Germans in South Africa: An Introduction


South Africa is known internationally for its politics (Apartheid to Mandela and beyond), its nature parks icluding fauna and flora, and for its great mineral wealth (diamonds, gold and platinum). But few people are likely to be aware that among all the other people in South Africa there is a fair number of Germans who live in this country. Does anyone care? Let's see...

Before we start, may I just point out some definitions for groups in South Africa, that may be mentioned in the text:

There have been Germans in South Africa for as long as there have been Europeans. During the 17th Century, there were apparently at times more Germans than Dutch at the Cape. But for various reasons the Germans never formed a separate group from the Dutch but were instead quickly integrated into Dutch society. It is said that nearly one-half of all boer ancestors were in fact Germans, and many boer names bear witness to this fact.

But also after the Cape had come under British rule, many Germans continued to settle at the Cape and in the other newly established British colonies. The British actually attempted to settle whole groups of Germans (e.g. in Philippi and Caffraria) as the Germans were known as hard-working and dependable settlers. Furthermore, missionaries of the Hermannsburg, Berlin, Moravian and the Rhenish Missionary Societies spread throughout Southern Africa. Other Germans sympathised with the Boers and moved to the new Boer Republics in the interior. A number of Germans managed to rise to prominent positions in Society and politics in these republics. Finally, the discovery of diamonds in Kimberley and subsequently of gold on the Witwatersrand brought many adventurous or wealth-seeking Germans to the subcontinent. Altogether, by the turn of the 19th Century, it was possible to travel from the Northern Transvaal through Natal, the Eastern Cape and through to Cape Town and to stay with Germans nearly all the way.

The stream of immigrants coming from Germany was interupted twice in the 20th Century because of the World Wars, but in between the wars and in the 1950's and 60's when the economy in South Africa was booming, many Germans came to settle here as South Africa seemed to offer far more than Germany.

It is very difficult to say how many Germans actually live in South Africa today. How does one define who is German ? Only somebody who's mother tongue or home language is German ? Or somebody who makes an effort to become part of German society by supporting a church or school ? This is relevant as the South African Germans do not live in German colonies, but tend to be in constant contact with other members of South African society. And many Germans are therefore integrated into English or Afrikaans society by marriage or association. During and after the World Wars anti-German sentiment among other groups in South Africa reduced such integration. But nowadays no negative sentiment remains and it is likely that at least half of all young German-speaking South Africans will end up marrying a non-German.

Another factor that needs to be mentioned is that the direction of the migration current has changed direction. Far more Germans are leaving South Africa nowadays than are settling here. That is obviously an effect of the perceived political and economic uncertainty of South Africa. But it is also the fault of the anti-immigration stance of the new South African governemnt, which makes it nearly impossible for a prospective immigrant to settle in South Africa.

It is estimated that there are anywhere between 80 and 160 thousand Germans living in South Africa (i.e. people who would call themselves German). My guess is that the true figure is more likely to be towards the bottom end of this range. But even if it is not, it still means that Germans are a tiny minority in a total population of 40 million. Even among the 5 million or so "white" South Africans, this is a very small proportion.

The influence of the Germans in South Africa is often notable but not noticeable. Few politicians or CEOs of large companies are German. This has a number of reasons: 1) Most Germans settled in rural areas. Many are still farmers and prefer the rural to the hectic urban life. 2) The Germans tend to prefer technical occupations and are likely to become mechanics, electricians, engineers, chemists, geologists, nurses or teachers. 3) The Germans tend to form closed social groups, often shunning contact outside of this sphere of comfort.

But the contribution of Germans to the development of South Africa should not be underestimated. German missionaries paid far more attention to native languages than the British did and were involved in developing dictionaries and grammars of the languages before translating the bible, the catechism and hymns into the appropriate languages. The number of German place names in South Africa (e.g. Berlin, Hamburg, Hannover, Heidelberg, Wupperthal, Breslau, Wartburg, Potsdam, Braunschweig, Lüneburg, Harburg, etc.) show how widely Germans settled in the subcontinent. And where would the Platinum industry be today without the discovery by Hans Merensky of the amazing Platinum deposits in the area around Rustenburg ?

The South African Germans are definitely no angels, though. Their political views are no different than those of English or Afrikaans-speaking South Africans. The Germans are spread over the entire political spectrum and most parties (from extreme right to extreme left) will have the support of at least a few Germans. Most Germans supported the Nationalist Goverment in its politics after 1948. And even those who did not support the government profited from its pro-German stance.

The Future

It is obviously impossible to predict what the future of South Africa holds. But for the German part of the population a few trends are very obvious and will most probably continue in much the same direction:

1) Emigration: As part of the "Brain Drain" many Germans will also look for greener pastures. That obviously applies most directly to professionals and highly qualified people, who will easily find employment elsewhere. At the same time it is very noticeable that many young people leave just after having completed their schooling or university degree.

2) Little Immigration: In stark contrast to the past, few Germans are settling in South Africa today. The past Government had a very pro-European and an especially pro-German policy which made it very attractive for Germans to settle here. In contrast, the ANC-lead government of today has a decidedly anti-immigration policy, especially toward Europeans. Furthermore, the relationship between the South African and German governments is not a particularly warm one, so that this tendency is unlikley to change in the foreseeable future. On top of this the uncertain economic condition and the extremely high criminality deter immigration.

3) Assimilation: The Germans in South Africa are not noticeably different from most other white South Africans. Their integration into the English and Afrikaans communities will continue. Also an integration into a new non-racial South African society is likely, especially for the more liberally-minded Germans.

4) Apathy: Interest in purely German speaking Schools and Churches has diminished greatly in the last few years and is likely to diminish further. This is partly due to international trends: On the one hand there is a growing secularisation of society, and growing emphasis of the individual over groups with collective responsibilities on the other. But it is also an effect of the general drop in the number of German speakers, leaving fewer and fewer to look after existing structures.

5) Diminishing influence of Germany: Germany is being integrated into a United Europe. This has implications for its ability and willingness to support a distinct German culture abroad and is especially true of the current Government. This will affect Germans outside of Germany through reduced assistance. It has already started with the closing of nearly all German consulates in South Africa. While churches and societies have never been suported by the German state, the grants for German schools outside of Germany are now likely to be progressively reduced.

Conclusion: Within a few generations there will no longer be a separate German community in South Africa. For those who are directly affected, this is not an easy prospect to accept, but for the South African society as a whole, it is not likely to be of major consequence.

Please note: The above assessment is my own and any opinions expressed are entirely mine. None of the organisations on whom I have made information available, necessarily support or proclaim any such opinions.

Joachim Schubert

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