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The Making of a Portuguese Community in South Africa, 1900–1994

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Part of the Migration, Diasporas and Citizenship book series (MDC)

Abstract

These fairly typical life stories offer some sense of the diversity of the origins of Portuguese South Africans. In spite of the fact that anywhere between 300,000 and 500,000 South Africans have 20th-century Portuguese origins and despite the long historical connection between the two countries, South Africa has been a relatively neglected corner of the Portuguese diaspora.1 While the Portuguese government has recognised the importance of the community in recent decades, probably because of its sheer size, it has rarely been the subject of social or historical research.2 In part, I would argue, this is because it is only ambiguously a ‘community’. Rather, Portuguese South Africans have consisted historically of a series of tight ethnic networks and enclaves, separated along lines of regional background, occupation, and phase of migration. Some institutions began to work towards forging a broader national identity in the late 1960s and 1970s, but even in the 21st century it would be difficult to argue that Portuguese South Africans form a coherent community. It is incorrect to assume that people who share a common language and some sort of connection to the Portuguese state automatically ‘imagine’ themselves, in the term of Benedict Anderson, as a community. They continue to maintain a low profile, rarely projecting themselves as a group or asserting their interests as a bloc (as we see, for example, with the local Jewish community).

Keywords

  • South African Government
  • South African Society
  • Local Jewish Community
  • Immigration Authority
  • Illegal Resident

These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

Carlos Farinha was born into a large, poor farming family in the north of Madeira in 1933. He left school aged 14 and found work in a local registry office. But he was paid only ‘a few cents a day’ and started to look for alternatives. Two of his sisters and a brother had moved to South Africa during the 1940s seeking opportunities. In 1950 one of his brothers-in-law organised Carlos’ papers to work in South Africa. Barely literate and unable to speak a word of English, he travelled by boat to Cape Town in February 1951 and made his way to the Witwatersrand. Carlos lived with his sisters and their families on their small farm and worked in the family shop. For many years the combined families lived off pooled resources from mine jobs, farming vegetables and running a small shop. When Carlos’ father died in the mid 1950s, his mother and another little sister joined them in South Africa. By the early 1960s two more brothers had arrived from Madeira to join the family business. Throughout the 1960s Carlos got up before dawn to drive to the Johannesburg market to sell fresh produce from the farm and buy stock for the shop, working extraordinarily long hours. During the mid 1960s he married a young second generation Madeiran woman and during the 1970s and 1980s Carlos and his family were able to achieve a measure of prosperity and educate their children. He and his wife are now retired and living in a comfortable town-house on the East Rand. (Interview, Carlos Farinha 2009)

Maria Gonçalves was only eighteen in June 1953 when she stepped onto the dock in Cape Town to meet her 42 year-old husband for the first time. This was the first time she had left the island of Madeira and she spoke no English. She came from a relatively well-off family from a town close to Funchal, and she had been lucky enough to go to school for several years. Nevertheless, there were few opportunities for young women in Madeira and her parents decided to find her a South African husband. João Gonçalves seemed a good match: he owned a shop and appeared to be doing well. It was an unhappy marriage: there was a big age gap and they had little in common. Maria had five children and worked extremely hard all her life, initially in João’s various shops and later finding employment. João’s business failed in Cape Town and they resettled first on a farm near the Witwatersrand and then moved to the city itself. She was always a devout Catholic but it was only after her husband’s death in the early 1990s that she became more involved in the church. The church became a great comfort to her, providing her with a sense of purpose and a network of friends. In her mid 70s now, fiercely independent, still employed and highly active, Maria lives in a small Catholic retirement home on the East Rand. Her children and their families mostly also live on the Wit watersrand. (Interview, Maria Gonçalves 2010)

José Rodrigues, born in 1957, came to South Africa in 1965 from a village in the north of Portugal. José’s father, like many from his region, left the repressive and economically depressing Portugal for South Africa in 1963 to find work. He was a painter, but dabbled in most aspects of the building trade. Two years later, José and his mother joined him. They lived in the south of Johannesburg, along with numerous other newly-immigrant Portuguese families. In 1972 his father was killed in a tragic motor accident. This caused great hardship and the family was initially only able to make ends meet with help from the local Portuguese community. José left school, aged 14, was apprenticed as a motor mechanic, and became the bread-winner in his family. After completing his apprenticeship and working for several small businesses run by Portuguese immigrants, he started up a practice of his own in his mid 20s. Through word of mouth, he built up the practice and was able to make a decent living. José married a woman whose family, like his own, immigrated from the north of Portugal in the 1960s. José and his family lived in the working class Bertrams area of south-eastern Johannesburg until the 1990s before moving to a nearby middle class suburb in the 2000s. (Interview, José Rodrigues 2009)

Ana Rocha, while still a toddler, left mainland Portugal for Mozambique with her family in 1963. Her father was a skilled boilermaker who made a good living in the colony. She and her parents lived a comfortable life in a spacious home in Lourenço Marques. In 1975, as conditions became more tenuous for white colonists, the family relocated to Johannesburg. It was a relatively easy transition because her father was re-employed by a company he had worked for in the early 1970s. Many other white Mozambican families she knew came with nothing and even had to live in temporary refugee camps in South Africa. Ana and her family lived in Rosettenville, the heart of the ‘Portuguese belt’ to the south of the city. Ana found the transition very difficult but it was made easier by the fact that there were so many Portuguese Mozambicans living nearby and attending her high school. Ana went to the University of the Witwatersrand in 1979, majoring in Portuguese language studies. In the mid 1980s, along with many of her contemporaries, she went to Portugal for several years, but never felt at home in Europe and returned to South Africa in the early 1990s. She married an ex-Portuguese Mozambican and most of her good friends are originally from Mozambique or Angola. She lives in Johannesburg and teaches Portuguese at her alma mater. (Interview, Ana Rocha 2011)

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© 2013 Clive Glaser

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Glaser, C. (2013). The Making of a Portuguese Community in South Africa, 1900–1994. In: Morier-Genoud, E., Cahen, M. (eds) Imperial Migrations. Migration, Diasporas and Citizenship. Palgrave Macmillan, London. https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137265005_9

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