South Africa, a generations-old haven for the Portuguese

  • Arts
  • Saturday, 10 Jun 2023

At the recent Caravela Portuguese Festival held in Johannesburg, traditional performers and hundreds of Portuguese families gathered to celebrate Portuguese and Madeiran heritage ahead of Portugal Day on June 10. Photo: Caravela Portuguese Festival

Away from the buzz of South Africa's largest and wealthiest city, generations of Portuguese diners have gathered in one storied restaurant in search of a rare and simple pleasure - the taste of home.

It's unclear whether Portugal's President, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, in South Africa on Tuesday for his annual international trip marking Portuguese National Day, will visit the Johannesburg taberna, a mainstay of the local Lusophone community.

But his visit comes at a time when the country's Portuguese population is at a crossroads, buffeted by the same crime and economic issues as other South Africans and drawn to Portugal by the promise of an EU passport.

The family-owned Restaurante Parreirinha has served the Portuguese community "for at least three generations," said Gloria Da Cunha, 54, who now heads the restaurant with her siblings, having taken over from her father and uncle who came to South Africa in the late 1960s.

Half-a-million South Africans of Portuguese descent live in the country as well as 200,000 Portuguese citizens, the government says.

The Portuguese "dribbled in from the late 1800s all the way to the 1950s," Clive Glaser, a history professor at the University of the Witwatersrand, told AFP.

Coming in three separate waves, the first group of Portuguese migrants were "Madeirans who hopped on a boat in the hopes that they could get opportunities," Glaser told AFP.

The second is the group to which Da Cunha's parents belonged - skilled Portuguese migrants from the mainland.

And in 1975, Mozambique and Angola's independence from Portugal created the third wave.

The Lusophones are the third largest group of white South Africans after the Afrikaners (descendants of the Dutch and French Huguenots) - and English-speaking descendants of British settlers, Glaser said.

'Will never leave'

Although the community is vast - the largest on the continent - it is also very discreet.

"We are a very low-key community," Manny Ferreirinha, who chairs the Portuguese Forum of South Africa told AFP during the Caravela Portuguese Festival held in Johannesburg last weekend.

Hundreds of Portuguese families gathered to celebrate Portuguese and Madeiran heritage ahead of Portugal Day on June 10.

The music-filled festival boasted traditional dishes and treats such as Pasteis de Nata and Travesseiros de Sintra, a puff pastry.

Ferreirinha said the forum was created to foster unity among Portuguese in South Africa and in response to the country's changing economy and growing social issues.

It acts as a way of advocating for the community's safety as well as providing business opportunities.

Many festivalgoers AFP spoke to expressed concern over the economic and social woes that have plagued Africa's most industrialised economy.

Some are even considering migrating to Portugal.

Back in the restaurant, where 5,000 neckties collected over four decades hang from the ceiling, restaurant head Da Cunha is thinking about relocating to another part of the city due to power cuts and rising crime rates.

The region where the Portuguese community is largely concentrated has seen steady degradation in recent years, forcing many families to move away.

"A lot of our customers don't want to come (here) anymore out of fear," said Da Cunha.

"It's a sad situation. I grew up here. This building has a story, it's got memories".

The Portuguese population is gradually declining in South Africa, according to Glaser, with some families starting to slowly return to Portugal after it joined the European Union in 1986, which made the country's passport "more attractive".

But for 68-year-old South Africa-born Ferreirinha, a champion of Portuguese culture in the country, leaving is not an option. He "will never leave" home, he said. - AFP

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South Africa , Portuguese , heritage , culture , community


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