Afrikaners flock to God and London

Click to follow
KING'S CROSS, London, so often frequented by muggers, prostitutes and drug dealers, is an unlikely home for the beginnings of the second Great Trek of South Africa's chosen people, the Afrikaners.

But every Sunday, a rented Welsh chapel on the Pentonville Road is packed with more than 600 worshippers, attending services of the Dutch Reformed Church, led by the Reverend Francois du Toit.

Last week, the minister was preaching animatedly from a pulpit, pointing and pounding, speaking in Afrikaans, telling the faithful that not only should they follow God's law, they should want to with their hearts.

The good-natured congregation listened to his muscular Christianity respectfully, in casual Sunday best: women in pastel frocks and men in open-necked denim and checked shirts. Most were young, many in their twenties, with only a handful over 40.

There was standing room only. The church has exploded in size since Mr du Toit became its minister in 1995. Then, there were 180 members of the SA Gemeente Londen; now there are more than 1,000, a reflection of the speed in which an Afrikaner community is growing in the capital.

That it exists at all is a surprise. Before the end of white rule and the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa, Afrikaans speakers rarely left the country, insisting it was their home for good and the only place they wanted to be.

They had been in control of the country's political system since the National Party came to power in 1948, but their families had been tied to the land since the 17th century, when their Dutch and French Huguenot ancestors settled there. Extreme nationalists claimed with pride that it was the Afrikaners' mission to spread European and Christian culture across the southern tip of Africa.

They recalled the Great Trek of the 19th century, when the Boers marched north to the Transvaal - founding Johannesburg and Pretoria - leaving the Cape after it had been taken over by Britain, following the Napoleonic wars.

Today, with a majority rule ANC government in power Afrikaners are flocking towards the capital of their old enemy.

Exact numbers are not available, because South African visitors to the UK are not recorded by ethnicity, but including all races and creeds, 238,000 flew to the UK in 1996, and 260,000 in 1997. Meanwhile 1,290 secured permanent settlement rights last year and 1,040 in 1996.

John de Roeck, chairman of the UK-based South African Society, believes a significant shift of population is taking place among Afrikaans-speakers. "Generally there have never been many Afrikaners in England, but now there's a large feeling that they are considering moving overseas and that the ultimate destination is Britain," he said.

Afrikaners chose to come to the UK rather than Holland, where Afrikaans is understood, because of recent historic ties and a shared legal and political tradition.

Many of those coming to the UK are twenty-somethings, taking advantage of South Africa's membership in the Commonwealth and the subsequent availability of two-year "working holiday" visas. Around 8,000 visas were granted in 1997 and more than 10,000 will be issued this year.

Some simply want to travel, adopting the custom of New Zealand and Australian youth, of enjoying the Big OE (overseas experience), before heading home to start careers and families.

But others want money, alarmed by the declining standard of living for white South Africans and policies designed to promote black employment, after years of discrimination.

At the church, Jacques van Zyl, aged 23, explained: "It's because of the political situation and the affirmative action thing, now the government forces employers to take on black people."

He was also impressed by the strength of the pound, which would enable him to save money, to spend later, maybe in South Africa, where the rand has been weakening.

Mirroring Antipodeans, South African travellers, including Afrikaners, have colonised Earls Court, but have also fanned out, sharing houses in surrounding wealthier areas such as St John's Wood.

Other members of the King's Cross congregation said they planned to stay in Britain for the foreseeable future.

Oddly, a large proportion are dentists. There are 1,200 South African dentists in the UK - the largest expatriate group in the profession - a result of a professional shortage over here and an excess of practitioners in South Africa.

Whether they will return is debatable. Henko Neethling, an Afrikaner dentist from Essex, said he found life in the UK more relaxed than at home.

Mr du Toit thinks Mr Neethling's point of view is spreading. "They all say that they will go back to South Africa," he said. "But they never say when."

Already businesses are being set up to serve this new expatriate community, with one South African food supplier, Susmans' Butchery, delivering to shops and operating mail order, selling items such as Mrs Ball's Chutney, Peppermint Crisp chocolates and Boerewors sausages, that are as essential to a South African expat as Marmite is to a Briton.

But for many Afrikaners, it is their church that is the most significant cultural import. Their communities in South Africa are often focused on the local chapel, with congregations gathering to chat over tea following a service. The same now happens at King's Cross.

"When people come here, they can't imagine that they have left South Africa," said Mr du Toit.

For him, his church is a beacon for God-fearing Afrikaners lost in secular Britain, fulfiling the same role that it did when his ancestors marched into the veld.