Maatskapij vir Europese Immigrasie

By Allan Jackson - May 2005

In Facts About Durban I wrote of a little booklet called Spotlight on Durban which was produced by the Durban Publicity Association sometime shortly after WWII. The booklet was designed to attract people from Europe to settle in Durban. The immigration laws of the time made it very easy for white people of European origin to enter South Africa to live, and Durban wanted her share of them.

There were many more blacks than whites in South Africa and the government was keen to address this imbalance by encouraging more whites to settle here. I didn't realise until recently that, at one time, the government had been prepared to put its money where its mouth was and offer incentives in the form of free passage and a few weeks free accommodation on arrival to qualified immigrants.

There was an organisation, in Durban at least, which helped immigrants settle into their new lives and was funded jointly by government and churches. This information came from a very interesting chat I had recently with my informant Willemine Starrenburg who ran the Maatskapij vir Europese Immigrasie (Council for European Immigration) for six years until 1970.

Dutch couple Willemine and Gerry van Weers arrived as immigrants in Durban on 1 May 1960. Recycling and the collection of waste paper was unknown in Durban at that time, so Gerry started a business called Capital Waste, which still exists today. Willemine soon got a job in the Dutch Consulate and, in about 1964, moved to MEI to work with immigrants who were experiencing the same problems that she had

Picture Courtesy W Starrenberg: Willemine Starrenberg appears on the
cover of the Dutch community magazine De Schakel.

MEI was located on the sixth floor of the Immigration building in Gardiner Street, between West Street and Victoria Embankment, and ideally placed to offer help and advice to the immigrants, many of whom couldn't speak English or Afrikaans. Willemine and her colleague Maria Martin spoke nine languages between them and were a mine of information on everything an immigrant might need to know.
MEI helped people find housing, schools for their children, and translations whenever required. Desperate husbands would come in to report that their wives were not settling down in Durban and were longing for home. MEI's advice in these cases was for the husband to send his wife home on a visit; experience had shown that they would return in a much happier frame of mind, having realised just how much Durban had to offer.

Picture Courtesy W Starrenberg: Willemine, left, and Maria Martin take a break in the Town Gardens, nearby their office. July 1969.

The work of MEI didn't end when its office doors shut because there were plenty of picnics and trips arranged so that the immigrants could socialise with each other. Many of them were taken to the symphony concerts at the City Hall where they were given their first tickets free courtesy of Aubrey Pletnick, Director of the Durban Municipal Music and Entertainments Department.

Picture Courtesy W Starrenberg: Willemine, second left, is pictured on an immigrant's trip to the whaling station in Durban. The train was unique to Durban and carried whales from where they were pulled up the slipway in the bay around the Bluff to the whaling station where they were processed. The passengers are being carried on the flat deck on which the whales normally lay.

Willemine told me that she enjoyed her time with MEI and, especially, the bit where they took immigrants on outings and picnics, etc.. A sad part of the job, she said, was when an immigrant was killed or injured and MEI had to liaise with their families. A number of immigrants left South Africa soon after their arrival but many went on to become pillars of the community. There were exceptions and one was arrested on suspicion of bank robbery while another was caught at the airport with a suitcase full of goods he had bought on credit from Durban shops.

Willemine left Durban 10 years to the day after she arrived but, like me, she came back.

Home | Contents | Diary | Orders | Site Search | Contact Us