Congo’s white ‘refugees’

After the fall of colonial rule, some whites fled from their African countries of residence and sought refuge in apartheid South Africa.

Photo by Jordy MATABARO on Unsplash

Not all people seeking refuge in Africa have been black. In a forthcoming article for this series, Alfred Tembo and Jochen Lingelbach write about Polish World War II refugees who sought safety in British colonial Africa. Another group of white refuge-seekers in Africa consists of whites who fled from their African countries of residence after the fall of colonial and white minority rule. Their history is connected to the idea of racial solidarity among Africa’s white societies.

Algeria, Angola, and Mozambique’s independence all resulted in the rapid departure of the majority of their white inhabitants. We can trace the origins of this broader phenomenon to the decolonization of Belgian Congo (present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo). Five days after Congo’s independence celebrations on June 30, 1960, widespread panic set in among its white population when African members of the Congolese army started a mutiny. The frustration and anger of the African soldiers were rooted in the racial violence and structural racism that had defined colonial Congo (1885-1960). Much of the violence by the mutineers was directed toward the white community, resulting in the hasty departure of most white residents from the newly independent African state.

Thousands of whites crossed the border into neighboring territories like Sudan and Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) seeking refuge. The different colonial and white minority regimes across Africa immediately put initiatives in place to receive and provide for incoming refuge-seekers, while their white communities made extraordinary efforts to accommodate fellow whites. Refuge-seekers were housed, clothed, and fed, as well as assisted with repatriation back to their country of nationality. The notion of racial solidarity shaped this noteworthy reaction by white societies across Africa.

Africa’s different white societies typically did not share strong daily social connections with one another. Additionally, each society was further divided along ethnic and class lines, forming their own separate communities. Yet, all of these communities and societies shared the unique identity of being a white minority in Africa—privileged and dominant over the black population. Whenever a white minority group was perceived to be threatened by the black majority, a display of solidarity based on their shared identity emerged. These different white communities considered the adversity experienced by Congo’s white refuge-seekers as an attack on the entire group. What happened to Congo’s white population became symbolic of deep-seated white anxieties about decolonization and majority rule.

Although white minority societies in Congo-Brazzaville (Republic of Congo), Kenya, or Angola all undertook action to receive refuge-seekers, the case of apartheid South Africa stands out. What made South Africa unique was that it actively encouraged white-refuge-seekers from Congo to come to South Africa and permanently settle there. The apartheid government went to great lengths to assist Congo’s refuge-seekers, paying for their journey to, and stay in, South Africa, and going as far as organizing employment for them. By the end of 1960, about 2,342 refuge-seekers from Congo had crossed the South African border.

Despite racial solidarity being the driving force that made white South Africa come to the aid of these white refuge-seekers, it was less selfless and united than it first appears. Although the South African government and the local white press expressed enthusiasm, the white public’s support was neither overwhelming nor unlimited. On several occasions, Pretoria had to spur on citizens to donate money and food after an initially muted response. The enthusiasm of those South Africans who responded to the clarion call also quickly diminished, as homeowners became tired of housing refuge-seekers and the organizations whose spaces were transformed into refugee centers wanted them returned.

Pretoria’s efforts to assist refuge-seekers from Congo was not based entirely on humanitarian principles. The South African government’s desire to bolster the country’s white population, which was shrinking percentage-wise, was an important motivation. Although Pretoria was eager to attract white refuge-seekers from Congo, the right pedigree was important. As in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Southern European refuge-seekers from Congo were generally considered undesirable. Western Europeans, who understood the concept of maintaining white prestige and did not need to adapt to apartheid, were preferred.

In turn, a questionable sense of white camaraderie was present among Congo’s refuge-seekers. Reports of refuge-seekers abusing the South African relief system to further their own mobility were common. Belgian refuge-seekers in South Africa, for instance, grossly abused the credit system that had been set up especially for them, leaving behind large amounts of debt when leaving South Africa back to Belgium or Congo.

The white exodus that followed Congo’s independence on June 30, 1960 thus resulted in an intense moment of racial solidarity amongst Africa’s white minority societies. Apartheid South Africa’s reaction to Congo’s white refuge-seekers presents us with a valuable episode in the history of refugees in Africa. Besides disrupting existing racial stereotypes about refuge seeking in Africa, it highlights the importance, complexity, and limitations that solidarity plays in aiding those seeking refuge.

Further Reading

Passing as a refugee

Borders and camps across Africa are using biometrics to track refugees. For those who are stateless, “fraud” can allow for the smuggling of truths into administrative lies.