South Africans leaving home

Digging deeper into the negotiated identity of the South African expatriate in the United Kingdom

The slow puncture of South Africans leaving home

Thousands of South African expatriates, both past and present, have contested reasons for leaving home

Text and design by Katy Scott

The evening I left South Africa the sun bled into the horizon. As I lingered above the smears of red, pink and orange from my bird's eye view in the sky, I couldn't help but second-guess my decision to leave South Africa on a one-way ticket.

Truth is, I had been dancing in uncertainty for months. There's a layer to leaving South Africa that hurts to pull back. It's not simply a question of leaving for greener pastures. It's a question of deserting your first love. Someone you don't quite see eye to eye with anymore. Someone who has disappointed you.

There's a need to justify your defection, as both you and your neighbour know you may only return on a whim, dipping your toe and delighting in a South African affair once every sweet while. Your reasoning needs to be sound or else you may be tagged a truant.

Another coward, clutching at some distant ancestral tie in the form of a passport or visa, running away. The picture of the white South African 'expat' has already been painted. We have been squeezing our lives into boxes and setting sail for the United Kingdom for decades.

Over 800,000 white South Africans left South Africa between 1995 - 2005

But the picture is not a pretty one. Harsh brushstrokes outline an angry, white, ex-South African. And all those who decide to leave are assumed to fit within these contours.

The South African expat, as painted and perpetuated, is self-righteous and disaffected, charged with thinly veiled racism and obsessed with spreading bad news about South Africa. The South African expat is aggressive. His whiteness whines. He is his country's worst ambassador.

Many of these South Africans roamed British shores during the apartheid, a time when South Africa was a pariah state. At this time British television series, Splitting Image, wrote and performed a satirical song entitled "I've Never Met a Nice South African".

In this catchy tune South Africans are described as "arrogant bastards who hate black people", "ignorant loud-mouths with no sense of humour" and "talentless murderers who smell like baboons".

Sitting in the conference room of his London company, which offers a range of services to South African expatriates, Reg Bamford recalls how this song, albeit satirical, reflected a general opinion about South Africans in the late 80s and early 90s.

He grimaces. "It was like South Africa was this horrible country with horrible laws, horrible people, and the Brits all thought that every South African was this Dutchman with no neck who played rugby and was a complete racist."

Shortly after moving over to the UK in 1992, Bamford founded 1st Contact and Sable to ease the immigration process for the many South Africans choosing to follow in his footsteps. While he believes South Africans were less "vilified" in the UK post 1994, in many ways that picture of South African expats remained.

'White flights' out of South Africa

The earliest identifiable wave of South Africans leaving the country dates back to 1948 when a clear group of liberal-minded folk voted with their feet in protest against the beginnings of the apartheid regime.

Further South Africans were impelled to emigrate following the Sharpeville massacre of 1960, the Soweto Uprising of 1976 and the successive States of Emergency in the mid-1980s.1 White South Africans, convinced South Africa was on the brink of civil war, fled for the United Kingdom, Australia, the United States, Canada and New Zealand.

While herds of South Africans undoubtedly flocked from South Africa in response to these events, it is unclear as to whether they fled in fear of 'black violence' or in aversion to the apartheid policies that prompted such violence.

Key events affecting South African emigration
- 1948 Election of National Party
- 1960 Sharpeville Massacre
- 1976 Soweto Uprising
- 1986 State of Emergency
- 1994 End of apartheid
Anti-Apartheid protest in South Africa in the 1980s

As the tables began to turn in the early 90s and the final nails were put in the apartheid coffin, many more white South Africans fled in fear of black majority rule.

In contrast to those white South Africans, thousands of South African students, freedom fighters, private individuals and liberation bureaucrats, black and white, lived in political exile. Driven out the country, these South Africans were forced to seek assylum in Britain.2

While these groups differed tremendously, almost every South African who left the country during these times was making a statement. A statement against white majority rule, against the senselessness of the apartheid, against being banned, targeted and silenced, or against black violence, black majority rule and the 'new South Africa'.

In his 1994 inauguration speech, President Nelson Mandela urged South Africans to enter into a covenant to build a society in which every citizen, black and white, will be "assured of their inalienable right to human dignity - a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world".

Despite Mandela's undying message of forgiveness and equality, white South Africans kept fleeing the country. The South African Institute of Race Relations estimates that 841,000 white South Africans emigrated between 1995 and 2005.3

When apartheid formally ended, the total population of white South Africans was just over 4 million.

Between the years 1986 and 2000, Statistics South Africa identifies a decrease of just over 300,000 white South Africans.4 In this same period of time, the number of Africans in the country increased by over 800,000 and the number of Indians/Asians increased by just under 15,000.

A similar pattern is evident for the years 2001 to 2016 whereby the white population decreased by a further 340,986. However, during this period of time the African population increased by over 2 million and the Indian/Asian population increased by just under 100,000.5

Migrant movements and ancestral ties

Information on the number of people entering and leaving South Africa is scarce and inconsistent. The OECD migration database provides information about the inflows of South African-born citizens.

The five countries who have received the most South africans include Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States.

While these figures account for the thousands of South Africans of all races who moved to these five countries, they do not account for the many South Africans who moved across on a British passport, or the South African children born in the UK.

The United Kingdom has received the highest number of South Africans, on account of the immigration routes available to South Africans with ancestral ties to Great Britain and Europe.

Inflow of South Africans to various countries

Source: OECD Data

A relatively high number of white South Africans were born as dual citizens - British and South African - on account of having at least one British parent. These threads of British ancestry spring from hundreds of years of British colonial rule in South Africa and waves of British migration to the country, both during and post-colonial rule, to increase the white population in the country.6

Professor Robert Crawford in his book, "Bye the beloved country? South Africans in the UK 1994-2009", estimates that as many as one in three South Africans arrived in the UK in possession of dual or multiple citizenship.

Similarly, many South Africans hold a second European passport through a family member or spouse.

While there are significant numbers of South Africans in the Netherlands, France, Germany and many other European countries, the numbers are but of a fraction of those in the UK.

For those South Africans without dual citizenship, a British-born grandparent grants them an ancestral visa. According to Crawford, a very small number of white South Africans take this route.

Alternative means for South Africans without familial ties to move to the UK include applying for work permits, study visas or entrepreneur visas.

Popular routes for South Africans into the UK
- Dual citizenship
- Ancestry Visa
- Work Visa

Latest wave of South African emigration

The numbers of young South Africans in the UK rocketed upon the introduction of a two-year working holiday visa in 1995. The temporary visa enabled South Africans aged 17 to 30 to work in the UK for 12 months within the two-year period.7

However, Crawford argues that this visa favoured white South Africans in that it stipulated that the applicant had to be able (read: wealthy enough) to "maintain and accommodate himself/herself and any dependants adequately in the UK without recourse to public funds".

While many youngsters saw it as an excuse to go on a two-year gap year, many more South Africans took the opportunity to find a job and eventually sponsorship for a work visa, explains Reg Bamford. It is these South Africans who ended up staying, getting married and settling down.

"It was my understanding that as many as 30,000 of these visas were being issued [to South Africans] each year, and most were taken up," he says.

The number of South Africans in the UK peaked in the early noughties

He recalls there being a ridiculous amount of South Africans in the UK around 2006. "It was in the press because everywhere you turned there was a South African behind a bush, we were all over the place!"

This coincides with OECD data which illustrates a significant spike in the inflow of South Africans arriving in the UK between 1995 and 2008.8 The highest number of arrivals can be seen in 2004 where, according to OECD data, an estimated 30,000 South Africans arrived in the UK.

Inflow of South Africans to the UK

OECD data bar graph

Source: OECD Data

Once the working holiday visa was withdrawn in 2008, the flow of South Africans into the UK slowed a bit, explains Bamford. "Similarly, the concept of Saffas staying here longer has also slowed down," he says.

"It's fiendishly difficult now for a South African who doesn't have an ancestry visa or a foreign passport that gets them here." You can be the perfect candidate for a position in the UK, he explains, but they're not going to hassle with sponsoring you or going through the process of helping you get a visa.

According to Bamford, the demographic of South Africans coming over to the UK has changed dramatically over the last six or seven years. The once "bright-eyed and bushy-tailed" South Africans that were coming over on the working holiday visa have been replaced by the slightly older, slightly more committed South African bringing their families over.

"My sense it that something has happened over the last five years or so that has really changed sentiment," he says.

For the first fifteen years living in the UK, Bamford's friends back in South Africa would poke fun at him every time he visited home. "They'd say, 'Reg, you're mad living on that miserable old mud island. Look at this, this is the land of milk and honey here!'"

But in the past five years it's completely swapped around. "All the people who pointed and laughed at me are now coming to me for advice," he chuckles.

"The don't want to be seen to be disloyal so they don't trumpet it, they quietly come to me with whispers about moving over to the UK."

The whispers have been mounting up and several South African media organisations have recently reported a spike in queries for South Africans wishing to emigrate.

Immigration lawyer working in Johannesburg, Chris Watters, told the Mail & Guardian that he saw a tremendous spike in demand in the first six months of 2015.

“Until the end of last year [2014], we would get an emigration inquiry about once every two weeks. Now we are fielding about nine or 10 emigration inquiries a day,” he said. 

South African immigration lawyers received nine or 10 emigration inquires a day in 2015

Bamford confirms that their visa business in South Africa has doubled in the past three or four years. "We aren't a barometer of the number of South Africans leaving South Africa, but there's far more interest now in options, sadly," he says. "People are enquiring just to know where they stand."

Angel Jones, Founder of pan-African recruitment firm, Homecoming Revolution, agrees that there has certainly been an increase in people enquiring about going abroad, but she doesn't believe that that has translated into people making the decision to move.

"It's a lot of noise more than actual people emigrating."
- Angel Jones

"We talk to estate agencies, independent schools, immigration advisors, asking if they have seen an increase in more people going out, and they haven't seen it," she says. "So it's pretty steady, it's a lot of noise more than actual people emigrating."

Data published by First National Bank indicates that the number of people selling their homes in South Africa in order to emigrate hit a peak at the back end of 2008 and has slowed drastically since.9

In 2008, approximately 20 percent of properties sold in South Africa were for emigration-related reasons.

However, the data shows that the selling of residential property for emigration-related reasons has increased steadily since 2015, sitting at around five percent of all properties sold.

What then has been driving South Africans out of South Africa since the dawn of democracy in South Africa?

Chapter Two identifies the various push and pull factors influencing the modern migration movement to the United Kingdom.