What's it like being South African in New Zealand?

by Gill Bonnett / 20 November, 2018

Antoinette Wessels and her son Riaan, now 16. Photo: Supplied

In this episode of Radio NZ's Voices, Gill Bonnett looks back at violence, racism and apartheid in South Africa and how South African migrants adjust to the laid-back life here in New Zealand.

Sixteen years ago, while living in the South African city of Pretoria, life took an unexpected turn for Antoinette Wessels. She had just given birth to her son Riaan when her husband was shot dead in a robbery. In 2008 Antoinette and her son moved to Auckland, where she is now a lecturer at Unitec.

After Antoinette's husband was killed, violence was on the rise at the Tshwane University of Technology where she lectured.

“The situation there got really bad.

“There was a lot of student unrest at that stage and from what we understood it was not the students, it was politically motivated.”

South Africans are the fifth most common overseas-born New Zealand residents – 54,000 live here.

Ninety percent of these arrived after the apartheid era ended in the 1990s.

When Antoinette's husband was killed, Thabo Mbeki had just left the South African presidential office and Jacob Zuma was taking power.

Staff at the university had been told Zuma supporters wanted a representative of their faction to head the university so deliberately fuelled unrest on the campus.

"The students were very scared of the protesters because it could get violent and they were beaten up and arrested if they didn't support the protesters.”

The last straw was when Antoinette found out protestors had been watching her every move.

"That scared the living daylights of me. I just realised that we were being watched, I felt part of this campaign to destabilise the campus.”

“It just became impossible. I felt scared and wanted to leave.

"I wanted to get my son out of there and felt if something happened to me, he’d have nobody."

For Antoinette, worsening violence and personal threats continued and they left South Africa behind in 2008.

But she knew no-one when they moved to Auckland and her then six-year-old son struggled to sleep and worried about break-ins.

"So then I had to explain to him we're in this country because it's safe, there are no bad people, nothing bad is going to happen to us.

"I think what saved me, and what helped with the loneliness was that we would go walking every weekend in the Waitakeres.

“I was totally astonished that I could go walking in a forest and be safe.”

Veronica Turner at a braai in South Auckland. Photo: RNZ Gill Bonnett

Recently Antoinette was with fellow South Africans in South Auckland to enjoy the wood and charcoal smokiness of a traditional braai, or barbecue.

One was Veronica Turner, who emigrated to New Zealand 17 years ago.

Veronica returned to South Africa in 2015 when her mother died.

"When I went over for my Mum's funeral we could hear gunshots every single night in the same area where Mum lived.”

But New Zealand also had its challenges, she says.

"We are go-getters and we are always pushing for better.. whereas Kiwis are very laidback.

“That is why New Zealanders think of us as arrogant and pushy and in-your-face.”

If South Africans can see a better way of doing something they want to go ahead and fix it right away, which can rub up against New Zealanders’ more relaxed approach, she says.

“So there is that conflict all the time.”

Veronica co-authored the book Why Follow the Pied Piper to share South African immigrants’ experiences and give useful advice.

“What we try to say in the book is if something traumatic has happened to you, it's actually not the right time to migrate because that is pushing you all the time.”

"Then once you sit down and catch your breath, then you realise, 'my gosh, I have no support here'."

That lack of support inspired Veronica to set up the charity South Africans Fostering Empowerment (SAFE).

Schane and Marius Davis (left) enjoying a braai with fellow South Africans in south Auckland Photo: RNZ/ Gill Bonnett

Earlier this year, Schane Davis and husband Marius moved to New Zealand with their two children, aged 3 and 6, from the South African city of Mbombela (formerly known as Nelspruit), which is near Kruger National Park.

Crime was their reason for leaving, and also that systems were falling apart, Schane says.

“It's not great ... There's no future for our kids and that's why we decided to come over."

"As a white man you don't have that big of a future anymore because of the racial tensions going on in South Africa," Marius adds.

Esmeralda Wood emigrated with her husband from the city of Port Elizabeth in 1998.

"We were very settled in South Africa with properties. We had maids, we had good houses, we had a good life in South Africa irrespective of the crime and we had family support."

Esmeralda says she and her husband both had guns and he would patrol the neighbourhood while she sat at home with a gun for protection.

After emigrating, the couple divorced.

Relationship breakdowns are common after emigration because of the stress involved, Esmeralda says.

She and her second husband now offer relationship counselling to help other immigrants.

Subscribe to Voices for free on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher and Radio Public or wherever you listen to your podcasts. 

This article was first published on Radio NZ.


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