‘Witness’ writer’s story on SA’s expat superstars goes viral and inspires a conference

2014-05-14 00:00

PRIDE among South Africa’s expatriates has rallied around a single newspaper story published last year — with thousands of social media “shares”, a hunt for the “true author”; a re-publishing of the story in Europe yesterday, and a proposed global conference of South African superstars.

Written for the Mail & Guardian by The Witness’s chief reporter Rowan Philp, the story “Born in the RSA; Big in the USA” revealed that the generation of South African immigrants to the U.S. in the 1980s had emerged — 25 years later — as leaders of major American institutions, from Notre Dame University to America’s largest pharmaceuticals wholesaler.

Unsung names like Paul Maritz, who grew up in KZN and attended Hilton College, has led the cloud computing revolution, while Trevor Mundel is head of the Bill Gates Foundation’s giant project to eradicate polio and malaria.

The story stated: “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 the U.S.’s top business school; and another is replacing the space shuttle.”

This week, one expat, Clinton Phillips — CEO of a medical company in the U.S. — circulated a proposal for a “5-star” conference in Aspen, Colorado, next year, which he hopes will feature innovators like Johann Rupert, Elon Musk and Discovery chief Adrian Gore: “Inspired by the Mail & Guardian article by Rowan Philp, ‘Born in SA’ is a special event that brings together [as speakers] 12 to 15 of the most innovative and influential South African world changers.”

Phillips said the conference — proposed to take place ahead of the Aspen Ideas Festival next June — would include “hearing from South Africans who are leading the world in subjects from rockets to cancer to philanthropy”, and feature a discussion of “solutions that can be helpful to South Africa”.

Meanwhile, yesterday, the global expat website, SApeople.com, published a lead story entitled: “Popular Piece about South Africans in the USA goes Viral with Wrong Author’s Name”.

In republishing the original article yesterday, SAPeople editor Jenni Baxter said the story had migrated from expatriate Facebook sites onto e-mail chains, where debates had emerged over its authorship — “with the [original e-mail] subject declaring that it was written by him”.

Baxter, from Durban, was co-author of The Expat Confessions.

She said many of SAPeople’s 38 000 Facebook followers were inspired by the revelations, while some were shocked at the new evidence that the country had lost world-class skills.

Even Miss USA herself at the time, Nana Meriwether, was born in SA, and Philp discovered that four of the first five Silicon Valley executive awards had gone to Saffer whizzkids. Experts suggested that, statistically, the 83 000 South Africans there were America’s most successful immigrant population.

Musk, founder of both Tesla and the private rocket company SpaceX, told Philp that his South African background was key to his success — partly because TV was “so bad” that he was forced to read instead.

Baxter said there was a growing appetite to “celebrate those South Africans who’ve left and done well for themselves overseas”.

She said the viral version of the story “also includes one or two omissions and mistakes”, which she wanted to correct for expats “before the facts get totally lost in the legend”.

SAPeople stated: “Before you could say ‘social media’ it had gone viral on Facebook with one South African in Phila­delphia copying and pasting the article into his status on FB, but he forgot to include the heading, source or writer of the article; and probably didn’t realise just how popular it was going to be.”

Expatriate tennis coach Julian Krinsky filed the original Facebook post, under the new title: “What America Gained and SA Lost”.

His site alone now shows over 1 200 “shares” of an altered version of the article, while one Afrikaner expat blog site has shared it 990 times.

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