The writer is a US-based author of Alive and Well in Pakistan and Home Free: An American Road Trip, among other books.

When I was in university, in the mid-1980s, there were two big international political causes that American university students – those who were inclined toward student political activism – were into protesting about: Central America and South Africa. To my loss, and perhaps to my shame, these didn’t interest me much. I say to my loss because, had I involved myself more at the time, I might have learned some important things sooner than I did. But I did learn those things eventually, and at the time I was busy learning other things that were also important.

What interests me more now is what the attitude of my middle-aged self should be toward my callow youthful indifference to human suffering under the U.S.-supported military regimes in Guatemala and El Salvador, or the notorious apartheid regime in South Africa. Part of the context at the time, which I remember well, is that my generation of American students was generally belittled and ridiculed for our apathy by our elders who had protested the war in Vietnam some 15 years earlier. Shame on us youngsters, was the implicit (sometimes even explicit) message, for not having been there back in the day (even though we couldn’t have helped that), and for not being on the streets protesting U.S.-sponsored atrocities in Central America and racial oppression in South Africa.

With an additional 35 years of lived experience and historical perspective, I can see all this in more just proportion. The many wars, atrocities, upheavals and migrations worldwide since then leave our self-regarding American fussiness of the Reagan era looking quaint. But what I want to address here – here being Cape Town, where I’m writing this – is how South Africa’s history looks to me now, and what lessons it offers us Americans, if only we would heed them.

A critique at the time of the anti-apartheid movement in America was that it drew a false analogy between the situation in South Africa and the then-still-recent civil rights movement in the South of the United States. Liberal white Americans who felt good about themselves for having put their own country’s retrograde racists in their place considered themselves sufficiently righteous to hector and shame the government of another country for its racist policies, as if the situations were parallel. We would do better to mind our own business in our own flawed country, went the critique, and to leave South Africans to work things out among themselves.

But it turns out that the insufferable left-wing activists were right: the racial situations in the U.S. and South Africa really were and are similar, if we look at them in the larger context of history. The commonality lies in the spread of people of European origin, and their rule, during the colonial period and especially through the 19th and 20th centuries. On this trip I’m purposely reading Roughing It, an anthology of personal writings by the British pioneers revered in South Africa as “the 1820 Settlers,” along with Chief Seattle and the Town That Took His Name by David M. Buerge, about the tragic encounter, right around the same time, between native peoples and white Americans in the part of the United States where I live. The two books tell versions of the same story, playing out on opposite sides of the planet. The United States has customarily excused itself as not being a colonial power like those nasty Europeans, but by now we all know that’s a lame lie.

The difference between white rule in the United States and South Africa is not moral but demographic: white America succeeded in killing off enough of the truculent natives, and in swelling its own ranks sufficiently with ongoing European immigration, that it overwhelmed minority groups by sheer numbers. This is justified by calling it democracy. But the problem for the present-day overt white nationalist movement, whose figurehead is Trump, is that democracy is fast proving incompatible with white-friendly demographics: soon, minority groups will add up to a majority of the United States population.

The problem with racist nationalism of all stripes – from Nazi Germany to apartheid South Africa to America today – is that its logic leads inexorably to totalitarianism and genocide. South Africa avoided that ultimate fate, by the skin of its teeth, thanks to the extraordinary leadership of Nelson Mandela and others. I would like for my country to avoid it too. The urgent question is how to understand what’s happening. But I find myself resistant to finger-wagging instruction from nags like the Indian writer Pankaj Mishra, who writes (at length, as usual) in the New York Times about the “emotional incontinence” of white nationalists, “gilded networks of white power,” and how “the Anglosphere originally forged and united by the slave trade and colonialism is in terminal crisis today.” He’s right, of course, but it’s easy and pleasurable for him to write such things, because he’s not white. And it might be true that all white people unwittingly benefit from white supremacy, but whiteness is not a monolithic category, and white nationalists do not speak for most of us.

Nazi-era Germans of conscience, such as Sophie Scholl and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, offer useful models, though it’s sobering to remember that both of those remarkable human beings were executed for their resistance to the regime. In the hope that matters won’t come to that pass in America, what I find most personally useful is what white South Africans, now living as a powerless minority, can teach me and other white Americans about how to live an individual life that’s meaningful and useful and dignified. Rian Malan’s brilliant memoir My Traitor’s Heart: A South African Exile Returns to Face His Country, His Tribe, and His Conscience points toward how to do that. So do the lives and work of the landowning white families I’m here in South Africa to write about, who are trying to make good use of their vestigial relative affluence and privilege in the urgent worldwide fight against wildlife poaching. •