Background Story

The Portuguese Diaspora to South Africa

In 1948 apartheid was institutionalised in South Africa. By law, skilled jobs were reserved for whites only. By the 1960s the nationalist government, desperate for skilled white labour, allowed and even encouraged Portuguese boilermakers, welders, brick layers and machinists into the country.

Young Portuguese men came first. They worked in the mines and the fields of East and South Africa. They laid bricks. They drilled the rocks underground. They welded the fences. They planted tomatoes and kept their heads low. Soon they looked to Lisbon for a wife. Some, like my grandfather placed a newspaper advert: Looking For Love.

Images of a family picnic surrounded by bought images of the built environment of Johannesburg, courtesy the Serra family photo archive. 

South Africa presented an attractive destination to Portuguese women with the promise of adventure, good healthcare and access to education. In the late 1940s many women dreamed of better opportunities and searched for ways to leave Portugal and Madeira. Women responded to adverts in the newspaper in the hope of better prospects abroad and were often encouraged by their families to enter into arranged marriages. 

This is a typical story for many Portuguese women of that era in South Africa, who were sometimes even married by proxy, to men they had never met before. Upon arriving in South Africa they performed as wives and were often expected to work long hours in the family business. In addition they performed their household chores of cooking, cleaning and caring for children. Many times these women spoke little or no English and experienced isolation, loneliness and exhaustion.  In these marital arrangements, a blurry line existed between “wife” and“worker”.

Maria Julia Serra circa 1949, photo courtesy the Serra family archive.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s my grandmother, Maria Julia Serra, worked as a dress maker in a factory in small town outside of Johannesburg. She was a poor Portuguese immigrant hopeful of a new life. She had travelled to South Africa from Lisbon by boat with my grandfather. Their marriage was arranged but also happy.

She was assigned a name in the factory where she worked, Machinist 15, a unique identifier that she would sew into all the garments she ever made.

Her personal experiences of work and eventual burn-out in 1960 are seen through the lens of our family photo albums. These albums are my research leads for posing more collective questions about women’s work  – both in the family and in the work-place.

South Africa 

Although the Portuguese community were white enough to be tolerated, they were never “white enough” to be accepted into South African society, most especially Madeirans who were considered poorly educated, illiterate and often dark-skinned. Many Portuguese were labelled the derogatory term “Porra” and taunted at school. For the most part, the Portuguese community kept to themselves and maintained a low political profile.


– 2010. Portuguese Immigrant History in Twentieth Century South Africa: A Preliminary Overview. African Historical Review, Vol.42, p.61-83.
– 2012. Home, Farm and Shop: The Migration of Madeiran Women to South Africa, 1900–1980. Journal of Southern African Studies, Vol.38, p.885-897.
– 2013. White But Illegal: Undocumented Madeiran Immigration to South Africa, 1920s–1970s. Immigrants & Minorities, Vol.31, p.74-98.