How Chinese are perceived among South Africans and why?

In 2017, Carte Blanche, an investigative journalism show launched a documentary on the illegal trade of donkey skins by Chinese people in South Africa. The show detailed the inhumane process of obtaining donkey skins for the Ejiao—a gelatine like substance used in Chinese traditional medicines, which provoked severe conflict between local South Africans and Chinese.

The conflict didn’t stop when the show finished, instead, it continued: under a South Africa Chinese social media account over 1,000 anti-Chinese comments were posted including extreme example like “The Chinese people should be wiped out”, and in return the Chinese Association Guateng sued 12 racist to Johannesburg Equality Court. 

Chinese are not new to this land, 300 years ago there were already Chinese migrant worker in South Africa. Statistics show that by 2013, there were about 300,000 Chinese in South Africa, and they mainly live in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban. South African has the largest Chinese population within the African continent.

Chinese is an important component to South Africa’s diverse culture in many years, but why a single case of suspicious illegal donkey skin trade would cause such a stir? What’s the current situation of Chinese and their integration with local white and black Africans? What do the local’s think of Chinese immigrants and their business? To find out the answers, we interviewed 10 South African’s with diverse backgrounds, including students, teachers, social worker, self-employed persons and animal rescuers.

“Good at doing business, hardworking, yet lack of animal protection sense”

After talking to 10 local people, we find Chinese left a positive impression to them—Chinese business owners are providing new work opportunities and selling cheaper goods; Chinese people are hard-working. Nkosi Mkatshwa, a social worker in Johannesburg thought “Unlike some French, I think Chinese could help us. Chinese-owned factories create many jobs. I think we can win together.” Mahalia Hakes, a teacher in a medium-sized city named Bedfordview gets basic necessities with good quality at a relatively low price when there’s Chinese retail business in the local market. Interviewees also describe Chinese as hardworking, responsible and trustworthy.

During the talk we also realized wrongdoing by Chinese and stereotypes towards them are impeding good communication and further interactions.

Local environmental workers reveal that Chinese have a bad reputation as a result of killing animals and illegal trade of wild animal products. Louis Fourie who works for a monkey rescue organization said that in his town, white people believe that Chinese people all eat cats and dogs. “They always accuse the Chinese guy if their dogs go missing.” and “Chinese poaches rhino, and all of them buy Lion’s bones and smuggle abalone”, Louis says with honesty. In June 2017, two Chinese were caught at Johannesburg O.R Tambo International Airport with 10 rhino horns worth of 5 million Rand, it’s believed that their destination is Hong Kong.

“Ignore local labor law, and vary in working styles”

There is also disagreement between Chinese companies and South African employees. Business owners who are new to South Africa have overlooked local labor law and led to labor disputes before. According to a China-Africa research program “We are not so different: A comparative study of employment relations”, less than 50% of Chinese corporations sign labor contracts with all employees, while for U.S-funded enterprises it’s 100%.

Some other companies ignore labor law for the objective of business profit maximization—providing good working condition and welfare will not increase productivity in a short term, in fact it requests investment and led to less revenue, which is not ideal for business owners. 

While some Chinese employers view black African employees as “slow and lazy”, Vinc Dai, who lives in Johannesburg since 15 and now works in e-commerce with 7 black colleagues thinks the locals has a different lifestyle. “There’s no need to rush and pursue efficiency like in China’s internet company, I heard 996 (working hours is 9am-9pm, 6 days a week) and that’s hard to imagine in South Africa. Here everything is in slow pace.” Vinc was also frank that his local colleagues would take fours hour for an assignment that can be done within one hour by Chinese standard.

Why are there less interaction?

Similar to other immigration communities, Chinese like to live in clusters and do business together. In South Africa, what are the unique reasons that resulted Chinese interacting little with white and black locals other than work purpose?

Obviously, language can be a barrier. Not all Chinese immigrants speak good English or Afrikaans nor Zulu, some most spoken languages in South Africa. And there isn’t much willingness and incentives in general for Chinese and African’s to interact. A South African student Charles Rametsi who did translation work for Chinese businessmen said “I rarely interact with Chinese besides work purpose. We have different living styles, culture… and my Chinese clients seems only care about business.”

Vinc pointed out that his African colleagues have given him special gifts on Chinese holidays and his birthdays, “they like to do so and care about these things yet we (Chinese) don’t do the same to them as much.”

Vinc also emphasized that safety has always been an issue in South Africa, robbery and burglary happens to Asians sometimes. Without a safe environment, it seems unrealistic to seek deep interaction between Chinese and locals. 

On the macro level, South Africa’s historical background also makes a dent on the relations between different ethnic groups. During Apartheid, people were grouped into white, colored, black and Indian and were treated differently according to their population group. The regime lasted for almost half century and deepened the conflict between different groups. Even in 2019, there are still large-scale xenophobic attacks aiming to deter foreigners from other African countries, this time the reason being local people worries that immigrants are taking away job opportunities from them—by the end of 2018, the officially recorded unemployment rate is at more than 27%. Sharon Ekambaram who runs the refugee and migrant rights programme for Lawyers for Human Rights told BBC “The causes are poverty and has its roots in apartheid.”

This article was written by fellows of China House: Jingjing Han 韩菁菁, Lili Shang 商丽莉, Yuanyuan Deng 邓元元, and Irene Chen 陈喆瑜.

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