Join our network

December 12, 2017

South Africa-China relations at 20 years, Part IV: Retracing culture

One of the biggest strengths of Chinese culture in South Africa is the presence of both South African-born Chinese as well as the recent or new migrants, with estimates placing the number of the Chinese population at 350 000 as of 2012, the biggest in Africa. The distinctions evident in the “waves” of arrivals are also reflected in the identity of the Chinese in South Africa. The earlier immigrants came from Cantonese provinces of southern China while the new migrants have come from all over Mainland China, bringing along the different linguistic and cultural diversities from there.

This is particularly palpable in the city of Johannesburg where there is the First or Old Chinatown on Commissioner Street, and the second or New Chinatown on Derrick Street, in the Cyrildene suburb. These two Chinatowns are united in being Chinese but distinct in terms of language and culture generally with the latter Chinatown being a hotchpotch of the many Chinese dialects. While recent Chinese arrivals might find it difficult to integrate into South African society, a demonstration of the extent to which Chinese South Africans have integrated can be seen in their labelling themselves as “bananas”; yellow on the outside, white on the inside.

Historically the Chinese community in South Africa has been in the grey area of being neither expressly black nor explicitly white, a conundrum that played out during the apartheid era. Such is the case that Chinese South Africans were constrained to litigate against the new Black majority government in 2008 after being designated White and therefore excluded from affirmative action meant to correct economic imbalances of apartheid South Africa. At the behest of the Chinese Association of South Africa, the High Court of South Africa ruled in June 2008 that South African Chinese people fall within the ambit of the definition of “black people” in Section 1 of the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Act 53 of 2003. After that ruling, meant to ensure Chinese South Africans benefitted from corrective affirmative action in government business and employment schemes, the BBC ran the headline, “S Africa Chinese become black”.

In the present, Chinese South Africans as well as the more recent arrivals have played the important role of being a bridge between the South African government and Chinese interests be they those of the Chinese government, embassy or businesses. South African Chinese associations have become interlocutors on many fronts. It has now become a permanent fixture on the Chinese New Year calendar for Chinese associations to organize celebrations and this has served as a means of promoting Chinese culture in South Africa.

In 2013 a series of activities accompanied the 15-year milestone of the establishment of diplomatic relations. Interestingly it is the same year (2013) that the South Africa–China People’s Friendship Association (SACPFA) was created with offices in in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban. The SACPFA is associated with the Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (CPAFFC) based in Beijing with various branches in African countries.

The year 2014 was designated as year of South Africa in China with a reciprocal arrangement in which 2015 was designated as the year of China in South Africa. Much as there is an attempt at reciprocity in the cultural sphere, assertions have been made that China’s involvement in public diplomacy outweighs that undertaken by South Africa, essentially because China’s global outreach ambitions are on a larger scale than those of South Africa, as is its capacity.

South Africa hosts five Confucius Institutes and three classrooms, the biggest number in Africa and the Chinese have been offering hundreds of scholarships to South Africans since 2000. Some scholars have gone as far as suggesting that South Africa could also initiate its own cultural institutes in China with some proposing that the name “Mandela Institutes” would be ideal. However, others have pointed out schisms and opposition to the introduction of Confucius Institutes in some South Africa quarters, where fear has been expressed about the potential ideological work that some of the institutes would perform.

On the education front, South Africa is the only African country with independent think tanks dedicated to the study of China in Africa, e.g. the Africa-China Reporting Project at Wits University and the Centre for Chinese Studies (CCS) at Stellenbosch University. Indeed unlike with most if not all African countries where the flow of students is towards China, South Africa is a rare case on the continent as it attracts Chinese students into its universities. This perhaps explains the presence of a Chinese education counsellor in the Chinese embassy in Pretoria.

South Africa was perhaps the only African country that had a media presence in China until mid-2015 when the Enews Channel Africa (eNCA) was closed, a victim of the same fate that befell the closure of the South African Broadcasting Corporation’s (SABC) bureau in 2009. South Africa is also one of the few if not the only African country in Africa that operates a brand agency in China – Brand South Africa. While South Africa has been cutting back on its media presence in China, the reverse, in terms of Chinese media presence in Africa is the case. For instance, in 2013 a South African Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) entity partnered with Chinese interests to buy the Independent News and Media Group, one of the major media establishments in South Africa.

Bob Wekesa ( is a Research Associate at the Africa-China Reporting Project.

© 2024 Africa-China Reporting Project. All rights reserved. 
Terms & Conditions. 
Privacy Policy.