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Tuesday, April 01, 2003


Problems and Challenges for Greek South Africans in the Twenty-First Century

Greeks put down roots in South Africa toward the end of the nineteenth century; during the twentieth century, the community as a whole grew steadily and impressively, as more and more people left the lands of their birth at times of acute crises and found their way to South Africa. The last wave of Greek immigrants, mostly from Greece, Cyprus, and Egypt, arrived in the late Fifties and early Sixties. From that time until the mid-Eighties, the community expanded rapidly. It consolidated its remarkable gains with the founding of several new koinotites (local communities), developing around new churches and schools. Suffice it to mention that the SAHETI (South African Hellenic Institute) primary and secondary school, the pride of Greek South Africa, was established during this period of rapid expansion. In its 29 years of continuous and thriving development, it has become a shining beacon, an educational center comparable to the best to be found anywhere within the vast expanse of the Greek diaspora.

With the collapse of the apartheid regime and the radical structural changes in politics and society that took place with the process of democratization, certain distortions and negative consequences within the new sociopolitical system were inevitable. As a result, a number of new problems — that did not exist in the past for whites, who were protected and privileged — have been created, both for the erstwhile dominant white minority in general and, even more so, for the Greeks of South Africa in particular.

These problems have caused a considerable shrinkage of the Greek community, as many families and individuals have left because they could not adapt to the new reality. Although exact figures do not exist, it is estimated that the number of Greek South Africans has fallen from approximately 50,000 to 30,000. This Greek version of white flight has aggravated the already difficult task of preserving Hellenism in South Africa.

To take stock of this alarming situation, the Greek community of Pretoria convened a one-day conference, entitled “The Future of Hellenism in South Africa,” on March 15, 2003. The morning session was devoted to the issue of the Church and its role in confronting the problematic future, while the afternoon session discussed problems related to education, cultural heritage, and the Greek language. Each session had four panelists presenting papers, and each panelist tried to identify problems and suggest possible solutions.

Religion and the Greek Orthodox Church in particular
Because of its nature, the debate on the role of the Greek Orthodox Church provided a platform for many controversial opinions, expressed both by panelists as well as by the audience during question time. One of the most controversial issues was the missionary work presently conducted by the Church among non-Greeks, which began fairly recently. The rigid control imposed by the apartheid regime in order to prevent the emancipation of the black masses, among other things, precluded such activity until the birth of democratic South Africa in the mid-Nineties. While there was, by and large, agreement that missionary work per se was not a bad thing, the majority of speakers also felt that badly needed resources for the ailing Greek South African community were being diverted to the missionary drive. They pointed out that this kind of activity should not be carried out at the expense of Greek South Africans, among whose ranks there are quite a few unemployed and needy.

Criticism was also leveled at the manner in which the Church is going about its business. According to some speakers, this was creating more problems than it was solving. They referred to “dogmatic and dictatorial methods” that have created tension and friction between the Church and some groups. Concern was also expressed about the apparent lack of interest in youth who, for whatever reason, are drifting away from Orthodoxy and joining other religious bodies.

Another negative factor contributing to the loss of the young generation was thought to be the language in which church services are conducted. One participant, however, pointed out that in the only Greek Orthodox church, in a Johannesburg suburb, in which the service is held entirely in English, attendance is still poor. An interesting observation was made by yet another speaker, who pointed out that, due to their education (or lack of it) and, sometimes, their austere cultural background, priests brought from Greece to serve South Africa have no way of communicating with youth. In strong contrast, one younger priest, born in South Africa of Greek parents, who is well-educated and articulate, has achieved tremendous success with the young.

Education, culture, and the Greek language
South Africa today has very little in common with South Africa during the era of white supremacy, except for the sad legacies still evident everywhere. Furthermore, the easy access to information through television, the Internet, and cell phones has also made a tremendous impact. We find ourselves in the age of globalization, in the age of intelligent bombs and unintelligent world leaders. This, among other things, has made closed communities — with a fairly rigid set of traditional values and customs, such as some Greek communities of the diaspora — vulnerable to the steady erosion of non-Greek influences in music, fashion, and other social expressions.

Progress, in addition, can easily produce other negative results as well. Today, one can never have enough education. In order to survive the tough competition for a place in university and, later, for a decent job or promising career, youths and teachers are trapped in a pitiless spiral of lessons and more lessons, both at school and in private, after-school tutoring, which does not allow for different reading or study that will uplift young people and enrich their lives with other, perhaps more humane, values.

The situation is worse in South Africa, where, in order to rectify the glaring imbalances of the apartheid system, the government has instituted an affirmative action program that redistributes vacant posts according to a 9-1 ratio of the previously disadvantaged black majority to the previously privileged white minority. Consequently, competition for a good education and for a vacant post, either in the civil service or private sector, has increased exponentially for whites, including, of course, Greek South Africans. Unless they are absorbed into a family business, their alternative is, sadly, to look for greener pastures elsewhere, in their countries of origin, Australia, Europe, or North America, following the many families who have left South Africa for good and depriving their communities both of their active participation in day-to-day affairs and of their valuable financial contribution.

Looking ahead
Greek South Africans, like any other Greeks, are justly proud of their history, culture, language, and religion. Nevertheless, they need to break away from the narrow confines of traditional Greek community concepts, with their sterile, almost ghetto-like, isolationism. Greek South Africans need instead to make an effective and highly visible contribution to the common good of South Africa, not only as an organized group, but also as individuals. In this respect, George Bizos is, of course, an extraordinary example: Greek by birth, South African by adoption, a lifelong advocate of human rights, a prominent anti-apartheid activist, and the attorney who defended Nelson Mandela 40-odd years ago during the Rivonia trial. It is fitting to conclude this brief overview of the Greek South African community by quoting from George Bizos’s presentation at the Pretoria conference:

The spirit of Hellenism belongs to all, but we Greeks have a duty to nurture it. Participation in public affairs was commended by Pericles when he said that those who feel that the business of the city is not their concern have no business to be in it. Full participation in South African affairs does not diminish our loyalty to the country of birth of our forefathers….

Elias Eliades was formerly Cypriot ambassador to Spain and South Africa.
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