Neither she nor her employer know each other’s names and have come up with a way of addressing each other. Kondowe calls her employer Madala, a common slang word in isiZulu which refers to an elderly man and Madala calls her Sisi, which means sister in isiZulu, a term commonly used at Multiplex for black female cleaners and shop assistants.
Kondowe (23) came to South Africa two years ago after leaving Zimbabwe for a better life. Like her employer she is an economic migrant. She was one of the many men and women who queued for work outside China Multiplex shopping centre. Zimbabweans, Ugandans, and Malawians are some of the foreign nationals who work as shop assistants for Chinese shop owners. Kondowe says the majority of their customers are South African, but it is rare to find South Africans who work as shop assistants at China Multiplex.
It is common for Chinese shop owners to hire foreign nationals to help them communicate with customers in China malls. Foreign nationals who are proficient in English have been an ideal choice for shop owners in the day-to-day running of Chinese businesses. Kondowe believes that Chinese shop owners prefer foreign nationals to South Africans because they can interpret better and are more creative in how they communicate with the owners.
Clarrissa Borman*, one of the managers at China Multiplex, says most Chinese immigrants at the centre speak very little or no English at all. This makes Chinese shop owners vulnerable in the sense that they do not have direct communication with their clients and have to leave negotiations in the hands of their shop assistants. Chinese shop assistants also manage the stock, help communicate with the drivers of delivery trucks and ensure that the shop owners get what they want.
According to Borman, Chinese shop owners have very little control over what goes on in their store because of the language barrier. Shop owners do not approach customers, do not market their goods using sales tactics or even interact with customers. They do however step in when it is time to pay for the purchase.
The one aspect that Chinese shop owners manage tightly is finances, Borman says. They solely manage the till, step in with price negotiations and the costs for stock deliveries.
“The word price they understand very well. They have two prices, single purchase prices and stock prices.” A single purchase price is the price if one item is bought and the stock price is what they charge when customers buy in bulk.
Regular customers are also given discounts and some stores work on a card roster system to manage discounts given. The more times a customer comes to the store, the more discounts they are eligible for.
Doreen Maseko is one of Madala’s loyal customers. As soon as she walks into his store, he smiles and waves frantically. He starts shouting Sisi at Maseko and calls Kondowe to stop mopping the toy aisle and help with the sale. Maseko asks for a chair from Kondowe and starts pointing at the bags on display she would like to see. Maseko buys handbags at Madala’s shop and re-sells them at higher prices to her clients. She is a regular customer and, whenever she stocks up on her handbags, she presents a card to Madala at the till and on her fifth purchase she will be eligible for a free handbag.
Borman says the language barrier between Chinese shop owners and South African customers has resulted in multicultural business negotiation. Borman says shop assistants, mall security and neighbouring shop assistants are sometimes required to step in to translate and help shop owners to make a sale. Many foreign nationals are not proficient in South African languages and mall security usually has to help whenever an Nguni-speaking customer communicates with shop owners.
Kondowe considers herself lucky to be Ndebele. This means she does not need much help from mall security guards when dealing with Nguni-speaking customers as Ndebele is similar to isiZulu. Kondowe says she can understand a lot of South African languages because she rents a room in Soweto with her sister.
“Some of the people I stay with are Sotho, Tswana and Zulu so I have learnt to pick up the things they say.”
Kondowe has a diploma in management of business from Tourword College in Zimbabwe, and she says her qualification helps her run Madala’s business. She assists in managing the stock, customer relations and sales.
Poor working conditions
While Chinese traders believe they have a good relationship with their African employees, the tale is sometimes different for their employees. One female Malawian shop assistant says: “Working with the Chinese traders we have [a] language barrier; the communication is based on simple words in broken English. I was working in another Chinese shop before this one but because of strict rules from my boss [no days off] I resigned. If you miss a working day, you are not paid.”
The shop assistant says, because of the arrival of Chinese traders in South Africa and the large numbers of China malls in the city, the job market is better than in her home country. “I found an opportunity with the arrival of Chinese traders.”
“When you work for the Chinese, some things they don’t understand. Like public holidays, how can you explain that?”
Kondowe works seven days a week and, because of the language barrier, she does not know how to ask for days off. “When you work for the Chinese, some things they don’t understand. Like public holidays, how can you explain that?”
Kondowe and Madala have invented their own language to communicate with each other. Kondowe says the language consists of a system of gestures, a mixture of languages and sometimes re-enactments to communicate.
“[We communicate] with a little bit of Chinese language, looka looka [to look, or check], and sign language. Sometimes if he doesn’t understand, I show him pictures or draw things customers want.”