Critical Mass: Do we really need strength in numbers for diaspora development engagement?

December 17, 2012

In a previous blog, Jonathan Crush has written about the ‘disengaged diaspora’ from South Africa in Canada. An established and largely affluent community which began migrating to this country immediately after the second World War, the South African community in Canada is now over  60,000 persons. White South Africans constitute a majority and the broader diaspora community remains divided along racial lines.

Although they constitute the  largest diaspora group from  the African continent in Canada, many South African diaspora members or ‘diasporans’ surveyed for a Southern African Migration Program (SAMP) project rejected the notion that they ‘had an important role to play in the development of South Africa’.[1]

While researching  South African diaspora-based organizations in Ontario and their transnational connections, several persons associated with such groups  declared openly that they no longer considered themselves as South African; they were simply Canadian now (not even hyphenated ones) and their connection with South Africa could at best be described as weak. For some, the current state of affairs in South Africa remained a cause for concern; for others their experience of apartheid had coloured (no pun intended) their attitude negatively. Corruption and lack of confidence in the South African government were common complaints.

If a majority of these diasporans have become detached from their country of birth, does this mean that their contribution to development in South Africa is similarly feeble? And more importantly, do we really need substantial diaspora numbers, a critical mass so to speak, who are willing to contribute to their country of origin to really make a difference?

Interestingly enough, the indifference of many individuals in the South African case is juxtaposed by the presence of a small number of committed diasporans who are strongly engaged in meaningful development projects in South Africa. More aware than others of the privileges they enjoyed in South Africa and now in Canada, they have drawn on their personal and professional networks in this country to raise funds for worthy projects, or in some cases, directly support and build on such ventures.

Last year, I attended a breakfast event organized by the Canadian Southern African Network (CSAN)[2] in Toronto where the guest speaker Dr. Philip Berger from St. Michael’s Hospital recounted his experiences with the HIV/AIDS project in the Leribe district of Lesotho. With about 75 percent of the attendees from the South African diaspora community, proceeds from this event was donated to the Stephen Leacock Foundation for Children, which manages three independent Get Ahead Project (GAP) schools for children from townships near Queenstown and Whittlesea in the Eastern Cape province. [3]  Since 2009, CSAN has organized such events with a distinctly South African (or Southern African) thematic focus through this social-philanthropic network to support programs of this Foundation and other non-profit organizations working in this region such as the Make A Difference Foundation of Francois Pienaar, the  former South African rugby player on whom the Hollywood film Invictus is based.  

The five founding Directors of CSAN were born in Southern Africa (four in South Africa and the fifth in Zimbabwe). Although registered as a non-profit organization, CSAN works as a loose collective of persons interested in Southern Africa who attend these fundraising events. Mark Canes, one of the founding members of CSAN explained why he got involved with it: ‘I grew up in South Africa and I enjoyed a good start there when millions could not in that country. I have had a good life in Canada. I would like to give something back in return as gratitude for what I received. But I wanted to do something more than write a check’. ‘Giving back’ through events that allow South African diasporans and others to get together is the underlying principle of this network. To date, CSAN has raised over $150,000 to support education and youth-based programs in South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Canada. The presence of famous South African personalities like Pienaar and his friend golfer Retief Goosen at such events has helped to draw attention from the South African diaspora in the Greater Toronto Area.

Restaurateur Peter Oliver, founder of the Stephen Leacock Foundation for Children, spoke passionately in a private meeting about the GAP schools and enthusiasm of the students, many of whom come from very poor families, deeming it the ‘best and most rewarding achievement of his life’. Associated with the Oliver and Bonacini restaurants and familiar in Toronto’s elite circles, his foundation raised close to $1 million last year for education programs in South Africa and Canada. [4] Oliver was born in Cape Town and raised in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) as well as South Africa before migrating to Canada. A meeting with Nelson Mandela in 2002 inspired him to get involved with the GAP schools in South Africa. Canadian members of the Leacock Club, an affiliated group created by Oliver, raise funds for the activities of the foundation.[5]

As these extraordinary examples show, a strong diasporic community is not really necessary to foster transnational engagement with the country of origin. Here, a small group of interested individuals have effectively utilized their connections, at least some of them outside the community, to support and enhance education programs in Southern Africa. The catalyst and incentives for such involvement are diverse and present even when the connections to the country of origin are weak. I will write about some of these other motivations in another blog.

Sujata Ramachandran is a Research Associate with the Southern African Migration Program (SAMP)

[1] Crush, Jonathan and Abel Chikanda 2012 ‘The Disengagement of the South African Medical Diaspora’, Migration Policy Series No. 58, Kingston: Southern African Migration Program.

[4] Newman, Peter 2010 ‘Kitchen crusade’, Macleans, 25 November.

[5] Waldie, Paul 2011 ‘Be it resolved: Leacock Foundation fosters education’, Globe & Mail, 1 April.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.

About the Author

Sujata Ramachandran is a research associate with SAMP at Queen’s University. Her research interests include SouthSouth migration, diaspora development engagement and migrant integration in receiving countries.