The turbulent history of the Greeks in South Africa

Greeks in South Africa
A group of Greeks in South Africa posing together in the first half of the 20th century. Credit: Antonis Chaldeos

Despite being persecuted and discriminated against for decades, the Greeks in South Africa managed to rise socially and prosper, many of them becoming very prosperous and wealthy. Today, they remain one of the most important beacons of Hellenism among the diaspora.

A new book by Greek scholar Antonis Chaldeos, titled “The Greek Community in South Africa“, sheds light on the fascinating and eventful history of the Greeks who arrived and settled in Cape Town in the 1860s.

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The Greek community in South AfricaChaldeos, who holds a doctorate in history from the University of Johannesburg, is one of the few Greek scholars to research and write about Greek history across the African continent. Its impressive list of books includes the history of the Greeks in Sudan, Tunisia, Mozambique, Burundi, Morocco, Ethiopia and Egypt.

“Carrying out research in Africa is difficult,” he says Greek journalist. “Access to records and historical data is problematic and, of course, it is very expensive to travel for research. In addition, the Greek communities of the continent are widely spread in many African countries. “

In South Africa, he says, the first Greek migrants were sailors who arrived in the port of Cape Town around 1860, while 30 years later the migration became more massive, most coming from Ithaca and Kefalonia and to a lesser extent, from the Aegean Sea. islands, such as Lemnos, Lesbos and Samos.

At the end of the 19th century, the Greek community numbered 200 to 300 people. Those who lived in the Cape region were traders and those who lived in the north of present-day South Africa, in the then independent Republic of Transvaal, were miners.

“The miners had a very difficult life. Many died of lung disease, ”Chaldeos explains.

Civil war and racism in South Africa

In 1899, the second war between the Boers (Europeans of Dutch and French origin) and the British broke out. The Greeks actually fought on both sides: there was a Greek legion of 30 to 40 people who fought alongside the British. The majority of the Greeks, however, sided with the Boers, who fought to defend their territory against British settlers.

The first organized community of Greeks was called the Cape Greek Community, which pre-existed as a mutual aid association (1898) and was established as a community in 1902.

It was followed by similar groups in the communities of Pretoria, Johannesburg (1908) and Durban (1918). Gradually, and until the 1950s and 1960s, more and more Greek communities were created in more than 20 cities, with a constantly growing Greek presence.

“The Greeks were confronted with racism on an unprecedented scale between 1915 and 1917”, says Chaldeos Greek journalist. He notes the violent riots that broke out against Greek stores and businesses during this period.

“The riots were started by both the British and the Boers. Indeed, Greece remained neutral at the start of the First World War. They considered anyone not allied to their war effort as their enemy, ”he adds.

The violence was designed “despite the fact that many Greek immigrants voluntarily left South Africa to join the forces of the Allied Powers,” Chaldeos notes.

The Greeks achieved assimilation and success

The Greeks – along with Italians and Spaniards – were considered second-class citizens for decades, says the Greek scholar.

To counter discrimination, they tried to integrate into local culture and political and social life. “But, they paid a price in their efforts to assimilate. Among the younger generations, many do not speak Greek, ”he explains.

Chaldeos says that an important achievement of the Greeks was the establishment of the private SAHETI school, a beacon of Greek language education in South Africa. It was founded in 1974 – decades after the arrival of the first Greek migrants – with donations from Greeks from across South Africa.

Until the 1930s, the Greeks mainly owned and operated tea rooms, that is, places that served coffee, tea, and food. At first, they had canteens that opened in cities, and mainly in Johannesburg, the most populous city. Later, they opened tea rooms which also developed there over the years.

In the 1940s and 1950s, small Greek-owned teahouses and shops developed into supermarkets, with branches across the country. The Greeks were also pioneers in the production and standardization of tobacco products in South Africa. And there was more: beverage and water bottling plants, ore processing plants and shipping companies were some of the other big companies owned by the Greeks.

The greatest migratory flow took place after 1950 and mainly after 1960. After the end of World War II in Greece, several thousand Greeks came to South Africa, then in search of Europeans. Around this time, Greeks from gaining independence in Africa, such as Egypt, Sudan, and the Congo, migrated to South Africa.

Decline in number

Antonis Chaldeos in South Africa
Antonis Chaldeos in Johannesburg. Credit: Antonis Chaldeos / Facebook

By 1970, the Greek community numbered 120,000 people, but began to decline after 1976, when indigenous Africans began to attempt to regain political control of their country, which had long been ruled by whites.

The Soweto riots in 1976 alarmed the Greeks, who slowly began to leave the country. The biggest leakage wave began in 1990, when the country transitioned from apartheid and white rule to a democratic one. Rising crime and the economic hardships that followed forced almost half of Greece’s remaining population to leave the country. From 70,000 in 1990, the Greeks in South Africa today number only around 35,000.

Chaldeos says that the Greek people generally tried to stay away from politics; however, as he notes, one Greek in particular became world famous alongside Nelson Mandela: George Bizos, who was Mandela’s lawyer and one of the three drafters of the South African Constitution.

Its name is linked to the fight against racism, xenophobia and apartheid and to the values ​​of solidarity, human rights and democracy.

Another Greek who rose to fame, perhaps for the wrong reasons, was Dimitri Tsafendas, who assassinated one of the most ardent advocates of apartheid, South African Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd on September 6, 1966.

“Despite all the difficulties, the Greeks in South Africa persevered and adapted to the new land. Several of them are among the richest in South Africa with great fortunes, either in the field of real estate, with department stores mainly, or as owners of chains of hundreds of restaurants ”, notes Chaldeos. .

You can browse Chaldeos’ books on his Greeks of Africa blog, here.


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