Story: South Africans

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.

Story by Carl Walrond
Main image: Children listen to an Afrikaans story, Auckland

Story summary

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Colonial links

South Africa and New Zealand were once both British colonies. From the 1840s, ships bound for New Zealand with British settlers would stop at Cape Town before heading into the choppy Southern Ocean. But in the early days only a few hundred braved the journey. By 1911 the number of South African-born people living in New Zealand had reached about 1,000.


From 1948 to 1994 South Africa’s white government ruled by apartheid, which kept the black majority separate and denied them basic rights. Whites who disagreed began to emigrate to other countries, including New Zealand. As another Commonwealth country it was relatively easy to enter, and seemed a more peaceful place to work and raise children. By 1986 there were 2,685 South African residents.

After apartheid

In South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, Nelson Mandela became president, proclaiming ‘Let freedom reign’. But it was impossible to fulfil the hopes of millions. Crime increased, more people competed for jobs and daily life became increasingly unsafe. By 2013 the number of people born in South Africa choosing to live in New Zealand had jumped to 54,279.

The community

The majority who flooded in from the 1990s onwards were white English-speakers who came for jobs and a safer life. Concentrated in Auckland, the community included some Jewish people, as well as black or coloured and Indian immigrants. In 2013 there were 14,649 people of South African ethnicity who spoke Afrikaans, the language of South Africa’s Dutch settlers.

‘It is a little bit confusing, you don't know where you are,’ said one immigrant. Although South Africans found many similarities to their homeland, they felt torn between two countries. But they soon set up community clubs and churches, and opened shops introducing Kiwis to South African foods such as biltong (dried meat). Netballer Irene van Dyk is one South African who became part of the sports scene.

From small beginnings, South Africans quickly became one of New Zealand’s biggest immigrant groups.

How to cite this page:

Carl Walrond, 'South Africans', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 July 2024)

Story by Carl Walrond, published 8 February 2005, updated 25 March 2015