South Africans living in Canada come from a country whose diverse population of 36.6 million inhabitants (1989) are not classified by ethnic, national, or linguistic distinctions but rather according to racial categories listed as White, Black, Asian, and Coloured. White includes all people of European origin, for the most part British, Dutch, German, French, and Portuguese. Black refers to all Black Africans, generally referred to as Bantus, and includes a wide variety of distinct tribal and cultural identities, the largest of which are the Zulus, Xhosa, Tswana, and Sotho. The Asians are primarily from India. The Coloureds are those who do not fit into the preceding categories. In South Africa, the Blacks comprise 75 percent of the population, Whites 13 percent, Coloured 9 percent, and Asians 3 percent. Among South African immigrants in Canada, however, the proportions are reversed, with the Whites representing 73 percent of the group, followed by Asians (18 percent), Coloureds (6 percent), and Blacks (3 percent).
Aside from the official racial categories, South Africa is characterized by linguistic complexity. Blacks speak one of several Bantu languages and many speak as well either English or Afrikaans, a distinct language derived from Dutch. The Whites are more or less evenly divided between the Afrikaners (descendants of Dutch, French Huguenot, and German settlers), who speak Afrikaans, and English-speakers, whose ancestors came primarily from the British Isles. Most Coloureds in rural areas speak Afrikaans, while those in urban centres are predominantly English-speaking. Many of the Asians speak their original East Indian languages as well as English.
Strategically located at the southern tip of Africa, the lands that later became the country of South Africa were originally inhabited by black peoples referred to as Hottentots and Bushmen. Since about 1500 C.E., the country has attracted settlers both from within the continent and from abroad. These have included the Bantu tribes from central and east Africa, and later, Europeans, led primarily by Dutch, French Huguenot, and British settlers. Portuguese sailors were the first Europeans to reach the southern tip of Africa at the end of the fifteenth century; they used the Cape as a stopping point on their journeys to the East Indies. It was the Dutch, however, who in 1652 formed the first permanent colony. It came to be known as the Cape of Good Hope. French Huguenots and German settlers also came to the colony, and, together with the Dutch, they formed a people that came to be known as the Boers or Afrikaners. As the settlers expanded, they drove out or eliminated the Black Hottentots and Bushmen. Intermixture between the Europeans, Hottentots, and slaves brought in from other parts of Africa led to the creation of people later classified as Coloureds.
During the Napoleonic era, the Cape Colony was annexed by the British (1795), retaken for a few years by the Dutch (1803), and then formally granted to Great Britain at the Congress of Vienna (1815). Discontented with British rule, the Boers moved farther into the interior (the “Great Trek” of the late 1830s), where they established two republics, the Orange Free State and the Transvaal Republic. The discovery of diamonds (1867) and gold (1886) in those republics prompted the British to expand their political influence inland, a move that, in turn, was opposed by the Dutch. Increasing political rivalry and armed conflict between the two groups culminated in the Boer War (1899–1902).
Although the Britsh were victorious, their brutal military campaigns were widely criticized in international circles. The need to find a political solution eventually resulted in an agreement whereby the two British (Cape Town and Natal) and Dutch (Orange Free State and Transvaal) territories were joined together to create in 1910 the Union of South Africa.
Since that time, South African history has been dominated by two main themes: the struggle between the British and Afrikaners for political control of the state; and the efforts of both the British and Afrikaners to keep the other peoples – Blacks, Coloureds, and Asians – in political and socio-economic subordination. These themes remained dominant both before and after 1961, when the British-controlled Union of South Africa became the independent Republic of South Africa.
In 1948 Afrikaner Nationalists came to power and two years later implemented apartheid, the Afrikaans word for “apartness.” This was a policy in which the government enforced segregation and discrimination based on the White, Black, and Coloured racial categories (the Asian category was subsequently added). Apartheid also included territorial segregation, leading to the creation for Blacks of ten African “homelands,” that is, pseudo-states based on tribal organizations within South Africa and with varying degrees of self-government. Most of these homelands were not economically viable, however, so that in contrast to the White population the Blacks remained politically disenfranchised, socially marginalized, and economically impoverished. Similarly, the Group Areas Act determined where Asians and Coloureds were allowed to live.
Beginning in the 1960s, Black discontent erupted into an increasing number of riots and other forms of protest that were coordinated by political organizations like the African National Congress (ANC) and Pan-African Congress. The South African government responded with harsh measures that led to the long-term imprisonment or death of activists like Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko, whose fate brought upon South Africa the condemnation of large segments of the international community. Change finally came with the election of President Frederik W. de Klerk, who by the late 1980s had initiated a reform program aimed at dismantling apartheid. Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and four years later he was elected president of South Africa after successfully winning in the country’s first fully democratic elections. Since that time, the Black-dominated government has tried to establish a society in which all citizens are treated equally, regardless of race or ethnic heritage.
South African immigration to Canada began after World War II. In the immediate post-war years, the number of immigrants was very small. Between 1946 and 1959 the average number of South African immigrants arriving in Canada was only 133. Until the end of the 1960s, the immigrants were mainly White South Africans of British background. Fluctuations in the annual number of immigrants entering Canada generally reflected political incidents in South Africa. In March 1960, in Sharpeville, South African police opened fire on Black men, women, and children who were protesting the “pass laws” (the laws that required only Blacks to carry a “passport,” for easy identification at all times), and as many as 69 people lost their lives. A week later a state of emergency was declared. In the decade following this incident, from 1960 to 1969, the number of South Africans who arrived in Canada increased to an average of 641 per annum.
In the late 1960s Canada relaxed its racial restrictions on immigration and opened its borders to immigrants from many more countries. Its new policy made it easier for persons of non-European origin to enter Canada, and thus it is not surprising that, in the decade from 1970 to 1979, immigration from South Africa almost doubled to an average annual rate of 1,236. A peak of 2,458 was reached in 1977, the year following the Soweto riots in South Africa. In 1976 a protest against the use of Afrikaans in Black schools took place in the schools of Soweto (the district where Blacks serving the Johannesburg economy were “allowed” to live). Black schoolchildren stood defiantly in front of army tanks, brought in to quell the protests, and were shot. These protests were the spark for a sustained demonstration against all facets of apartheid. In September 1977 news that the Black activist Steve Biko had been killed while he was held in detention further intensified the protests. Tension among the races grew stronger, and those who could afford to do so left the country.
The most recent period of increased immigration from South Africa occurred after 1987, when fundamental changes were taking place in South Africa. Since the election in 1994 of Nelson Mandela as the first Black president of South Africa, there has been a complete political transformation of the country. There is evidence that South African immigration has increased further in the period 1991–96.
The 1991 Canadian census shows that 24,725 persons were born in the Republic of South Africa. There are no figures given for ethnic origin. Undoubtedly, the number of South Africans in Canada would be higher if descendants of the South African-born were included, as well as those born in other countries of parents from South Africa. Taking these factors into account, and also the increase in immigration since 1991, a reasonable estimate of the size of the South African community in Canada would be approximately 60,000.
South Africans settled principally in Ontario (56 percent), British Columbia (25 percent), and Alberta (10 percent). Toronto accounts for just over 40 percent and Vancouver for about 15 percent, while Montreal accounts for a further 5 percent, but many South Africans have settled in smaller towns such as Newmarket, Oakville, and Pickering in Ontario and Sardis in British Columbia.
South Africans living abroad do not constitute a unified ethnic group, but, as in South Africa, are divided along racial lines. It was the policy of the South African government policy to make it difficult for its non-White population to emigrate, and Blacks were simply prohibited from emigrating. As a result, only 3 percent of South Africans immigrants to Canada are Blacks, the racial group that forms the largest proportion of the population in South Africa. The racial composition of South African immigrants to Canada has been changing in recent years. The 1991 census shows that 79 percent of White South Africans and 76 percent of visible-minority South Africans have been in Canada only since 1971. However, as many as 45 percent of visible-minority South Africans (mostly Asians and Coloureds), compared to only 25 percent of Whites, arrived between 1986 and 1991. The 1991 census reports that, among Whites, who represent 73 percent of all immigrants from South Africa, 25 percent are British, 20 percent Jewish, and 35 percent have multiple European origins.
The Canadian census requires people to classify themselves by ethnic origin, but South African Coloureds have difficulty in doing so, because they have no ethnic ancestry such as Dutch, English, Indian, Zulu, or Xhosa. The label “Coloured” was imposed by the South African government. In Canada it is assumed that Coloureds will consider themselves to be visible-minority South Africans of multiple-ethnic origin, but it is likely that some do not consider themselves to be a visible minority.
The various racial groups among South Africans in Canada had very different motivations for immigrating to Canada. Many Whites left South Africa because they did not agree with the apartheid policy. Liberal Whites were considered traitors to the cause by other Whites, and especially by the government, and some were put under house arrest or imprisoned. Others did not want their sons to be conscripted into the South African army. White South Africans who immigrated to other countries were seldom warmly welcomed because it was assumed that they belonged to the privileged class in South Africa. As a result, many did not reveal their South African origins.
The mother tongue of more than 90 percent of White South Africans in Canada is English, and 98 percent speak it at home. The mother tongue is English for only 60 percent of visible-minority South Africans, but 85 percent speak it at home. A sizable number of South Africans also speak Chinese, Portuguese, Gujarati, or Hindi in addition to English. Less than 1 percent of South Africans are unable to converse in one of Canada’s official languages. In this respect, South Africans have fewer language problems than many other immigrant groups on arriving in Canada.
Because Canadian immigration policy selected individuals with high levels of education and job skills, South Africans were generally well educated and had professional training. According to the 1991 Canadian census, 31 percent of White South African immigrants had university degrees and a further 16 percent had some university education, while these proportions were also quite high (25 percent and 17 percent) among non-White South Africans. For the total Canadian population, in comparison, the proportions were only 11 percent and 9 percent. The fact that such a high percentage of non-White immigrants had advanced levels of education is all the more remarkable because educational opportunities were very unequal for the different races in South Africa. Non-Whites who achieved any level of education did so despite the barriers created by the apartheid regime, and as a result of individual and family sacrifices.
South African immigrants to Canada were also highly qualified for the job market. South African men had professional training in engineering, applied science and technology, commerce, management, business administration, and the health professions, while women had training principally in commerce, the health professions, and education. Most South African men found jobs in management, sales, and medicine/health, while women were concentrated in clerical jobs, management, and medicine/health.
In 1991 the unemployment rate for males was 11 percent for all Canadians, compared with 7 percent for White South Africans and 10 percent for non-Whites. For females these rates were 11 percent for all Canadians and 10 percent, respectively, for both White and non-White South Africans. While the full-time employment incomes of males and females in Canada as a whole were $29,254 and $20,293, the corresponding figures for White South Africans were $58,516 and $32,085, and for visible non-Whites $41,699 and $26,478.
The South African government’s “group areas act” enforced residential segregation, so that there was little contact between the racial groups in South Africa except in the economic area and social interaction was banned. In Canada, the different racial groups had little in common, and for many years regarded each other with suspicion. The South African government was known to have agents in several countries, and one was never certain if the person one was meeting was in the employ of the government. Since all non-Whites were discouraged from emigrating, and Blacks were specifically banned from doing so, there was always a nagging suspicion that non-White South Africans abroad might be government collaborators. This was not a situation that encouraged the immigrant community to develop communal organizations except within their immediate circle of associates.
A variety of special-interest organizations have existed. Among the earliest was the South African Jewish Association of Canada (SAJAC), established in the mid1970s, which established its own synagogue in Toronto. Another organization, the Forum Club, was created after the Soweto uprising of 1976 and devoted itself to raising funds for the African National Congress’s school for the children of “exiles” in Tanzania. Similarly, the Bishop Tutu Fund supported the families of political prisoners and, more recently, has raised money for food programs in South African schools.
Eventually, an umbrella organization was established, the Canadian Council of Africans (CANCOSA). It consists of twenty-four special-interest groups, including political groups such as the African National Congress and the Pan African Congress; business groups such as the Canada-South Africa Chamber of Business, the South African Business Association, and the South African Wine Society; and cultural groups such as the Nirvana Cultural Society and the South African Canadian Cultural Association. The principal event organized by CANCOSA is the annual Freedom Day, celebrated every April 27th in Toronto in honour of South Africas first democratic elections in 1994.
There has been little participation of South Africans in Canadian politics. For non-White immigrants arriving in Canada before 1994, voting in an election at any level would be a first-time experience. If any South Africans have run for office, it is at the local level and on an individual basis. The community is still too small and too divided for any person or group to sway the South African vote in Canada.
There is one cultural aspect of South African life that all groups share – the continued enjoyment of typically South African foods, and also South African wines, now that the Canadian ban on their import has been lifted. Some stores cater exclusively to a South African clientele. South African dishes include boerewors (farmer’s sausage), a variety of curries, samoosas (pastry triangles filled with meat or vegetables), bredies (Malay stews), meat or fish frikkedels (rissoles), bobotie (baked curried minced meat), and konfyt (fruit preserves).
There is no doubt that, at least economically, South Africans have been highly successful in Canada, yet their immigration was not based on purely economic motives but on a wide range of concerns in the areas of politics and justice. With little or no community organization or support, the majority of South Africans came to Canada as independent immigrants, primarily to improve life for their children.
Both White and non-White immigrants (once the burden of their feelings of racial inferiority was lifted) have assimilated to Canadian life with little difficulty, making friends with other Canadians and in some instances marrying partners from other groups. Yet there have been losses for all South African immigrants. They have suffered separation from family and friends, and they have also left a country whose climate is one of the envies of the world for the harsher Canadian climate.
Not surprisingly, since they had little common identity in South Africa, and since they migrated to Canada for such diverse reasons, South African immigrants in this country have displayed a low level of ethnic commitment. However, the collaboration of special-interest groups in forming CANCOSA and events such as Freedom Day celebrations suggest that a distinct South African cultural group may be emerging.
Readers interested in an overview of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century history in South Africa should consult Neil Parsons, A New History of Southern Africa, 2nd ed. (London, 1993), and Brian Lapping, Apartheid: A History , rev. ed. (New York, 1989). Paul Maylam, A History of the African People of South Africa: From the Early Iron Age to the 1970s (New York, 1986), is a useful survey of the history of Blacks in southern Africa.
South African immigrants in Canada have received little attention in scholarly or other literature. One study of interest is Sylvia Ntlanta Moeno, “The `Non-white’ South Africans in Toronto: A Study of the Effects of `Institutionalized’ Apartheid in a Multicultural Society” (Ph.D. thesis, York University, 1981). Statistical information can be derived from Statistics Canada, Ethnic Origin: The Nation (Ottawa, 1993).