Story: South Africans

Page 1. Migration

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Colonial links

As former British colonies, South Africa and New Zealand share a historical bond. Cape Town was the last haven for European migrant ships before they braved the roaring forties of the Southern Ocean and headed for New Zealand.

During the 1860s the New Zealand government recruited military settlers from Cape Town to provide a buffer zone in the land wars. Most were probably British or Irish. Close to a thousand landed in Auckland in 1864 after only three to five years’ experience of colonial life in the Cape of Good Hope.

New Zealand’s first overseas war

The South African War (1899–1902), also known as the Boer War, was the first in which New Zealand troops fought overseas. The First Contingent was seen off by 40,000 people in 1899. More than 6,000 men took part, serving mainly as mounted infantry. A small number of women also went as nurses and schoolteachers. On 15 January 1900 a detachment from the First Contingent crushed a Boer attempt to seize a hill overlooking the contingent’s camp at Slingersfontein. The battle site was renamed New Zealand Hill.

The 1871 New Zealand census listed 405 people born in the Cape of Good Hope. By 1911 there were over 1,000 South Africans, and the population hovered around this mark for the next 40 years.

Apartheid-era migrants

From 1948 to 1994 a white minority government ruled South Africa. Its discriminatory policy of apartheid favoured whites and enforced separate development for blacks and other ethnic groups.

In the 1960s and 1970s there was a growing exodus of liberal whites. While some showed their opposition to apartheid by voting with their feet, many just wanted a better life for their children and could not see a long-term future in South Africa. By 1986, with the prospect of guerrilla warfare, the number of South Africans opting to live in New Zealand had risen to 2,685. Those who stayed behind referred disparagingly to such emigration as ‘the chicken run’.

1990s: post-apartheid migration

In South Africa’s 1994 elections, the first in which all of South Africa's people could vote, the white government was ousted. Nelson Mandela became president of the new South Africa, which he called ‘the rainbow nation’.

Mandela’s government was unfairly burdened with an expectation that it would solve all of South Africa’s problems. Crime escalated, and the hopes held by a poor populace were largely unfulfilled. It became the norm for many middle-class South Africans to live with burglar bars, fortified fences and guard dogs. With policies promoting black employment, many government jobs went to poorly qualified blacks, and some whites questioned whether they were wanted in the new South Africa. Many believed there were too many people and not enough jobs or resources. As a result there was an exodus during the 1990s of 400,000 skilled, mainly white people.

With its political stability and English-speaking culture, New Zealand seemed a desirable country for bringing up children. For many professionals, immigration in the 1990s was made easier because New Zealand policy favoured highly-skilled immigrants. In 1993, 958 South Africans became permanent residents. In 1994, this leapt to 4,224. Over the next decade permanent residency approvals totalled 37,382. By 2013 South Africans were the largest immigrant group after English, Chinese, Indians and Australians. While the vast majority were white, there were also smaller numbers of mixed race, black and Indian South African migrants.

How to cite this page:

Carl Walrond, 'South Africans - Migration', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/south-africans/page-1 (accessed 16 November 2018)

Story by Carl Walrond, published 8 Feb 2005, updated 25 Mar 2015