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January 23, 2018

Using CSR to influence positive perceptions of the Chinese by South Africans: Hit or miss?

By Botswana journalist Sharon Tshipa, first published in Global Post (Botswana).

The notion of migration is as old as time. Throughout history, and to date, human migration has been spurred by varied economic, political, social and environmental reasons. In the case of the Chinese people in South Africa, their felt presence dates back to the 1600s. Larger numbers settled in the late 1870s. To this day, new Chinese immigrants are still arriving.

“My grandfather came to South Africa in 1898. My father, born in China in 1910, he came to South Africa just about the time Japan attacked China and its persistent actions eventually sparked World War II. My father came because he had gotten a job here though; in 1938,” says Walter Wai Pon, a Chinese-South African septuagenarian.

Pon, who is the Retail Director of Sui Hing Hong, Direct Importers & Wholesalers, a company established in 1943, was born in South Africa in the year 1940, before the apartheid era. Preceding apartheid, some Chinese people in Johannesburg had made places like Soweto home. They lived among black South Africans, trading and running successful businesses in Soweto. Today, some black South Africans look back at this era as a happy time, a time wherein Chinese people were family and were viewed in positive light.

As a child, the Founder and Programme Manager of Ikageng AIDS Ministry, Carol Dyantyi said she and her friends often went to China City to shop when sent by their parents. Sometimes however, she said they simply went to China City to just ask for things they needed or wanted and the Chinese shop owners would happily give them things for free. “China City was like China Town as you know it now. China City was located in Soweto, where Fox Lake is now, but the Chinese left Soweto after the 1976 Soweto uprising,” says Dyantyi.

Of what used to be, Dyantyi says only a Chinese run butchery remains. Their departure, in her view, has not done the perceptions of Chinese people by South Africans right. “Chinese people even spoke Zulu back then,” she says. Not only that, she shared that Chinese people were very helpful, and were like the larger part of the Sowetan family. Now she says all that they were has been forgotten, when people think Chinese people they think of people who keep to themselves, people who sell cheap clothing. The positive rapport that once existed between Chinese migrants and the majority of black South Africans has since grown old.

“During the apartheid era Chinese people and black South Africans suffered the same fate, but we were eventually accepted into whites only spaces because of our good behavior,” says Pon.

This acceptance distanced these Chinese economic migrants from black people. It did not help that over the past decade and a half, South Africa witnessed an influx of migrants from China. Their investments, though significantly contributing to the development of South Africa’s economy, do nothing for the estranged relations. Even doors that some white South Africans had opened to the Chinese have begun to close as white South Africans fear stiff business competition from their Chinese counterparts. Some South Africans, both black and white, seem to have a common disdain for the Chinese.

Chinese government’s CSR motives

This contempt stems from various crimes the Chinese are accused of. Crimes such as tax evasion, cheap labour and poor treatment of African employees, wildlife poaching; donkey skinning, ivory and rhino horn illegal trading to cite but a few that have contributed to the negative imaging of China and the Chinese people by South Africans. To dispel these unfair generalizations, and to shape a good image of China in South Africa, the Chinese government came up with and implemented a strategy that strongly encourages its over 155 Chinese state owned enterprises operating in South Africa to integrate Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) into their corporate reforms. These they are expected to undertake by adapting CSR measures compatible with conditions at the national and organizational level, and ultimately implementing them step by step. By so doing the enterprises become leading examples for all Chinese companies, who are expected to emulate efforts that the Chinese government believe will positively influence how South Africans view China and the Chinese people.

South African government’s CSR motives

CSR by Chinese companies, state or private, in South Africa only strives to live up to South Africa’s CSR policies. This is because the South African government compels all foreign and local companies operating in the country to help write the wrongs that were written by the Apartheid era. The era was dotted with racial inequalities in areas of education, economic power, infrastructure and land ownership as well as access to basic services. In levelling the imbalances, CSR regulations motivate the private sector to invest in social projects that help advance the sustainable development of communities they operate in. This they are expected to do by investing in areas such as environmental management, health care, infrastructure, and education among other humanitarian interventions.

Chinese investors’ CSR motives

In fulfilling these expectations, some Chinese companies like Huawei have done impressively well with their Seed for the Future project, a global CSR flagship program launched in South Africa in 2016 as singled out by Nathan Zhao, a Senior Manager at Huawei Technologies South Africa’s Government and Public Affairs Department. The program aims to develop local ICT talent, promote a greater understanding and interest in the telecommunications sector, while improving and encouraging regional building and participation in the digital community among other objectives. The first intake of 10 South African students taken to Beijing and Shenzhen received training in cutting edge technologies such as 5G, LTE, and cloud computing to cite a few. Such good efforts however are outweighed by the fact that most Chinese companies do not actually implement CSR projects that they would have signed up for when applying for their licenses.

Charles You, an Associate at Hogan Lovells located in Sandton, when speaking on companies run by his fellow countrymen said, “If you look at all the mega Chinese companies’ website, all of them mention Corporate Social Responsibility, but very few actually implement it in South Africa.”

You said this is fuelled by the fact that Chinese companies in South Africa don’t comprehend the importance of public relations, nor do they see the benefits of CSR unless they are required by law. “Another problem is that top management in the Chinese companies operating in South Africa are not here to stay, they typically have a rotation after 3-5 years, so it is highly unlikely that CSR is on top of their list,” he says. You called on relevant authorities to focus their attention on educating Chinese companies on the benefit and need for engaging in CSR. This is because You believes that the current situation can only be changed if mindsets are changed.

In an interview Jacques du Plessis, an Executive at Taung Gold, agreed with Charles You’s view that CSR by Chinese companies in South Africa is only done to sate the law. “We do CSR because we are bound by law. To get our mining rights we had to come up with Social Labour Planning programmes,” shares Du Plessis.

Doing what they can

Taung Gold South Africa is affiliated to Taung Gold International, a Chinese company listed in Hong Kong. The affiliate is 75 percent Chinese owned, 22 percent American and the rest is local. In implementing their CSR, Jacques du Plessis is quick to say that they were frank with the South African government concerning what CSR they would do and which they wouldn’t. “The municipality in Secunda gave us a hard time. They wanted us to build roads and schools. We refused. We told them we cannot build infrastructure. They are allocated money to do these things, they should manage it,” he says. In refusing to contribute to infrastructure development, Taung Gold decided to focus on the poor in the Free State.

“We hired a consultancy company called Umsizi. It did a needs analysis which revealed to us that top needs were food and water,” says Jacques du Plessis. The consultant came up with strategies to alleviate poverty. “We taught the community how to harvest water, how to filter grey water, we encouraged them to plant vegetables and use some of the water to water the plants. We also taught them how to build protection tunnels with nettings so they protect their plants from hail, frost and excessive heat. To top it up we equipped them with small business and entrepreneurship skills,” he expounds. Taung Gold’s CSR has benefited an estimation of 100 people. Some of the beneficiaries are now said to be in the business of selling vegetables for a living.

Another Chinese owned company in Midvaal is in the business of manufacturing animal feeds; dog, cattle and chicken feeds among others. Called New Hope South Africa, the Company Representative, Angelique Gu admitted that they do SCR out of compulsion. “We give free consultancy and training services to farmers who buy feeds from us. Our nutritionist visits the farms and checks animal poo. If we see that there is any shortage of certain supplements we adjust our animal feeds,” she says. Most of the farmers who benefit from New Hope’s CSR are beneficiaries of the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) Fund. “This is why we are providing consultancy and training services through conferences, we want to prevent risks, damages and losses for the farmers,” she adds. New hope has held conferences in partnership with the Mpumalanga, Department of Agriculture for a minimum of 100 farmers at a time. These they do every month or two in areas like KwaZulu-Natal and Nelspruit. Other than farming, the company also offers internships at minimum salary, and is working on launching a scholarship in collaboration with the North West University.

Attitudes of South Africans towards Chinese CSR

In Soweto, Carol Dyantyi’s Ikageng AIDS Ministry for three consecutive years received over R500 000 worth of health products, supplements, massaging machines, and cleaning equipment from Tiens Group, a Chinese pharmaceutical conglomerate. Excited as they were, what became a problem? “The health supplements always arrived just when they neared an expiry date. The massaging machines and cleaning equipment we had no use for, so we re-donated these to a women’s home,” she says.

Asked what needs they had at the time, Dyantyi says, “We needed money to educate students and to give R650 worth of food allowance per child. We needed direct contacts with Chinese manufacturers in China so we buy school uniforms. We also wanted to set up a coffee shop which would attract foreigners and diversify our sources of cash. Right now we need food, money, computers and furniture,” she elucidates. Ikageng AIDS Ministry located in Orlando West, Soweto aids 900 children between the ages of 0-18years, and 34 care givers. Dyantyi feels that most people visit them to satisfy their emotional appetite, while corporates like Tiens Group walk away with lots of publicity.

Innocent Mbenzi, Head of Sciences Department, Emdeni Secondary School located in Emdeni, Soweto echoes Carol Dyantyi’s sentiments. “We felt like the Chinese companies and Embassy had come here to strengthen top relations that have nothing to do with us,” he says in remembrance of the blankets, schools bags, shoes, flip flops, food hampers; mealie meal, 2L oil, 2.5 kg sugar, 1kg salt, and XXL t-shirts that were donated to close to 400 students in his school. Mbenzi says, in coming, they came in the name of education as had been informed by the Gauteng Provincial Government officials who even came to officiate at the handover. “We have a government feeding scheme, we had no need for food. What we needed were school uniforms, teaching aids, toilets to be built for teachers and students, a grand stand sport facility to be built, the yard to be paved, and a stocked and functional library,” he says. The school of 830 students has a library structure but it’s currently dysfunctional, it has not a single book.

The results

Recipients of CSR by Chinese companies are divided, some are genuinely grateful while some find no relevant and sustainable use of that which they are granted. Given these facts, it’s safe to say that the Chinese government, through both state and private owned enterprises is failing to achieve its CSR mandate of shaping positive perceptions of China and the Chinese by South Africans. On the contrary CSR by Chinese companies seems to be fueling the disdain and distancing the two nations. The South African government, in failing to monitor CSR by Chinese companies is failing the Chinese government and its people. Monitoring could ensure that the country achieves its goal to correct the wrongs that were written by the Apartheid era.

The future

The Chinese-South Africans, and the new Chinese immigrants are of the view that monitoring and taking companies to task alone cannot truly ensure both governments achieve their mandates. More, they say needs to be done. James Zhao, Founder and COO of SKYCO Media Solutions is of the view that at present the new Chinese immigrants have not yet been integrated into the mainstream society in South Africa. Their communication with the locals he says only stays at the level of business. For CSR by Chinese companies to be relevant and sustainable Zhao says as the Chinese, they “need to have better communication with Africans.” His personal engagements with the South Africans has led him to believe that there are many similarities between habits of both nationalities. “I think Chinese people need more participation in local activities in South Africa. Meanwhile, they also need to organize more activities about Culture exchange within Chinese companies to obtain close relationship with local staff,” advises Zhao.

CSR by Chinese companies maybe a bit challenged, but there are Chinese foundations and associations that are remedying the problem. Erwin Pon, Chairperson of The Chinese Association of Gauteng founded in 1903 says they host various events whereby they introduce the broader South African communities to their Chinese community, to the Chinese culture as well as inform them about their century old history in South Africa. “Some associations such as the Tzu Chi foundation give back every month by visiting local old aged homes, orphanages, cerebral palsy homes…and they educate our younger Chinese generation on the importance of giving back and assisting the communities in which we live in. Many corporates also have education programmes through which they pass on various skills and ultimately hope to uplift the local communities. Some communities have also setup orphanages to look after local African children to care for them and educate them to ensure that they have a future when they grow up,” shares Pon.

Unfortunately, Erwin Pon says the good that many Chinese do in South Africa is overlooked. “It takes a lot of hardwork and a concerted effort to let people know about all this good. However, on the other hand the smallest negative news involving our Chinese in South Africa spreads like wildfire. But nonetheless, our community as well as companies are doing good not because of the publicity but because we understand that it is the right thing to do,” he says. Uncertain as relations maybe, Pon is hopeful about future relations. Among South Africans and the Chinese that have taken time to know each other’s culture, heritage, and history, he says relations are very good.

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.

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