Question and Answers About Chinese People in South Africa

QA in South Africa

The Dutch-based new media organization Couscous Global recently posted an interesting little gem of a video on You Tube that asks young South Africans to express how they feel about the country’s Chinese population. It opens with a young Chinese guy asking the question in English and then turns to a racially diverse group of South African teenagers for their responses.  On the surface, it just sounds like kids giggling and fumbling through their answers.  Yet there were some very interesting, and extremely important, points they used to explain why they get along quite well with Chinese immigrants.

  • LANGUAGE: The first young person to answers explains how when she goes to the market in Soweto and notices the Chinese butchers working there speak the local dialect.     I saw this phenomenon myself in Kinshasa where Chinese immigrants regularly spoke Lingala.  The ability to speak the local dialect is a critical advantage that Chinese immigrants in Africa have over their Western counterparts.  This may seem obvious, but when two people can communicate in the same language, so many differences are radically shrunk, e.g. culture, class, race.  It should be noted that in my time in the DR Congo I never met a single Westerner who could speak Lingala.  For the most part, Westerners retain an outmoded expectation that everyone should speak their rather than how the Chinese are going about it and learning local dialects in the communities they live and work.
  • SEPARATION: The first young woman to speak remarked how the Chinese “don’t separate themselves.”  This is another important distinction between how the Chinese live in Africa compared to Westerners.  For the most, and of course there are exceptions, the overwhelming majority of European and American residents in Africa live behind high walls with security guards, barbed wire and an equal sense of “us and them.”   They tend to avoid the local markets in favor of expensive supermarkets stocked with imported food; they avoid public transportation as they commute in bulky 4×4 SUVs and the few relationships they have with locals is either with their domestic staffs or a privileged few that work as their subordinates in Western NGOs or companies.   In contrast, the Chinese approach is entirely different. Generally they do not live in Chinese ghettos, or so-called Chinatowns.  Instead, the overwhelming majority of Chinese immigrants to Africa live in the same, vast neighborhoods right alongside Africans themselves.  They eat the same food, shop at the same stores and squeeze in to the same crowded mini-vans that everyone else takes to get around.  When considering the living standards of Chinese immigrants compared to Africans, it is important to remember that unlike wealthy Westerners, most of the Chinese are at the same socio-economic level as their African counterparts.  Simply put, the class difference is often quite minimal.

The subtleties of this video are what make it meaningful.  The fact that Chinese immigrants are able to form this impression of themselves is an important soft-power tool that will no doubt have a broad impact on overall Sino-African ties.  I received an almost identical response from Congolese who I questioned about their views on the growing number of Chinese immigres. One Kinois resident best summarized popular opinion when said “the Chinese, they are not afraid of us.  White people fear us and hide behind the walls.  The Chinese do not.”

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3 Responses to “Question and Answers About Chinese People in South Africa”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Eric Olander 欧瑞克. Eric Olander 欧瑞克 said: So. African teens speak about their impressions of the Chinese in SA. Their impressions can teach the West a lot: […]

  2. ChiAfrica008 says:

    Hi Eric,

    I read the talking points about the SA teenagers POV on Chinese immigrants and found them quite interesting. I had a few short comments:

    – It is true that when people speak the same language it helps to bridge cultural gaps etc. The same goes for the DRC. Most Westerners who are there on a short term basis, who eiter work for NGO’s or embassy on short term contracts, don’t bother to learn the local language. In fact, they hardly bother to interact with the locals unless they have to. Which is why, in my opinion, their work is so ineffective (the fact that most want it to be so is another story). But I have met Westerners who are in it for the long haul, whose families have been based there for years, etc, and they do speak the local language or at least make an effort to. These are usually people who run their own businesses there. And although I have other issues with them, they do realise quickly that the best way to run a business and be profitable in the DRC is by being able to communicate clearly with the locals.

    – About the Chinese mixing and living so easily with black people in the townships etc, let us not forget the history of Apartheid in this country and the ill feelings that many black south africans still carry for white people here. We talk often about how whites treated and felt about blacks but not often enough about how blacks feel about whites now. Being an outsider, it is plain as day. I think a white person who got up and moved to Soweto (unless they have no choice) would be putting their lives in danger and would be in for quite an uncomfortable experience. The chinese don’t have the same legacy and baggage and are seen as people who have also had a history of oppression and poverty so they are more easily “understood”.

  3. says:

    Dear Eric,

    I think there’s far more to this question than meets the eye. The reason I say so, is South Africa’s developed status compared to most of Africa. The general living standard offered across the board is superior, and the basic cost of living is relatively cheap (economies of scale, demand and purchasing power, and availability of goods is rife). Inequalities are certainly a deep-rooted concern and widespread problem. It isn’t however a classist or racist issue, but a middle-to-upper income group (the haves) vs. the just or barely getting-by group (have-nots). In both of these there are whites, blacks, and all colours of the rainbow. Although the majority of wealth, real wealth – multiple land ownership, residential and corporate; suburban mansions; hunting/wine/recreational farms; and shareholding (only about 5% of JSE shares are reportedly in black hands) – is still concentrated in the pockets of a mostly white privilege few. The changing climate though is fast and ever present. BEE (Black Economic Empowerment) has, and still is dramatically shifting high-income employment from every level of public and private sphere towards the black people.

    Back to Chinese people in South Africa…
    The one important thing that Apartheid’s fall brought the minority (currently said to be about 9%) whites, was a lack of entitlement – which has consequently shifted to the majority (80%) black population. It has left South Africa as a hugely entrepreneurial market, one that breeds unparallel opportunity with huge capacity and demands. My personal view is that the Chinese in South Africa have capitalized in this area. The ones I have come in contact with or see living in the suburbs, work and live as communities, wining and dining as much as any other minority ethnic group in the country. The separation is therefore more one of haves (can afford to do as others do – the 4×4’s, neighbourhood security guards and winter Safari’s in the Kruger), and have-nots (cannot afford it).

    I think South Africa has seen less of an influx of Chinese peasants doing the cheap unskilled labours as they do throughout most of Africa, instead, a middle class of Chinese have come over to SA for opportunities or reasons of choice. One family I know is frightfully successful in business, from property speculation to public works programs, and even though they have resided in the country for over twenty years, the strong community impetus they have means the parents only speak a broken English, while the kids are left with hardly any Mandarin – an exception to be sure. However, where I personally come into contact with most Chinese families, are as owners of restaurants, take-away’s, supermarkets, and small retail outlets; here the community is again prevalent, and hardly any English is spoken, usually one of the younger teens would do the talking.

    When the Chinese therefore operate businesses outside the metropolis, in the townships or other outer-city locations, my view is they do so as opportunist, and given their unrivalled work ethic, they would be prone to adopt the local dialect (whether Sotho, Xhosa, Zulu or other Bantu languages). Yet in the more comfortable, oft less challenging to survive and even affluent community businesses, they are as parochial as the white Afrikaner is in his golf-estate!

    Very Best!

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