A white marquee goes up in Chinatown behind police cordons. It is not mid-Autumn festival, it is not Chinese New Year, this is bigger: the South African president is coming to town.
Jacob Zuma’s visit to the Cyrildene Chinatown, in Johannesburg, in October was the type of theatre that only business and politics can deliver. This was a spectacle of influence and a performance full of the choreography of friendship and co-operation. It defines much of how Chinese business is done in South Africa. Anderson Lee is a businessman; head of the Chinese community policing forum (CPF) and the deputy editor of one of three Chinese-language newspapers in South Africa, the China News. Lee is also a coordinator for the Chinese chapter of the ruling political party’s Progressive Business Forum (PBF).
“We have been working on getting the president here for years,” says Lee, seated in the CPF’s offices along the main drag of Johannesburg’s second Chinatown that mushroomed in the late 1990s.
It mirrors the mass arrival of Chinese newcomers and ties in with the cementing of diplomatic ties between the People’s Republic of China and South Africa in 1998.
Political connections are a business lubricant and the reason the community’s business people can set a target to raise around $100,000 for the PBF each year. The walls of the CPF offices are lined with photographs of VIPs posing next to oversized cheques.
There is also a satellite police office here and the policemen are being taught to speak Chinese. Lee says it is not reverse assimilation.
“Some policemen who don’t know the community treat the Chinese badly. But if we can teach them about us, and our language then we start to change their minds.”
Zuma’s Chinatown appearance was a triumph for the Chinese business community. But there are many Chinese migrants who don’t benefit from political favors.
The Chinese Embassy in Pretoria dodges questions on the number of Chinese in South Africa; the amount of smaller businesses operating in South Africa; how many visas are granted and its assistance programs for Chinese business people. What is known is that bilateral trade remains healthy and last year totaled $60 billion.
Lee arrived in South Africa in 1999 as an employee of a state-owned agricultural supplies company but he knew nothing about the country.
“I once drove from Johannesburg to Durban to meet farmers even though I didn’t know how to drive, but I did it because it’s business,” says Lee of the risks he used to take.
In 2005, state funding for the company he worked for dried up. Lee was given the option to head back to China or to go it alone. He stayed and now exports South African goods, such as wine, macadamia nuts and avocado oil, back to China.
Lee sees the full range of Chinese life stories play out on South African soil. For every tale of success there are as many failures. There are hawkers surviving on slim profits and waitresses who work for a few years before returning to China. On the other hand, there are restaurant owners who start out in the familiarity of Chinatown then spread their wings to swankier suburbs.
The container revolution of the early 2000s helped make Johannesburg the largest dry port in Africa. Direct supply was key to transforming the fortunes of those who hawked on streets.
“Once people had direct supply from China, their businesses could grow. The Chinese make money because they work hard and they’re flexible, they will do with a little for a long time and they save their money,” Lee says.
Warehouse-style malls have now started to rise in response to crime and hostilities directed at Chinese hawkers. The man who opened Johannesburg’s first Chinese mall is Robin Xu. He arrived in South Africa in 1994 and within two months was held up by criminals. In the 20 years Xu has been in South Africa, he has been a victim of crime four times.
The Chinese are seen as soft targets because they deal in cash transactions. Xu saw the need for a more secure environment and so China Mall in Amalgam, west of the city, came into being. He owns three malls today, two in Johannesburg and one in Durban. Alongside his are a slew of others.
Xu though says the market for malls is reaching saturation point. His second Johannesburg mall, China Mall West, has dozens of empty shops. It is the whim of the markets and why Xu says it is a mistake to think every Chinese person has an easy ride to financial success. More than saturation points and downward trends, crime and corruption dents business confidence and scares off entrepreneurs most.
“Local customs officials go through the people coming off flights from China. They don’t confiscate things to destroy them, but take them for themselves. It makes business people think South Africa is a dirty country,” says Xu.
Though Xu is also part of the PBF and displays magazines of the ruling political party, the ANC, in his office, even political connections are not enough to calm his fears. He says people are looking north of the Limpopo for the next business destinations.
Back in Chinatown, metro police officers confiscate goods and take people’s money under the pretext of bylaw enforcement. The action is applied so sporadically it is a show of power rather than real policing.
Property agent Alice Hu moved into Cyrildene before the boom of Chinatown. She has seen the enlarging footprint of the Chinese in South Africa kick up all kinds of contradictions that have fomented into a toxic symbiosis of political and business back scratching.
Hu arrived from Taiwan in 1990. The Taiwanese wave of migration to South Africa gained ground in the 1970s and 1980s when the apartheid government courted trade with other nations on the global periphery.
She is quick to point out that she took a legal route to form a prominent property agency. Hu is tired of the stereotypes. She is also irked by the assumptions that she is willing to bribe her way up the economic food chain; to string sheets across her windows as curtains; or to illegally build onto to her home.
She calls herself mixed masala. South Africa has been her home for 24 years but she prefers to drink a rare variety of oolong tea, harvested in the mountains of the country where she was born.
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