themselves up into prosperity, and then you will see why the country allowed public infrastructure to fall into disrepair, failed to protect the commons, and has effectively broken up into privately-run enclaves that only the author Octavia Butler foresaw.
I hasten to add here that it wasn’t that no-one saw the 28th Amendment coming. In fact, acutely aware of threats to recently acquired freedoms in the post-Civil Rights Era, younger black politicians that’d swept into Congress had been pushing a decade earlier to close loopholes in the 13th Amendment that allowed incarcerated people to be forced into involuntary servitude. They were aware of the voracious school-to-prison pipeline, the over-policing of black communities, and the racial biases and inequities of the policing and criminal justice systems. They were aware, too, of the commercial interests bound up in these practices and systems, and the significant political influence wielded by those behind them. They foresaw how the American prison system would become not only a place to store people considered in excess to the country’s needs but also a source of the cheap, rights-free labour that would return the country’s economy to global competitiveness. It was just that foresight was near powerless against a people who, driven by fear and misled by opportunistic politicians and religious leaders, had decided to hush the better angels of their nature in order to embark on a massive campaign to disenfranchise large swaths of the population. These populations were aggrieved. They saw themselves as under siege with the rise of what they dubbed 'CRT' (critical race theory), which became a catch-all phrase in 2021 in the conservative imagination about the Left's hatred for America and its unwillingness to put the past to rest.
I was lucky. I had a job. I had an education and some assets. Life did not change for me as it did for so many others immediately after the 28th passed. But the feeling I had before of being a metaphoric frog in slow-boiling water became more intense. I cannot explain the sheer terror of living one pink slip away from being declared an adult delinquent, which would have rendered me a ward of the state with no say in the American democracy and put me in the invidious position of being one infraction—even one as minor as an unpaid parking ticket—away from being convicted as a felon and lost in the prison system. After the 28th passed, this system looked increasingly like a de-facto labour camp, which is why I and others in my position chose to leave.
But the migration had been well underway by then. For about a decade before I left in 2029, well-off Black American millennials had been ‘returning’ to Africa, to Ghana and Senegal in particular, seduced in part by recruiters whom these African governments rewarded based on the value of the capital homegoers brought with us: the wealthier the homegoer, the greater the reward. Other African states joined soon after in this aggressive recruitment strategy, with South Africa being the last of the Eight Jewels to deliberately recruit Black Americans. Or, rather, recruit our wealth, as things seem to have turned out, wealth that, while on average a fraction of our white counterparts in the United States, was still enough to boost the domestic asset base here on the continent.
Now, I would not be so brash as to claim that it was this recruitment strategy that singlehandedly improved prospects in African countries that adopted it. Many other factors—for example, the intracontinental freedom of movement ushered in by the Africa Free Trade Agreement of 2021—were at play that you are more knowledgeable on than I am. But the injection of capital certainly helped, as did the injection of skills that came with the subsequent waves of people like myself who, while less monied, were highly educated professionals with much-needed experience.
This is, perhaps, where things have become awkward for us all.
With the passage of the 28th, and even in the four years before, the trickle of homegoers grew into a steady stream, with professionals like me making up a greater proportion as, at the same time, whispers grew that each of us brought less and less. Of course there are those who say with increasing frequency these days that it is not only that homegoers are arriving with less in hand, it is also our attitudes and actions, which are said to impart a sense of entitlement and superiority. I won’t deny this. I have seen it with my own eyes. I have chastised it, too. We at the Homegoers’ Solidarity Network even have a formal programme for new arrivals to counter this.
At the same time, at the risk of cliché, I have also seen and experienced oneness, comradery, humility and familiarity that defy the realities of our more than 400 years of separation. I have witnessed, too, the same unacceptable attitudes and behaviour of superiority from the political and economic elite in Ghana, here in South Africa, and other parts of the continent I have had the privilege of visiting. This suggests that the dissatisfactions of our reunion might have more to do with societies on the continent remaining hierarchical and stratified, with one set of rules and norms for the wealthy and another for everyone else, as the continued existence of elites implies.
Right now, as we speak, as there has been about twice a week for the past two years, as one African country after the other has raised the investment threshold for the homegoers’ residence permit and as flights have become more rare, there is likely a boat on the Atlantic filled with people like you and me, Black Americans who could not raise the capital to come home. Rickety as it may be, that boat carries not only passengers’ bodies but also their hopes, dreams and futures, and those of their families, their children and grandchildren. South Africa has become the destination of choice as others of the Eight Jewels located within relatively easier reach along the west coast have stepped up sea patrols, returned boats, and set up off-shore refugee and asylum-seeker processing centres, turning back more people than they let in. But even here public pressure is mounting for the government to adopt similar measures.
So, the answers to the questions I started with, the ones on every pundit’s lips, are clear. While Black Americans have played a part, however small, in Africa's rising fortunes, recent events sugggest that the stream of Black Americans relocating to the continent will slow and, eventually, stop—dooming far too many desperate people to life in the anti-black cauldron that is the United States. Should this happen, it would call the past 20 years of affinity and African siblinghood into question. Should this be allowed to happen, should African countries, too, begin turning their backs on the most vulnerable as others did to Africans when conflict was more commonplace here, I fear that when difficult times return, this way of thinking will turn on the next vulnerable group in time.
Alistair Scott is a lifelong educator and development professional.