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South Africans

by  Carl Walrond

When Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa in 1994, he said, ‘there is no easy road to freedom’. Over the next decade his ‘rainbow nation’ faced escalating troubles, causing tens of thousands to leave. Many saw New Zealand as a haven, and South Africans soon formed one of the country’s largest immigrant groups.


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 help provide a buffer zone after the land wars. Most were probably British or Irish. Close to a thousand landed in Auckland in 1864 after 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 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.



In 2013 over half of New Zealand’s South Africans were living in Auckland. Much smaller numbers lived in Wellington, Hamilton and Christchurch.

Auckland’s appeal included its jobs, mild climate and expatriate population – many emigrants had friends and family already living there. In 2003 there were an estimated 20,000 on the North Shore, with another concentration in the eastern suburbs. Some antipathy was expressed toward Auckland’s South Africans as the demand for housing, fuelled in part by immigration, put prices beyond the reach of many people.

Work and assimilation

In 2013 nearly one-third of South Africans were professionals and 97% of the population over the age of 15 held formal qualifications. Many were doctors and nurses, or worked in insurance, information technology and publishing. Some used New Zealand as a stepping-stone to Australia: after three years immigrants could apply for New Zealand citizenship, which allowed them to live and work in Australia.

An LSD trip

Bruce, a South African immigrant, compares New Zealand to Australia:

‘My wife and I and two pre-school daughters arrived in New Zealand in 1994. We had actually emigrated to Australia but didn’t like it much. Australia is too “big”. We came to New Zealand on a five-week LSD [Look-See-Decide] trip, liked what we saw and decided that this was the country for us. I like the compactness of New Zealand. We go skiing in winter and camping every summer. I think that New Zealand offers South Africans a lot.’ 1

In terms of language, qualifications and cultural background South Africans have found many similarities with New Zealanders. On the other hand, South Africans’ forthright way of speaking has been perceived as arrogant by some New Zealanders, used to more indirect communication. Another issue many white South Africans faced was the assumption that they were racist, which probably stemmed from misunderstandings about their motives for emigrating. Most came for economic, safety and lifestyle reasons.

    • From Jenny Harrison and Surita Nortje, A new life in New Zealand. Auckland: Reference, 2000, p. 1. › Back


Organisations and religion

South African community groups sprang up in the 1990s. Clubs offered a forum for dealing with homesickness and other issues – many migrants had suffered heavy financial losses because of the unfavourable exchange rate. Some held concerns for family left behind, unable to afford the flight out. Springbok Radio, which played on Sundays in Auckland, helped people maintain a sense of identity.

Springbok or Kiwi?

A young Tauranga father muses on his national identity:

‘You're confused, like I think if South Africa and New Zealand would go to war against each other, I would jump the fences and be a South African again, but I think I expect my children to be New Zealanders and fight on the New Zealanders’ side, because that is who they are. Ja, it is a little bit confusing, you don't know where you are.’ 1

The largest club, the South Africa New Zealand Charitable Trust, had some 6,000 mainly English-speaking members in 2001. Some South African immigrants speak Afrikaans, a language that developed among the mainly Dutch settlers who moved to South Africa in the 17th century. The Afrikaans Club of New Zealand grew from 30 members in 1998 to 800 in 2003 and had followers in Auckland, Waikato and the Bay of Plenty. From 1996 to 2013 New Zealand’s Afrikaans-speaking community surged by over 180% to 14,629 people (52% of New Zealand South Africans).

One of the most recent associations, the South African Supporters Club, is made up of mainly coloured immigrants. Based in Auckland, it had a membership of around 300 in 2001. There are also South African clubs in Wellington and the South Island.

In 2013 over three-quarters of South Africans had religious affiliations. In Auckland there were three Afrikaans churches offering regular services in Howick and on the North Shore. A North Shore library established an Afrikaans bookshelf and featured Afrikaans story-telling sessions. South African Jews made a significant contribution to Auckland’s Jewish community.


The immigrants introduced Kiwis to their own version of the barbeque – the braaivleis. To cater for those missing the homeland cuisine, Auret and Annie Vorster opened their St Heliers shop Zebra Zu in 1995. A Howick butchery, Beef on the Beach, also began making biltong (dried meat) and boerewors (South African sausage) in the mid-1990s. By 2003 there were at least eight dedicated South African shops and cafés in the country, with supermarkets also stocking authentic produce.

In February 2003, a record 15,000 people of many ethnicities flocked to Howick for the third annual Taste of Africa festival, soaking up traditional African cuisine, music and art.


Keen sportspeople such as netballer Irene van Dyk began to make their mark on courts and playing fields around the country. They welcomed the chance for a new life in a country where they were not constantly fearing for their safety.

    • From The Herald (South Africa) online, (last accessed 10/06/2003). › Back

Facts and figures

Country of birth

The New Zealand census figures listed here show the number of residents born in South Africa or its predecessors.

Cape of Good Hope

  • 1874 census: 405

South Africa

  • 1901 census: 474
  • 1951 census: 1,398
  • 1976 census: 3,840
  • 2001 census: 26,061
  • 2006 census: 41,676
  • 2013 census: 54,279

Ethnic identity

In the 2006 and 2013 censuses, people were asked to indicate the ethnic group or groups with which they identified. The numbers include those who indicated more than one group.

  • South African: 21,609 (2006); 28,656 (2013)

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Carl Walrond, 'South Africans', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 2 October 2023)

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