By Arison Tamfu, first published on Daily Reporter.
A traditional Chinese architectural gateway automatically beckons the visitor. For a moment, you will think you are in China but no, you are in South Africa precisely at Johannesburg’s China Town, a commercial center hosting Chinese small and medium businesses (SMEs) dealing in anything Chinese. This is where Ju Chunhua works. One day in 2005, Ju, a shy but trim-looking lady in her mid-forties, made up her mind to travel to South Africa.
“My dream was to come do business here, here in South Africa”, she says. Ju was encouraged to travel to South Africa by some of her Chinese friends that were already prospering in business in South Africa. In just two years her dream became a reality. Today she is a proud owner of a home goods shop at China Town.
South Africa, as one of the most developed countries in Africa, is a popular destination for Chinese moving to the continent and traders like Ju constitute the over 450,000 Chinese in South Africa.
For Ju, business has been “so-far-so-good” but she is worried about security. South Africa is notorious for high rates of violent crime and unprotected shops on the street like in China Town make easy targets, although shops in malls have better security and are only targeted in more sophisticated crime operations. Chinese traders like herself are often the target of the hoodlums. She and her family remain indoors all the time.
“It’s like we are stuck here, like we are in prison. We fear,” says Ju. Growing xenophobic attacks and anti-Chinese sentiment in South Africa is a real concern. Locals like Kopano Wilson, a South African cab driver, seem fed up with the rising Chinese presence and commercial influence.
“They are everywhere. We are tired of them. They have taken all our jobs and are very secretive and racial type of people,” says Kopano driving past Johannesburg’s China Town.
“And worst, our markets are now flooded with ‘fong kong’. We don’t want that here,” he continues.
Simply, “Fong Kong” means "poor quality” or “counterfeit”, and is commonly used by South Africans to refer to Chinese goods. The angry outburst from Kopano against Chinese is familiar across South Africa particularly in big cities like Johannesburg, Pretoria and Durban.
The South African government and the governing African National Congress are generally pro-China but much of the population disagrees. On the streets of Johannesburg, people see China as an authoritarian regime and dreadful memories of apartheid make them resent authoritarianism.
“While outbursts of xenophobic violence in South Africa tend to target migrants from other African countries, our research indicates that Chinese and South Asian migrants seem to be inordinately targeted by criminals and corrupt officials. While robberies, car hijackings, and extortion may result from their overrepresentation in the retail trade, the practice of racial profiling is also a possible contributing factor,” says Dr. Yoon Park of The Migration Policy Institute.
In late January this year, a horrific discovery of 18 donkeys skinned alive and the disappearance of over 100 other donkeys on a plot of land near the Lesotho border caused an outcry. It was immediately believed that the animals were cruelly slaughtered for the Chinese medicinal market. Outraged by the killing, some South Africans took to the Facebook page of the Chinese Association of Gauteng after it advertised a Chinese New Year celebration on its page, and left comments calling for the Chinese to be banned, “wiped out,” or for their children to be killed. “Can we not stop these slant eyed freaks from coming into the country?!” one comment said.
“It created fear in the Chinese at that time,” says Erwin Pon, Chairman of the Chinese Association of Gauteng.
“Xenophobia has been more visible verbally but there has also been robbery and vandalism against the Chinese and it always starts with words,” he adds.
For the many Chinese who experienced apartheid, xenophobic violence against the Chinese is nothing new. Walter Wai Pon, an aged man is one of them. Born and bred in South Africa, Walter belongs to the second generation South Africans of Chinese descent, that is, Chinese who are South African citizens or permanent residents and can be classified as settlers.
Walter is an outgoing man, full of humour. He could tell you the story (all day long) of how Chinese, like black and Indian people, were poorly treated during the apartheid period, how they could not attend university, trade and vote simply because they were Chinese. But there is one particular anecdote he recalls that clearly illustrates how Chinese were regarded as “aliens” in those days. Under the apartheid system, black people were barred from living in certain areas and traveling without approval, and Chinese were treated in the same way. One day, Walter explains, he visited a predominantly white area in South Africa where residents have never seen a Chinese person before.
“And as I was crossing the road, all the traffic stopped, stopped on the spot and looking at me because they have never seen a Chinese before. They thought I was from planet Mars,” he says laughing hysterically. Such were the challenging days of apartheid for the Chinese. That time is now gone but today Chinese still occupy an uneasy place in South Africa. Many feel that they have not benefited from the advent of democracy in 1994 as much as the rest of the population.
“In the apartheid days, we were not white enough, and in the present moment we are not black enough,” says Walter.
“Many Chinese have gone home, even the younger ones because they feel that they don’t get fair treatment that they should,” he adds.
Ju wants to go as well. Many of her Chinese friends have returned to China or moved to Western countries like Australia, the United Kingdom, or the United States, she says.
“I will leave immediately when the opportunity arises” she says.
But there is also a positive story to tell. Some have made South Africa their home and say they are enjoying fair treatment from their fellow South Africans who hold them in high esteem, just like Zitu Belinda. Zitu of South African nationality is an employee of a Chinese shop at Johannesburg’s China Town. It’s been two years now since she started work here and is very pleased with her treatment.
“They treat me well. They are very nice people. I see them as my brothers and sisters. I look forward to travelling to China one day,” she says.
Local Chinese residents have also established a cordial and profitable relationship with immigrants who settled in South Africa from the rest of Africa – a group of people that are also often subject locally to ill-treatment or xenophobic sentiment. More Africans have forged connections in China and can go directly there to buy their goods. Tawonga Joseph, a Zimbabwean businessman in South Africa is one of them. He came to South Africa in 2001 and started working with a Chinese company.
“I worked hard and gained their (Chinese) confidence and they taught me a lot of things,” says Tawonga. After nine years of working with the Chinese, he decided to go solo and started his own business.
“I buy and sell Chinese goods. I travel to China at least three times in a year,” he says adding that without the Chinese he would be nothing today.
“They are really good people if you understand them,” he continues.
Tawonga’s opinion about the Chinese is common among African immigrants in South Africa. The majority of them have a soft spot for the Chinese whom they thank for offering them jobs and in some cases accommodation. At China Town, there is a true sense of camaraderie among the immigrants and the Chinese employers.
Erwin Pon wants to make sure that Chinese in South Africa get the treatment they deserve. He was irritated by the comments some South Africans made about Chinese during the donkey story and took legal measures to put an end to hate speech.
“We immediately went to police stations and laid criminal charges particularly against those who threatened children. We have instituted criminal proceedings against these individuals. We are taking 12 people to the Equality Court. We need to stop the rhetoric before it becomes physical,” says Erwin. The Equality Court was a special court set up in South Africa after 1994 to deal with cases of hate speech against people based on race and gender.
“These measures really helped. They indeed considerably reduced the racial and hate speech against the Chinese,” he continues adding that the Association is now keeping a vigilant eye on any xenophobic attacks on Chinese in South Africa.
Erwin hopes for a future South Africa where Chinese will live in perfect harmony with their fellow South Africans.
Walter, too, would be happy to see this happen. He is very much at home in South Africa.
“I was born here. I like this place and it is my country, my home,” he says smiling.
As the world continues to open, the Chinese are here to stay and are making it big in business but they might have to work even harder to sell their positive image to South Africans if they must make their stay here comfortable.
The author was a participant in the Project's Africa-China Reporting Workshop 2017.
This work was produced as a result of a grant provided by the Africa-China Reporting Project managed by the Journalism Department of the University of the Witwatersrand.