Africa is a vast and varied continent – North Africa is a different world from sub-Saharan Africa, and ethnicities in the many countries are diverse. In addition to the myriad black tribes and Arabic peoples of North Africa, there are European, Asian and Indian people born in Africa.
Over 40 African nationalities in New Zealand form a kaleidoscope of culture, religion, language and ethnicity. Often the only common element among Africans is their continent of origin.
Colonialism dominated early links between Africa and New Zealand as white settlers moved freely between colonies of the British Empire. As early as 1871, the New Zealand census recorded 34 people born in ‘British African Possessions’ and 31 from other African countries. And it is likely that most of the 92 African-born people in the 1911 census were white.
By 1986 there were 3,939 African-born residents in New Zealand – 90% of them from Africa’s Commonwealth countries. The vast majority were white.
The first black African to reach New Zealand was a servant of Captain Furneaux, travelling aboard the Adventure on James Cook’s second voyage. He was slain by Māori in Queen Charlotte Sound in December 1773.
Most early black arrivals were African Americans. The 1916 census list of ‘Race Aliens’ comprises 95 ‘Negroes’ (African Americans) and just six people born in Africa – four Abyssinians (Ethiopians) and two Egyptians.
In the 1960s there was an influx of black Africans who came as assisted students on the Colombo Plan. By 1972, 266 had completed courses. Most returned, but a handful married, had children and settled.
Before the 1990s there was little opportunity for black Africans to emigrate to New Zealand because the ‘traditional source country’ immigration policy favoured people from the United Kingdom and Ireland.
Whites fleeing the Rhodesian war arrived in the 1970s. Two hundred Ugandans came in 1972–73 after President Idi Amin gave thousands of Asian Africans 90 days to leave the country.
New Zealand’s isolation and restrictive immigration policies meant that up until 1986 only about 10 people per year, of all nationalities, sought asylum or refugee status on arrival. With the adoption of a formal refugee quota in 1987, African refugee numbers increased.
In 1991 a more open immigration policy was adopted. With the wars in Ethiopia (1991–93) and Somalia (1992–94), and the genocide in Rwanda (1994), annual refugee arrivals averaged 290 for the decade ending in 2002.
The number of Africans gaining permanent residence also leapt from six in 1982 to 757 in 2003.
Although South Africans made up the majority (82%) of all African arrivals until 2003, others came from Somalia (7%), Egypt (4%), Zimbabwe (4%), and Ethiopia (2%). In 1993 African immigrants came from 23 countries; by 2003 this number had increased to 44.
In the decade since 1993, two years after Somalia imploded into clan warfare, 3,200 Somalis have been granted residency – 1,500 as refugees, and others through family reunification. In 2003 most had settled in Auckland’s western suburbs (1,200–1,500) with 1,000 in Hamilton and others in Hastings, Wellington and Christchurch. The Somali community are followers of Islam. Most are women, often raising children without fathers, who were casualties of war.
In the last half of the 20th century Ethiopia suffered war, famine and economic collapse, which displaced millions of people. From 1993 to 2002, 966 Ethiopian refugees arrived. Most settled in Auckland; smaller numbers went to Wellington and Christchurch. The majority are of the Amhara ethnic group, but some are Oromo.
In the mid-1990s some 1,500 Egyptians were granted permanent residence. By 2003 there were over 2,000, mostly in Auckland. Some are professionals, while others work in the restaurant industry. Many are Coptic Church followers – there are about 150 Coptic Orthodox families in Auckland.
From 2000 to 2003, around 1,800 Zimbabweans fleeing government persecution were granted permanent residence. Earlier immigrants formed the ZimCare Trust to aid subsequent arrivals, who often came with just suitcases. Lacking formal qualifications, many ex-farmers have had difficulty finding non-farming work. In 2004 the government announced that Zimbabweans already in the country, many of whom did not qualify for permanent residence, would be considered for permanent residence under a special policy. in the five years after 2001, the number of residents born in Zimbabwe increased by over 5,000 to a total of 8,151.
Various support groups were formed in the 1990s. Pan-African clubs (African Association of Auckland, Africa Association of New Zealand in Wellington) serve the wider community. Groups have also formed around nationality (Somali Friendship Society), ethnicity (Oromo Community) and religion (Islamic Ahlulbayt Foundation of New Zealand).
Shukri Abi arrived as a refugee in 1993. Nine years later she graduated with a BSc in pharmacology from Auckland University. While she shares many interests with other young New Zealand women, she longs to see her relatives back in Somalia.
‘There’s something missing … I feel my life would not be complete unless I go back and have a look. …The book is still open. I can’t close it unless I go back. Wherever my future takes me, New Zealand will be my home – and Somalia will be my home as well.’ 1
Coming from war zones to a developed country with a different culture and climate is a daunting task. Many refugees have experienced severe trauma and arrive after long and dangerous journeys. Those from countries in the Horn of Africa (such as Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan) are often single women with large families and no relatives to provide support. Many are burdened with debt and struggle to meet the travel costs for family reunification. Relatives back in Africa often expect to receive money.
Many immigrants have little or no formal education. English language programmes have had low success rates, and yet without knowing the language, newcomers feel excluded from society. Many of the professionals who arrived in the 2000s were frustrated by registration requirements and the lack of recognition of their qualifications. They often had to undertake further study to gain accreditation.
Africans have occasionally suffered discrimination, harassment and violence; in 1998 a Hamilton mosque was gutted in an arson attack. Tensions have also erupted within African groups. Some Somali Aucklanders were charged with murders in 2003.
Immigrants have introduced African drumming and dance and, with the influence of black American culture, popularised hairstyles such as braiding. Resident musicians Sam Manzanza (Democratic Republic of Congo) and Paul Ubana Jones (England/Nigeria) have entertained Kiwis for many years. African football players have helped inject flair into the Wellington and Canterbury club scene.
The New Zealand census figures listed here show the number of residents born in Africa or African countries (excluding South Africa).
In the 2006 and 2013 censuses, people were asked to indicate the ethnic group with which they identified. Listed below are the numbers of people who identified with ethnicities relevant to the African story. The numbers include those who indicated more than one group.
The African Focus Magazine: A Quarterly for Africans and Their Friends. Auckland: NZ African Focus Magazine, 2000–2001.
Bell, Daphne, ed. New to New Zealand: a guide to ethnic groups in New Zealand. Auckland: Reed, 2001.
Rapson, Bevan. ‘Out of Africa.’ Metro (April 2003): 66–76.
The report Refugee health care: a handbook for health professionals, available on the website of the New Zealand Ministry of Health, includes information about the cultural backgrounds and experiences of African immigrants.
This website provides a focus for immigrants from southern Africa.