The Ambivalent Diaspora: What South African Canadians Think

October 4, 2012

I have just this week finished teaching my first graduate course in Global Migration and Development at the Balsillie School of International Affairs. To round off the course, we watched the award-winning 2009 movie "District 9" and discussed whether it was about apartheid-era racism, post-apartheid xenophobia, neither or both. 

The Director, Neill Blomkamp, has been rather coy on the subject claiming that his is a vision of the future, not the present or the past: "I actually think Johannesburg represents the future. My version of what I think the world is going to become looks like Johannesburg. Every time I’m there, it feels like I’m in the future, so I was just very, very interested in the city."[1]  

Academic blogger Andries Du Toit calls the movie "affectionately patriotic" and  "thoroughly and utterly South African" but with a specific agenda: "what you are seeing is not just South Africa, but that South Africa that we think we've left behind but we think we've forgotten... until you come across a reminder that brings it home to you so forcefully that you realise you've never left."[2] In fact, Blomkamp's representation of the South Africa he left when he moved to Canada is brutal, bleak, and utterly dystopian. No-one, with the important exception of the aliens, commands respect or empathy.  

This dystopian view of South Africa is certainly not unique to Blomkamp, however. The Southern African Migration Program (SAMP) recently completed a research project on the attitudes and perceptions of the South African diaspora in Canada.[3] 

The diaspora, now over 50,000 strong, maintains a very strong sense of themselves as South Africans but in large part thinks of the country itself as District 9 writ large. Their depictions of their country of origin are extremely negative. On virtually every quality-of-life indicator, Canada scores much better than South Africa. They have no desire to be involved in South Africa's development nor do they ever intend to return: "Return to South Africa?" commented one physician, "Hell no!  I'd rather freeze to death on the Prairies."

Despite their highly educated and often professional status, they nurse a very strong sense of grievance, seeing themselves as victims rather than beneficiaries of the country's past and present. They are, in short, a truly "disengaged" diaspora. At a time when so much is being made globally of diaspora engagement as a development strategy, the findings are a sobering reminder that not all diasporas wish to engage and some are very hostile to the idea.

When my Zimbabwean colleague Abel Chikanda and I presented these depressing findings to the students in an earlier seminar (and contrasted them with the positive attitudes of the Zimbabwean diaspora), the class noted that around 20% of the Canadian South Africans actually took a very different view of South Africa and their possible role in its future. Clearly, just because the vast majority are disengaged, it does not mean that everyone is.

Small numbers can have a great impact.  But who are this minority? Are they distinctive in some way? How do they view the country and its future? Why do they think they can make a difference? And how do they think they can do it?  We have returned to our data to see if we can answer these questions and I will report on our findings in a subsequent blog.    

[1] See the Interview with Neil Blomkamp, 12 August 2009 at,31606/

[2]  Andries Dutoit, "Becoming the Alien: Apartheid, Racism and District 9" 4 September 2009 at

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