Black African Immigrants
in South Africa
BLACK Africans mostly from the countries of Southern Africa have migrated to South Africa through decades to work in
the mines and other sectors of the economy.
During white minority rule, especially in the 1950s, the apartheid regime even provided free transport for Africans
from neighbouring countries who wanted to work in the mines.
They came mostly from Basutoland (now Lesotho), Bechuanaland (Botswana), Nyasaland (Malawi), Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe),
Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), and Tanganyika (now Tanzania) when the countries were still under colonial rule. All these countries
were once ruled by Britain.
But the recruitment of African labour did not continue in all the countries after they won independence. Tanganyika
under the leadership of President Julius Nyerere stopped its citizens from going to South Africa even to visit let alone work
because of that country's racist policies of apartheid.
But there were many Tanganyikans already working in the mines in South Africa and many of them, if not the majority,
stayed in South Africa even after their country won independence from Britain in December 1961. And they are still there today,
together with their children and grandchildren Others, as Tanzanians, migrated to South Africa after apartheid ended in 1994.
One Tanzanian writer, Godfrey Mwakikagile, recalls how his fellow countrymen left Tanganyika (as the country was then
known before uniting with Zanzibar in 1964 to form Tanzania) to work in the mines in South Africa, and even in Northern Rhodesia
and the Belgian Congo in the 1950s and before then.
Members of his tribe, the Nyakyusa, constituted one of the largest ethnic groups of migrant workers from Tanganyika
who went to work in the mines in South Africa in the 1950s.
And in an ironic twist, some of the migrant workers from Tanganyika who were recruited as labourers to work
in the South African mines had originally migrated from South Africa to Tanganyika. They were the Ngoni. As Godfrey Mwakikagile
states in his book, Life in Tanganyika in The Fifties:
“The fifties were without question some of the most important years of my
life. They were my formative years as much as the sixties were. And I remember listening to many inspiring stories which helped
to enlarge my mental horizon at such an early age. And they have remained a source of inspiration throughout my life. My father
was one of the people who liked to tell stories about hard work and success in life and played a critical role in shaping
my personality when I was growing up.
I also remember hearing stories of valour about the Nyakyusa during my time and in the past including
their successful campaigns against the Ngoni in the 1830s, '40s and '50s when the Ngoni tried to invade and penetrate Nyakyusaland.
The Nyakyusa also successfully repelled the Sangu who invaded our district in the 1870s and 1880s from neighbouring Usangu
in Mbeya District. Like the Nyakyusa, the Sangu had a quite a reputation as fierce fighters. But they were no match for the
Nyakyusa who stopped their incursions into Nyakyusaland.
The few white missionaries who settled in Rungwe District also tried to intervene and act as mediators in the conflicts
not only between the Nyakyusa and the Sangu but also between the Nyakyusa and the Safwa, then the largest ethnic group in
Mbeya District until they were later outnumbered by the Nyakyusa. They also played a mediating role in other conflicts including
intra-tribal (or intra-ethnic) disputes but not always successfully.
But, besides the Nyakyusa, it was the Ngoni whom I remember the most for their reputation as fighters mainly because
I interacted with them in the sixties. Their legendary reputation as fighters sent a chill down the spine and many of their
neighbours were afraid of them, except a few like the Nyakyusa, and the Hehe who, under their leader Chief Mkwawa, once defeated
Originally from Natal Province in South Africa, the Ngoni settled in Songea District in southern Tanganyika, as
well as in Sumbawanga in the western part of the country where they came to be known as the Fipa, which is their ethnic name
and identity even today. They had a reputation as fierce fighters even in South Africa itself before they left during the
imfecane in the 1820s and '30s headed north, finally settling in what is now Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania.
Some of them even went to Congo after going through Tanganyika.
I went to Songea Secondary School which was a boarding school in Songea District, the home district of the Ngoni, in
southern Tanzania and talked to many Ngonis including some who were old enough to be my parents when I was in my teens back
then in the sixties. Almost without exception, they all recalled the stories they were told by their elders when they were
growing up on how the Nyakyusa and the Ngoni fought when the Ngoni tried to invade and conquer Nyakyusaland, to no avail.
They told me that the Nyakyusa ni watani
wetu, a Swahili expression meaning they are our
friends and we tell jokes about each other. Many of those "jokes" have to do with how hard the Nyakyusa fought to repel the
Ngoni invaders after the Ngoni failed to steal Nyakyusa cows and women!
Some of the Ngoni also went to work in the mines in South Africa - where they originally came from - but not in significant
numbers as the Nyakyusa and other people from the Southern Highlands did, especially from Rungwe and Mbeya Districts in a
region bordering what was then Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia.
Northern Rhodesia itself attracted many mine workers from my region and many of them settled in that country. Even
today, you will find many Nyakyusas who settled in Kitwe and other parts of the Copperbelt many years ago after they went
to work there in the mines. For example, in 1954 the Nyakyusa in Kitwe formed an organisation to preserve, protect and promote
their interests as a collective entity.
The Lozi, members of another ethnic group from Baraotseland or Barotse Province and one of the largest in Zambia, also
formed their own organisation around the same time, as did others and some even before then including the Ngoni. And they
were all cited as examples of ethnic solidarity among the mine workers in Kitwe and other parts of the Copperbelt in Northern
Rhodesia. The Nyakyusa presence in what is now Zambia is still strong even today.
In fact, one of my mother's first cousins who was older than my mother emigrated from Tanganyika to Northern Rhodesia
as a young man in the early 1940s. He was the son of my mother's uncle Asegelile Mwankemwa who was the pastor of our church,
Kyimbila Moravian Church at Kyimbila in Rungwe District. He also lived in South Africa for a number of years before returning
to Northern Rhodesia where he eventually became a high government official after the country won independence as Zambia.
He returned to Tanzania in the 1990s to spend his last days in the land of his birth. Tragically, he had forgotten
Kinyakyusa and did not know Kiswahili after so many years of absence from Tanganyika, later Tanzania, and could communicate
only in English and Bemba, one of the major languages in Zambia. All his children were also born and brought up in Northern
And he was just one of the many people from my district who migrated to Northern Rhodesia and even some of them to
South Africa. Jobs in the mines in both countries was the biggest attraction, encouraging many Tanganyikans to go there in
The town of Mbeya was their main departure point heading south and was the largest town in the region. It was also
the capital of the Southern Highlands Province when I was growing up.
The people who had been recruited to work in the mines in South Africa boarded planes called WENELA. I remember that
name very well because I heard it all the time when I was growing up in the fifties. The people would say so-and-so has gone
to Wenela, meaning to work in the mines in South Africa. The term became an integral part of our vocabulary in the 1950s,
probably as much as it was even before then among the Nyakyusa and others.
The name WENELA was an acronym for the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association which was responsible for the recruitment
of cheap labour among Africans in neighbouring countries including Tanganyika to work in the mines in South Africa. They were
sometimes recruited to work in other sectors of the economy but primarily in the mines.
Many of the people who were recruited in Tanganyika were flown down there unlike, for example, those from Basutoland
(now Lesotho) or Bechuanaland (now Botswana) who, because of their proximity to South Africa, were transported by buses.
But many people from Tanganyika were also transported by road from Mbeya in the Southern Highlands to Broken Hill in
Northern Rhodesia. And from there they were taken to Mungu in Barotseland, the western province of Northern Rhodesia, and
then flown to Francistown in Bechuanaland; and finally transported by railway to Johannesburg.
Working in the mines was hard labour, with little pay. But it was still something for people who virtually had nothing
in terms of money. That's why they were drawn down there.
I remember my cousin Daudi worked for three years in the mines in Johannesburg. But when he came back to Tanganyika,
he hardly had anything besides a wooden box he used as a "suitcase" - and which was the only popular and common "suitcase"
among many Africans in those days - and may be a couple of shirts, two pairs of trousers, and a simple pair of shoes he wore
when he returned home. In fact, he came straight to our village, from Johannesburg, to live with us.
My father was also his father, and the only one had, since his own biological father migrated to South Africa. His
father left behind two children, Daudi himself, and his only sister, Esther, who was also younger than Daudi. Tragically,
she died only a few years after Daudi returned from South Africa.
He went to South Africa to earn some money, yet returned hardly with any. It was hard life not only for him but for
most Africans who went to work in the mines and even for those who remained in the villages.
In general the people were not starving in Tanganyika in the fifties. There was plenty of food especially in fertile
regions such as the Southern Highlands where I come from. And my home district of Rungwe is one of the most fertile in the
entire East Africa and on the whole continent. Almost anything, any kind of food, grows there: from bananas to sweet potatoes,
groundnuts to beans, and all kinds of fruits and vegetables, besides cash crops such as coffee and tea, and much more.
But the people were poor in terms of financial resources. They had very little money. And that is why some of them
went all the way to South Africa and to neighbouring Northern Rhodesia to work in the mines.
Some of them also ended up in Katanga Province, in the Congo, which is about 300 miles west from my home region of
Mbeya. With all its minerals as the treasure trove of Congo, Katanga Province was another prime destination for job seekers
from neighbouring countries who were looking for jobs in the mines.
The Nyakyusa from my home district were some of the people who ended up there. For example, I vividly remember
a photograph of a Nyakyusa family published in the Daily
News, Dar es Salaam, when I worked there as a news
reporter in the early seventies.
They had lived in Congo for about 40 years but were expelled from the country and forced to return to Tanzania in what
seemed to be a xenophobic campaign fuelled by anti-foreign sentiments in spite of the fact that members of this family, as
well as many others, had lived in Congo for decades and their children were born and brought up there.
Therefore there was quite a contrast in terms of living standards between
Africans and Europeans as well as between Africans and Asians; also between Africans and Arabs. Africans were the poorest.
But there was no hostility, at least not overt, on the part of Africans
towards whites and others in spite of such disparity in living standards; not to the extent that the social order was threatened
in a way that could have led to chaos in the country.” (Godfrey Mwakikagile, Life in Tanganyika in The Fifties, Second Edition, Continental Press, 2007,
pp. 110 – 114).
Tanzania is one of the few African countries which have been spared the agony of violent ethnic and racial convulsions
on this turbulent continent. For decades, Tanzania also has been a haven for the largest number of refugees on the continent.
In fact, it has had one of the largest refugee populations in the entire world since the 1950s.
Some of the refugees came from South Africa during the apartheid era and they lived without being harassed, intimidated
or attacked by their hosts, Tanzanians. They were welcomed with open arms. And many of them still live in Tanzania.
Ironically, some of the biggest victims of the xenophobic violence in South Africa since the end of apartheid have
been Tanzanians whose country sacrificed some much to help black people in South Africa win their freedom.
Some of the Tanzanians, like many other Africans from different parts of Africa, were married to South Africans. Therefore
for those who had some children, their children were South African by birth. Citizenship was their birth right. Yet many black
South Africans did not accept them because one of their parents was a foreigner, although just from another African country
and was therefore a fellow African.
Black South Africans also accused black African immigrants of stealing their women, on top of stealing their jobs and
even their houses. And many of them were accused of bribing local officials to get the houses even though a significant number
of them bought the houses and did not take any shortcuts to get them.
It didn't matter that the people they were attacking also had rights as fellow human beings. They had human rights
but according to their attackers they had none.
It also didn't matter that the people they were attacking came from the countries which not only sacrificed so much
in terms of material and financial support to help black South Africans who fled to those countries during apartheid; these
countries, Tanzania and others, also lost hundreds and even thousands of people during the liberation struggle when the apartheid
regime inflicted heavy punishment, and heavy casualties, on them for supporting blacks in South Africa in their quest for
And it didn't matter that many of them also had the legal right to live in South Africa. And for those who did not
have that, they were, at the very least, entitled to compassion from their hosts as fellow human beings, as fellow Africans,
and as compatriots in the liberation struggle during apartheid.
Nicole Johnson, a reporter of one of South Africa's leading newspapers, the Mail&Guardian, visited one such family – the head of the family was a Tanzanian – and had
this to say in her report published in the 24 May 2008 edition of the Mail&Guardian, entitled, “'Tell Them We're From Here'”:
battles raging on the streets of Jeppestown on Sunday (18 May 2008) couldn’t crack my journalistic composure, but Mohamed
made me cry. He’s seven years old, beautiful and sparky and he’s been driven from his home because he has a Tanzanian
Mohamed Fall was born in Johannesburg General Hospital, his mother is South African and he is in
grade 2 at John Mitchell Primary in Jeppestown.
Until Saturday night they lived in the Radium Hotel in Jeppestown.
'At night they came, they were hitting the gate. They made a big noise and they chased us,' Mohamed
says. He watched as they destroyed the hotel he has called home for most of his life. 'They broke the bar and they took the
beers and the coins and the money.'
And he watched as they tried to assault his mother, Tracy Aspelling, accusing her of being a Zimbabwean.
She survived because she is from Port Elizabeth and managed to convince them of this.
That wasn’t enough to save their home or belongings, though. 'We just left our stuff and
ran,' says Aspelling. As they ran, they saw the neighbourhood being destroyed by looters: 'They have sticks and they hit the
shops and steal clothes,' Mohamed told me. 'I think they’re sick.
'We don’t know where to sleep so we came here,' he says. Tracy is adamant that she will not
be driven out of the country. 'I was born here. I am not going anywhere.' Mohamed is less sure: 'It will happen again,' he
says matter of factly. 'I don’t feel nice -- I feel bad.'
As he sits in the courtyard of the police station on Sunday afternoon, in his neatly pressed coffee-coloured
shirt and shorts, he seems remarkably composed. Both he and his mother seem determined to continue as normal. She plans to
go to work the next day. 'I need to go to school tomorrow,' Mohamed tells me resolutely. Then his face falls as he remembers
afresh: 'They broke our house and took my uniform.'
Mohamed doesn’t go to school on Monday. The number of refugees in the police station has
New, bloodied victims continue to stream in and the police are reluctant to let anyone out. His
mother doesn’t have the money for school transport anyway -- her purse was one of the first things the mob stole. 'My
mom said I mustn’t go to school.'
Mohamed feels reassured because he is not the only one missing school -- lots more children have
turned up, including twins Annie and Rose Bofonge (8), who are in his grade 2 class at John Mitchell. They sit under a marquee
erected for mothers with children, playing clapping games and giggling. 'We only got oranges and sweets yesterday. I was hungry
at night. It was cold at night and I had only a small blanket.'
At lunchtime the food supply in the makeshift refugee camp is erratic. 'I just got food now, two
slices of bread, Mohamed says. It’s the first thing he’s eaten all day.
His mother has somehow managed to get out of the station and go to her job at a shop in the area.
She is terrified she will be replaced if she doesn’t show up and also of being unemployed and homeless. Having an income
is her only chance of rebuilding her family when this madness has passed.
As I leave, Mohamed extracts two promises from me -- that I will come see him the next day and
that I spread the word: 'Tell them we are not the foreigners. We are the South Africans.'
By Tuesday evening the children are all a lot more subdued. Days of sleeping outdoors in Jo’burg’s
winter, of overcrowding, inadequate food and nowhere to wash are taking their toll.
Mohamed’s clothes are dirty and crumpled and he appears to have lost a shoe.
A local resident has brought him a jersey to put over his short-sleeved shirt and shorts. Women
sing and dance, clapping and stamping among the towering piles of bags and belongings, trying to keep their spirits up and
to keep warm.
Mohamed’s mother sits on a bundle of someone’s possessions, her arm around her child,
staring dully at what has become her world in the past few days. They don’t feel much like talking.”
Another victim whose plight was also brought to national attention in South
Africa and elsewhere after what happened to him was reported in the same paper, the Mail&Guardian, was Percy Zvumoya, a journalist from Zimbabwe, whose country
also sacrificed so much to help black South Africans win their freedom.
And like thousands of black African immigrants who had lived in peace and harmony with their neighbours,
many of them for years, Percy Zvumoya also found out that his neighbours turned against him.
Obviously, the relative peace and harmony the black African immigrants enjoyed living with their
black South African neighbours was more apparent than real.
Little did they know that there was latent hostility towards them among their black South African
neighbours which would one day bubble to the surface and explode with dire consequences.
Percy Zvumoya's story, written by himself, was published in the 24 May 2008
edition of the Mail&Guardian under the headline, “'You Can't
Imagine The Pain”:
“I was about to retire for the night last Thursday (22 May) when a group of people came in
and said: “Get out and give us the keys to this place”. I negotiated with them and they allowed me take a few
things like clothing.
I fled from my house into the township. I came back later because I had nowhere else to go. I was
really scared, I couldn’t get back into the house and hid on the roof from where I made a call to the police.
They advised me to leave. They told me they couldn’t do much because they were stretched.
In the morning I went to my employer’s house and stayed there.
When I went back to my house the following day [Friday] they had taken my DVD player, my television
and my bed. I could only retrieve the fridge which they had not carried away. I left the fridge with friends in the township.
I came to South Africa from Zimbabwe when I was about 18, that was in 1989. But I am now a citizen,
I got my ID book last year. My wife still lives in Zimbabwe with our three children. I am here to work and to support my family.
I don’t know what I have done. I have been living well with my neighbours.
But when this broke out even my neighbours, people I have lived with for 13 years, were shouting:
“He should go. He is a Kalanga” [Kalanga is a tribe found in southern Zimbabwe and the north of Botswana]. These
are people I have lived with and they sold me out because they were jealous of the little that I had gathered.
Even if things return to normal I don’t think I can live with these people again. I don’t
think I can go back.
I built that house myself. Before it was a tin shack and rats were getting in. I thought I should
build a proper house, I built it slowly, buying a brick at a time. And now people just came and order me out. It’s painful.
I didn’t borrow from anyone to buy all these things. I earned them with the sweat of my brow.
But I guess I should forget about these things, there is nothing I can do.
I can’t understand the rationale of all this. I am a citizen of this state. I was chased
from my own home. I don’t know what I am supposed to do or where I am supposed to go.
I guess I will work again. I still have the strength. I can’t go back to Alex. Maybe I should
go back to the country of my birth. But it’s bad there too.
I was planning on my kids coming here, but not when it’s like this. There is so much suffering
in Zim-babwe, but it would be better for them to stay there.
You can’t imagine the pain I went through after my ordeal. I cried the whole night. Have
you ever cried the whole night? I thought I was going to get hypertension or something.
I talked to some people who were displaced like me. Some suggested we should douse the whole street
with petrol and burn the whole neighbourhood. I firmly said no. We can’t do that. We shouldn’t [take] revenge.
God is for us all. He is the one who should judge. You see all these kids? Can you imagine them dead? I said no. We would
hurt many innocent people who have nothing to do with this thuggery.
What I can’t understand about this is how would foreign-based South Africans react if other
countries in the world chased them away? That would be barbaric.
Do you remember that during apartheid South Africans were living in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania,
Britain and many other places? I wonder how this violence will end but I know many people will die.
Did you see the picture of the man who was burnt to death? How can women watch someone burn to
death and laugh?
Why did they give me citizenship? So that mobs burn me while some people laugh?”
Many South Africans, in condemning the violence, reminded their fellow countrymen of the sympathy and kindness South
Africans were accorded by other African countries during apartheid. As the secretary-general of the ruling African National
Congress (ANC), Gwede Mantashe, stated on Friday, 23 May 2008, one day after the violence against black African foreigners
erupted in Cape Town and 12 days after the attacks first started farther north in the township of Alexandra near Johannesburg:
“Many of us, including myself, will think of the kindness we received in
the poorest communities of Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, Nigeria and many other African states.
We will recall that our neighbours were collectively punished by the apartheid regime for harbouring the cadres of
We will remember that our children were given spaces in overcrowded schools in remote rural villages, and when we were
injured and ill, the hospitals of many African countries nursed us back to health.”
He was quoted by the Mail&Guardian in its main news report, “'Deliberate
Effort' Behind Attacks,” Friday, 22 May 2008.
As an expression of solidarity with the suffering black South Africans, Tanganyika was the first country in the region
to sever links with the apartheid regime. The ties between the two countries existed during colonial rule. And she refused
to establish diplomatic and commercial ties with the apartheid regime because of her uncompromising opposition to the country's
racist policies which denied blacks and other non-whites equality.
But although Tanganyika did not allow her citizens to go to South Africa during the apartheid era after the country
won independence in 1961, she did not have much company in the region in that respect.
People from the other countries in th