1. Preparing for emigration
Until the beginning of the twentieth century, Greeks could emigrate to South Africa without any restriction. After 1910, however, employment first had to be ensured before a prospective immigrant could come to South Africa. This meant that an employer had to address an invitation to the prospective immigrant, offering him a job. Unskilled immigrants were not welcome. Since most of them knew nothing else but agricultural work, they tried to obtain a certification to prove that they had some other kind of technical skill. There also were Greek immigrants who used to have a profession other than the one they had declared, and therefore faced the threat of deportation by the South African government.
Later, even more documents were required for this purpose: a passport, a certificate of social beliefs (stating that the prospective immigrant is not a communist), certification of no debt to the Greek state, certification from the local parish’s priest that the person is a devout Christian, medical examinations and a birth certificate. All these documents had to be approved by the South African embassy in Athens.
After World War II, the right-wing Greek governments, especially the dictatorship of 1967 to 1973, exploited this process by exerting pressure on those with left-wing convictions. Thus, there were cases of the village’s policeman refusing to issue a certificate of social beliefs because the prospective emigrant had left-wing ideas. Sometimes families were even separated when the husband emigrated and his wife and children had to stay behind until they could also depart.
At the beginning of the 1960s, when the migratory current was at its zenith, the Inter-country Emigrations Committee was founded by the Greek state in Athens. The prospective emigrants submitted the required documents to this committee. For a period of two or three years, the Greek state paid all the emigrants’ expenses. In this way, the Greek government tried to alleviate the huge unemployment problem. It was during this time that Greece really turned away its children, and this is the biggest complaint of many Greek emigrants.
For the Greeks of Cyprus the emigration process was a lot easier, since they had British passports and they could therefore easily travel and settle in South Africa. Furthermore, Cypriot immigrants to South Africa needed only two years to take up permanent residence since Cyprus was a member of the British Commonwealth, while this process took four to five years for those of other origins.
2. Travelling to Bloemfontein
The decision to emigrate was not easy. It was even more difficult for parents who were sending their twelve or fourteen-years-old sons abroad. However, the poverty and hunger in Greece were intolerable, and the expectation of a better life for the emigrant himself and his family eased the pain of parting to some extent.
The journey abroad usually began in the emigrant’s village. With only a change of clothes and very little money, the emigrant would board the bus that would take him (and his family, if applicable) to the harbour. From there, a ship would transport him to Piraeus, the biggest Greek harbour. In Cyprus, the journey abroad began in the harbour of Limasol. Those who left from Asia Minor during the time before the 1922 disaster, would take the ship from Izmir’s big harbour.
Initially emigrants travelled on commercial boats. Later, as the migratory current grew, specialised companies were established for this purpose. Two of them, namely Cook and Union Castle, became popular with the Greek emigrants. During the 1920s, Union Castle’s ships were regularly entering Cape Town’s harbour, bringing with them these immigrants. Until 1910-1915, Cape Town was the city where almost all the immigrants disembarked. Later, the ships also berthed in Durban’s harbour. The usual route to South Africa was via the Suez Canal. Because these were commercial ships, they stopped in many harbours during their voyage to load and unload cargo. Often emigrants had to change ships during the trip, waiting in a harbour (Port Said or Mombasa) until a new ship was found on which they could continue their journey.
The other route was via the Atlantic Ocean. These ships would stop at Marseille in France, and sometimes in Southampton or London in the United Kingdom, before continuing their voyage to South Africa.
Under these circumstances, the trip by boat took 30 to 35 days. Many emigrants did not have enough money for the voyage, and they had to ask other Greeks to help them. They even had to work to pay for accommodation and food while they were waiting for the next ship.
However, to the young emigrants, these hardships were nothing in comparison with the difficult life they had back home. Many of them enjoyed the voyage to their new home, fascinated by the unusual scenes they saw in the harbours of Africa. What impressed them most was the black African inhabitants: their way of dressing and their skin colour. Others, seeing so many young people abandoning their homeland, thought: “Where are we going now? To make money? So what?”, and tears ran down their faces. Some of the Greek emigrants, not knowing even a single English word, kept a piece of paper with the name of the company they were travelling to, written on it.
After 1950, Greek emigrants were usually travelling to South Africa by airplane. Since there were no direct flights from Athens or Cyprus to Johannesburg, the flight could take three to four days.
The Greek immigrants travelled by train to Bloemfontein from Cape Town or Durban. They had the address of a relative or a friend, usually provided by the person who had offered them a job. Upon reaching Bloemfontein’s train station, they would take a taxi to their final destination.
Later, those who travelled by airplane to Johannesburg would have someone waiting for them. This person often transported them to Bloemfontein with his own car; otherwise they would travel by train.
Communication with Greece was not easy. Arrangements were made exclusively by mail. Occasionally, the immigrant reached his destination without anyone waiting for him.
Some Greek immigrants reached Bloemfontein as sailors who abandoned their ships. As soon as the ship docked in Cape Town or Durban, they disembarked and disappeared into the vast countryside.
Others went to other regions of the African continent, such as Egypt. As the years passed circumstances took them further south, until they finally settled in Bloemfontein.
3. The first Greeks in Bloemfontein
The first Greek immigrants in Bloemfontein were the Trupos brothers: Haralampos, Polyhronis and Xenofon. They arrived between 1880 and 1890 from Cape Town. They were originally from a village named Mpampaku, near Sparta, in Peloponnese.
Hristos Venturas, from the island Ithaca in the Ionian Sea, settled in Bloemfontein around 1903. About the same time, Manolis Kolovos came from Vurla, a village near Izmir in Asia Minor. He reached Cape Town in 1896, and then went to Bloemfontein.
In 1888, there were about 20 Greeks in Kimberley searching for diamonds. Among them were Georgios and Theodoros Kasimatis, from the island Kithira in the Ionian Sea. This family settled in Bloemfontein around 1910.
Panagiotis Repanis was probably the first Greek from Plomari, Lesvos, who came to Bloemfontein in 1910, while Apostolos Nikolau came from Athens at the same time.
The first Greek immigrant from Cyprus was Xenofon Savas, from the village of Drusa. He began his long journey in Egypt, then went to Khartoum in the Sudan, and on to Pretoria. After a short time, around 1920, he came to Bloemfontein.
4. Reasons for coming to Bloemfontein
The first Greeks in Bloemfontein came from Cape Town. However, it seems that, by the end of the nineteenth century, the opportunities offered by the gold and diamonds attracted many Greeks northwards. Going by train to Johannesburg, they stopped for a while in Bloemfontein. Some of them, like the Trupos brothers, went on to Johannesburg, but found they didn’t like the big city. Thus, they decided to return and settle in Bloemfontein. Others, like Manolis Kolovos, immediately decided to stay in Bloemfontein as soon as they arrived there.
These people must have made some money from their economic activities in Cape Town, since they established their own businesses as soon as they arrived in Bloemfontein.
5. The growth of the Greek community in Bloemfontein
It is reported that there were ten Greek families in Bloemfontein in 1929. Until 1950 there were roughly fifteen families, and by the mid-1950s they had increased to 21.
E. A. Mantzaris, in his research with regard to the Greek immigrants in South Africa, mentions that 50 Greeks lived in Bloemfontein in 1923. Strangely enough, 30 of them originated from Peloponnese, five from Sterea Hellas, and fifteen from the Ionian Islands; no-one from Lesvos or Cyprus. From 1930 to 1950 the Greek population in Bloemfontein consisted of 50 individuals, while it is said to have increased to 2 800 persons by 1974.
The information for the period until 1923 is based on the records of C.G. Nikolaides, while the information for the period until 1950 is based on Michael Papamichael’s records, and the information for the period until 1974 was obtained from reports of the Greek community of Bloemfontein itself.
It must be stressed, however, that the estimated number of 2 800 Greeks in Bloemfontein in 1974 is too high, since in 1986 the then chairman of the Greek community of Bloemfontein, Mr H. Savas, said in his message to the annual Greek dance guests: ” … I have seen this community grow from 21 families (in 1956) to over 130 families”. Today there are 140 families in Bloemfontein, including some that live in smaller towns near Bloemfontein. This means roughly 500 people of Greek origin.
6. Chain emigration
As soon as the first Greeks settled in Bloemfontein, a process known as chain emigration was initiated. The first Greek immigrants established their own businesses, and as soon as they were doing well they invited relatives or friends from Greece to Bloemfontein, offering them jobs. These newcomers then invited other compatriots, and so on.
Chain emigration took on major proportions after World War II. Older emigrants began to return to Greece for holidays, and described life in their new homeland to the young people in Greece. They would tell them that working in a foreign country was hard, but that the money they were earning was much more than in Greece: “A day’s income in South Africa is equal to a monthly salary in Greece”.
The Greek chain emigration to Bloemfontein came to a large extent from Lesvos and Cyprus. That is strange, since the first Greeks in Bloemfontein came from Peloponnese, Sterea Hellas, the Ionian Islands (Kithira and Ithaca), and Asia Minor. However, it can be explained by the fact that these areas in due course developed faster than the Aegean Islands, while emigrants from Kithira turned to other destinations (mainly Australia). People left Cyprus because of the British sovereignty and problems with the Turks.
7. Beginning a new life in Bloemfontein
About 85% of the Greek immigrants in Bloemfontein, as in the rest of South Africa, were coffee shop or tea-room owners. These were usually small shops, also selling fruit and vegetables and groceries. Sometimes they had some tables to offer tea or coffee to the clients, as well as roast meat, fish and sweets. There were so many of these Greek-owned shops that the Afrikaans expression “Die Griek op die hoek” (The Greek on the corner) became very common.
The Greek immigrant’s first concern was to ensure the basic necessities of life. Thus he immediately started to work as an employee at the business of the person who had invited him. This made him feel more at home, since he could at least speak his language there. He had to work hard in order to earn the essentials for making a living, and also to send some money to his family in Greece. He also had to pay up his ticket to South Africa, which had usually been bought by his boss.
In the first years of the twentieth century, many Greeks would sleep inside their shops. Others slept in a shed behind their shop. In some cases a well was used, winter and summer, both for bathing and the washing of clothes. Young people who came to South Africa stayed with their relatives for as long as two years before finding a room in a house or a low-rent apartment to live in.
When the immigrants started families in Bloemfontein, their wives and children would also work in the family shop. Work started at six or seven o’clock in the morning, and only stopped at nine or ten o’clock at night. There were also shops that stayed open 24 hours a day. Because of the long working hours, family members often worked in shifts. Wives had an even more difficult life since they had to help in the shop and, at the same time, had to take care of the house and the children.
The main aim of all the Greek immigrants was to accumulate the necessary money to acquire their own shops. This is why they lived so frugally. They were often helped by their relatives or friends, who had acquired sufficient financial means in the meantime. As soon as they opened their own shops, they continued to work hard and with greater zeal in order to expand their own businesses.
The Greek immigrant worker often initially didn’t even have the time or money to take his clothes to the dry-cleaner. He would put them under his mattress in order to “iron” them. Some immigrants took five or six years to meet the rest of the Greeks in Bloemfontein, because they “never” left the shop they were working in.
In general, this kind of work was much easier than the hard farm work the majority of the immigrants used to do in Greece. “It was easy, like a game”. As one of the older immigrants said: “We were sitting behind the counter, filling the drawer with money. The heavy work was done by the blacks”.
Learning English, and mainly Afrikaans, was one of the first concerns of the Greek immigrants. This would help them in their work, since their customers wanted to be served in their own language. This was probably also the South African government’s requirement, since a case is reported of a Greek immigrant (in the 1960s), who did not learn English and was subsequently repatriated. Most of the young immigrants went to school, while the older ones tried to learn the language by talking to the shop’s personnel or even taking private lessons.