Migrants and asylum-seekers, mostly Syrian Kurds, have crowded into an abandoned schoolhouse on the outskirts of the Bulgarian capital Sofia. Photo: IRIN/Jodi Hilton

The History of the South African- Lebanese :The Struggle Of The Christian Lebanese For Land Ownership In South Africa

The Struggle Of The Christian Lebanese For Land Ownership In South Africa

By Guita G. Hourani  (Chairman of Lebanese Emigration Research Center)
(Past Chairwoman of MARI)


This is the first time that a very important and unique historical document about the history of the Maronite community in South Africa is made available to the general public outside South Africa itself. This document is a “Record of Action heard in the Supreme Court of South Africa, Witwatersrand Local Division, before the Honorable Mr. Justice Ward in March 1913; and the Supreme Court judgment by Lord C. J. de Villiers in the matter of Moses Gandur, Petitioner in the Court of Appellant versus Rand Townships Registrar, Respondent in the Court of Respondent”, in regard to the right of land ownership of the so called “Syrians.”

Click for the print version of the Judgment

The “Syrians” are the Christian Lebanese who migrated to South Africa, North and South America, and other parts of the world between mid 1800s and early 1900s. They were called “Syrians” or “Turkos” because even though Mount Lebanon, where most of the Christian immigrants originated, had always been granted special “autonomous” rule under the Ottoman Empire, it was geographically part of the Ottoman Empire and administratively attached to the Sunjuk of Syria – a geo-administrative Ottoman authority. Like all those who resided in the Ottoman Empire, the Christians were given Turkish identification papers. 


According to Father Peter Alam, one of the pastors who served at Our Lady of Lebanon Church in Johannesburg, the history of the Lebanese community in South Africa “goes back to circa 1893. Most immigrants came from the Northern part of Lebanon — Sib’el, Baz’oun, Bcharre, Hadeth el-Jobbeh, Miziara, Hasroun, Zahle, Zghorta, Kartaba, Tripoli, Batroun, Jounieh, Ghosta, Beit Merri, Beit ed Dine, Deir El-Amar, and ‘Ain Zhalta. The majority of the immigrants were Maronites.” (Alam n.d.) Family names include but are not limited to the following: Abdo, Allem, Ansara, Ashkar, Azaham, Azzie, Bakkos, Basel, Bolus, Cahi, Chami, Cheketri, Daher, Dieb (Deeb), Emmanual, Essey, Farah, Faris, Gandur, Gossayn, Haddad, Hanna, Jacobs, Jammine, Joseph, Kalil, Karam, Kairuz, Khoury, Kourie, Kudsee, Kurdachi, Lahoud, Lebanon, Lebos, Leicher, Maroun, Masters, Mazaham, Mezher, Nacouzi, Nader, Najjar, Nofal, Rezek, Risha, Saad, Sadie, Sahade, Sasseen, Sauma, Sham, Shamley, Shehab, Shelela, Shkhaytiri, Simaan, Toweel, Yazbek, and Zoghby.  

Lebanese immigrants gathered to celebrate a Christening in Witwatersrand Goldfields in 1904. 
Photo courtesy of Mary Costa, Pretoria, South Africa, 1904

When the “Syrians” migrated to South Africa in the latter part of the nineteenth century, South Africa was under British rule. The government had then classified people by race and color. Four classes were identified: black, white, colored, and Asian. The “Syrians” fell under the classification of what was specifically titled the “Native Races of Asia” or Asians. 

Lebanese immigrants gathered to celebrate a Christening in Witwatersrand Goldfields in 1904. Photo courtesy of Mary Costa, Pretoria, South Africa, 1904 

Upon arrival, most of the immigrant “Syrians” worked in mining, first, then moved to the fresh produce business, and also became hawkers of goods which were wanted by the remote farming communities. Most of them were barely literate and certainly unskilled, but they knew that they wanted a better life for their families. (Lebos 1998) However, once they were settled and clustered in a community of their own, they found out that they would have to struggle for their rights, especially that of land ownership. 

The opportunity presented itself when Mr. Moses Gandur, a member of the “Syrian” community, filed a lawsuit against the Witwatersrand Local Division concerning his right to land ownership. The only way to obtain such a right was to prove that the “Syrians” were white. 

Mr. Gandur’s lawyer, W.J. MacIntyre, had to challenge the definition of “Native Races of Asia” as stated in Law No. 3 of 1885, by arguing that the “Syrians” are “white people”. His line of reasoning included, among others, the following points: 

“… The Syrians are an ancient Semitic race in whose land Christianity arose and flourished and who were the first disciples to Christianity, fighting with great loss and sacrifice against the Turks during the Crusades and remaining staunch defenders of the faith to the present day, and the members of Legislature that passed the said Law [Transvaal Law No. 3 of 1885] renowned for their zeal for Christianity would not subject another white Christian race to the differentiations and restrictions imposed by the said Law” (Judgment 1913: 4). 

“… It has never been suggested that the Jews (who are also a Semitic race and come from the same country) are subject to the said Law. Yet if Law 3 of 1885 applies to Syrians it must be necessarily applied to the Jews and members of both these communities would be required by the Law to carry permits and to be subject to the Asiatic Acts of 1907 and 1908 and would have to live in locations” (Judgment 1913: 4). 

“The Syrians, besides having had many prominent members in the Greek Church, have furnished to the Catholic Church such great men as St. Ephrem, St John of Damascus, Jacob of Roha, and several Popes including St. Avaritos, St. Inikotos, John V, St. Sinisus, Constantine and Gregorious” (Judgment 1913: 4). 

The court consequently agreed that the law was meant to be applied to colored people and even yellow Asiatics and not to any white man. The argument led to the ruling that the “Syrians” were white. The final judgment by Lord C. J. de Villiers read: “The Appeal must therefore be allowed with costs in this court and the court below and the respondent must be ordered to register the land in the applicant’s name as prayed” (Judgment 1913: 23). 

In his report, Father Alam states that Father Emmanuel El Fadle of Kferhata, who after completing his studies in Rome, responded to the orders of His Beatitude Maronite Patriarch Elias Howayek and arrived in Johannesburg in 1905 to be the community priest. Father Alam testifies that Father El- Fadle organized the petition of Mr. Gandur, which led to the classification of the Lebanese immigrants as members of the white race. (Alam n.d.) This explains the very knowledgeable argument that lawyer MacIntyre presented to the court. 

According to Jimmy Lebos, a renowned member of the Lebanese community of South Africa, “it was between 1880 and 1885 that the first Lebanese pioneer arrived in the Transvaal. He did not come accidentally, as foolishly suggested by some, having lost direction on his way to America. In fact, he came like thousands of others from Europe and elsewhere because of the discovery of precious stones and minerals at this end of the African continent.” 

Lebos continues to recount that “as far as it is known, it was Elias Mansour Eid from Beit ed Dine who remained in Ferriera’s Mining Camp for no more than 10 years because, having amassed a tidy stash of gold sovereigns in that short time, he returned to his hometown. His financial success story inspired hundreds of husbands and fathers, courageous adventurers, to make similar sea voyages on cattle boats sailing between Port Said and Delagoa Bay.” (Lebos 1998)

The Maronites of South Africa continue to tell the story of this lawsuit. However, the oral history is a bit more colorful. During my visits to the community, several people told me this anecdote about what went on inside the court. One of those whom I remember is Mr. Nassey Simaan, a prominent member of the community. He said that the judges and the lawyers were wearing white wigs and long robes, sitting straight and with authority when the lawyer, who is defending Mr. Gandur’s case, asked them if they believed that Christ was white. Looking at each other with great exclamation marks on their faces, they nodded in the affirmative that they do. From then on the lawyer, pointing out to the “Syrians” who were attending the trial, stated that these people are Christ’s people and they still speak His language. And with that he won the case. 

The “Syrian” community of South Africa won several other battles in order to be admitted, rightly so, as White in the race system of South Africa. One of these important battles was the case of Michael Peter Farah against the Government School of Trichardts in the Transvaal Province. (Extract 1923: 1) 

On June 1923, attorney H. H. Morris presented, on behalf of Mr. Farah, the case of the defendant’s three children, Mary, Joe, and Francis, in the Chambers before the Judge-President Sir Arthur Weir Mason in the Supreme Court at Pretoria. These children, who had been attending the Government school of Trichardts for a number of years, were being debarred from doing so further on the ground that they were colored. (Extract 1923:1) 

In support of the petition to revoke the decision of the School Board and to reinstate the children at school, Peter George Chami, the chairman of the Syrian Lebanon Christian Association, used the United States and Australia as examples in his affidavit to the court. He stated, among other arguments, that the “Syrians” have been acknowledged as a White race throughout the civilized world, that members of them have been judges in various parts of the United States of America, and others have been members of the Parliaments of the Commonwealth of Australia. (Extract 1923:1) 


The “Syrians” of South Africa gained their rights through their own efforts as a cohesive group and unified community. They were and still are known to be staunch Catholics and loyal South Africans, as well as good business people. 

They currently number 20,000 strong. Approximately 17,000 of them live in Johannesburg. The absolute majority of the community remains Maronite. There are two Maronite Churches — Our Lady of Lebanon and Our Lady of the Cedars. The Maronite Lebanese Missionaries, a Maronite Patriarchal order of monks headquartered in Lebanon, has been serving the community since 1905. 

Ever since the war conditions have ameliorated in Lebanon, hundreds of the Lebanese South Africans visit Lebanon each year to reestablish their spiritual, historical, and blood ties. Of all the Lebanese immigrants and their descendants, they are the most attached to their Maronite heritage and Lebanese culture.  


Alam, P. The Lebanese Community in South Africa. Unpublished report in English, n.d. The author’s collection. 

Extract From “Sunday Times: of July 1st, 1923, typed pamphlet, the author’s collection. 

Judgment by Chief Justice Lord de Villiers, Justice J. Solomon and Justice J. Innes in the Supreme Court of South Africa (Appellate Division), Published under the auspices of the Syrian Lebanon Christian Association, Johannesburg, South Africa, 1913. The author’s collection. 

Lebos, J. One People, One Origin, One Destiny, The Journal of Maronite Studies, October 1998, [http://www.maroniteinstitute.org/jms/october98] 

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