South African immigrants Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Although South Africans have accounted for a relatively small part of the immigrants to the United States, white South Africans began immigrating in increasing numbers after the early 1960’s, as their homeland’s apartheid policies raised political and social tensions.

The first South Africans known to immigrate to the United States arrived during the 1860’s. Their numbers were small, however, and few of their countrymen followed them to the United States until the 1930’s. The national origins quotas of the U.S. [a]Immigration Act of 1924;and South African immigrants[South African immigrants]Immigration Act of 1924 limited South Africa to only 100 immigrants per year, and South Africans rarely filled their quota. Between 1924 and 1950, an average of only 61 South Africans immigrated to the United States each year. As late as 1960, only 5,300 people of South African descent were known to be living in the United States.South African immigrantsAfrican immigrants;South AfricansSouth African immigrantsAfrican immigrants;South Africans[cat]IMMIGRANT GROUPS;South African immigrants[cat]AFRICAN IMMIGRANTS;South African immigrants

Apartheid and Immigration

After a half century of independence as the Union of South Africa, South Africa became a republic in 1961 and left the British Commonwealth. By this time, South Africa had become a pariah within the world community of nations because of its rigid system of government-supported segregation known as apartheid. Under that system, virtually all political power was in the hands of the approximately 20 percent of the country’s population who were white. Asians and mixed-race “Coloureds” enjoyed some political rights, while the nation’s large black African majority had almost no power.

After South Africa began instituting its apartheid laws in 1948, immigration from that country began increasing. Some immigrants were nonwhite refugees leaving to escape the repressive segregation laws; others were white opponents of the new system.

The U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 overturned the four-decade-old system of national origin quotas and allowed many more non-European immigrants entry into the United States. The numbers of South Africans admitted to the United States then increased to an average of 1,000 per year. The vast majority of these new immigrants were white, and they constituted 95 percent of the South Africans living in the United States in 1970.

Postapartheid Trends

In one of the most remarkable peaceful political transformations in world history, the South African government abandoned apartheid during the early 1990’s and extended full civil and political rights to all its citizens, without regard to race or ethnicity. Under a new nonracial constitution, South Africans elected a new government in 1994. Nelson Mandela–who had long been a political prisoner–became the country’s first nonwhite president, and the African National Congress–which had long been banned as a subversive political organization–became the majority party in the country’s parliament.

With the abolition of apartheid and the arrival of what was, in effect, black-majority rule, many people feared that South Africa would follow the example of its neighbor Zimbabwe and experienced a mass exodus of white people. Since that time, a large number of white South Africans have emigrated, but their numbers have not been as high as many predicted. Since 1995, approximately 800,000 white South Africans have left their country.

Political and social changes have not been the only factors driving South African emigration. Since the 1990’s, the country has also been afflicted by rising crime and unemployment rates. Violent crimes have been a particular problem, with a rate of about fifty murders every day during the early years of the twenty-first century. Meanwhile, the national unemployment rate has steadily risen, reaching more than 23 percent in 2009.

South Africans in the United States

During the early twenty-first century, South African immigrants could be found living in major cities throughout the United States, most notably in York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. As the vast majority of them are native English speakers, they have tended to assimilate quickly. South Africans have been among the most highly educated immigrants in the country, with nearly 58 percent of them holding college degrees.

Thousands of young professionals, including many Medical professionals;South Africansdoctors, teachers, and Scientists;South African immigrantsscientists, have left their country in search of employment opportunities, many in the United States. Not surprisingly, the large number of educated people leaving South Africa has caused the country to experience a "Brain drain"[Brain drain];and South Africa[South Africa]“brain drain.”South African immigrantsAfrican immigrants;South Africans

Further Reading
  • Beck, Roger B. The History of South Africa. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000. General history of South Africa.
  • Botha, Ted, and Jenni Baxter, eds. The Expat Confessions: South Africans Abroad Speak Out! New York: Jented, 2005. Collection of interviews with South African expatriates.
  • Marrow, Helen B. “Africa: South Africa and Zimbabwe.” In New Americans: A Guide to Immigration Since 1965, edited by Mary C. Waters and Reed Ueda. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007. Essay examining issues affecting recent immigrants from South Africa and its neighbor Zimbabwe, which experienced a massive flight of white settlers when Robert Mugabe’s government began seizing their farms.
  • Mathabane, Mark. Kaffir Boy in America: An Encounter with Apartheid. New York: Macmillan, 1989. Memoir of a black South African college student in the United States.
  • Vigor, John. Small Boat to Freedom: A Journey of Conscience to a New Life in America. Guilford, Conn.: Lyons Press, 2004. Account of a journalist who fled South Africa and sailed for America during the 1980’s to escape political oppression.

African immigrants

“Brain drain”

Economic opportunities

History of immigration after 1891

Immigration Act of 1921

Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965

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