Sue wanted to own her business and to earn more money, something that she was not able to do in her home country. In China, work opportunities were scarce and the government did not allow private businesses in the clothing industry.
Almost two decades later, aged 60, Sue still lives in Johannesburg and has run her own successful business. But the life she has now is a lonely one, with long working hours, only a few good friends and little family time. It is no longer the life she desires. Sue is ready for a new destination: her home country, China.
Sue is one of the third wave of Chinese people who came to South Africa after the first democratic elections in 1994 to find new opportunities and a better life, not just for themselves but also for their children. Some have found this and to them South Africa is home, but for others, nothing can replace China.
This pursuit of a better life by many Chinese families is often mistaken by some South Africans as a “Chinese invasion”.
South Africa: A new colony?
China has been described as an upcoming world power and notions of a “new colonialism” have been reflected in the media. Journalist Andre Malone, for example, in 2008 used the word “plunder” in reference to China’s expansion in Africa and wrote in an article for the Mail Online: “China is secretly working to turn the entire continent into a new colony.”
Although “there are no official figures on the size of the current Chinese population in South Africa, unofficial estimates range between 100 000 to 250 000” after the establishment of a new democratic South Africa, according to Professor Karen Harris of the University of Pretoria, who studies the history of the Chinese in South Africa. Official numbers for the Chinese population are hard to come by, especially as they are counted together with other Asian groups.
And, according to the website Reprobate, “huge numbers of mainland Chinese, mainly from Fujian province in China, have migrated to South Africa over the past 15 years, including many illegal immigrants”. The website estimates the number of Chinese to range between 350 000 and 500 000, “making it the largest Chinese population in Africa”.
But Rhodes University senior research associate Dr Yoon Jung Park argues that specific reasons underlie Chinese people’s decisions to migrate to South Africa and they do not necessarily want to “invade” and stay forever.
“I don’t think that Chinese people come to South Africa with the sole purpose of invading the market. Many come to South Africa looking to create a better life for their children and for themselves.”
In their studies on new Chinese migrants in South Africa, researchers Park, Tu Huynh, and Anna Ying Chen suggest that, “contrary to media arguments that Chinese migration to Africa is a part of a Chinese state project, the vast majority of new Chinese migrants in South Africa arrived [or made decisions to stay] independently, motivated by their desires to improve their lives”.
Park also says that “most Chinese migrants leave China in the hopes of making more money elsewhere. This is the same motivation that brings them to Jo’burg; and they choose Jo’burg because someone they know is already there and seems to be doing well for themselves”.
Chinese families often initially intend to stay temporarily but various factors can change these plans. “After many years, especially if they have children who have been born and/or raised in SA, they change their minds,” Park says.
A new life in Johannesburg
Unlike Sue’s experience of the city, Johannesburg provided a haven for the Taiwanese Chi family after one of their sons died. The family decided it was better to leave Taiwan and they had family – an uncle – who served as a Taiwanese diplomat in South Africa, living in Johannesburg.
It has been more than 30 years since Muw-Chuen Chi and his wife Hslu-Hwa first came to South Africa and they still run a wholesale clothing business which they bought from a family friend. Neither Muw-Chuen nor Hslu-Hwa has tertiary qualifications but they were able to offer the opportunity to their son, Yen, and daughter Jessica. Yen studied international relations and Jessica studied law at Wits University.
Both children work in Johannesburg but they did not wish to help their parents with the family business. Yen Chi made a decision not to help in the family business simply because he does not like engaging in sales banter. “I don’t like talking much which doesn’t help when you are in an occupation that is dependent on how well you talk.”
According to Yen Chi, the perception of a “Chinese invasion” is a misconception. ‘I don’t think that Chinese people come to South Africa with the sole purpose of invading the market. Many come to South Africa looking to create a better life for their children and for themselves away from the oppressive rule of the [Chinese] government.”
Although Muw-Chuen and Hslu-Hwa sometimes think of returning to Taiwan because of the crime rate in South Africa, they have not made any definite plans. And their South African-born son still prefers South Africa as his home. “Having grown up in South Africa, my sister and I are more familiar with a Western lifestyle than an Asian lifestyle.”
Yen Chi says a number of their Taiwanese friends who went back to Taiwan have now returned to South Africa because they were not quite comfortable with life there.
For Sue’s 27-year-old son, Jarod Lee, who joined her in South Africa as a teenager, Johannesburg was a stepping stone to a better life. He attended King Edward VII School and completed his undergraduate and postgraduate studies at the University of Cape Town. Now, like the Chi children, the city will be home for him again next year and he will not share a future similar to his mother.
Lee says he returned to South Africa to study because it was very competitive to obtain a place at Chinese colleges. He would like to return to China if he received a job offer but says his PhD, completed in South Africa, would enable him to obtain a job anywhere in the world, whether in Canada, the United States or Australia.
Sue herself does not want to stay in Johannesburg anymore. She says that after Chinese children find jobs, the parents usually feel that their “jobs are finished” as they have succeeded in providing a way to a better life for their children. Now the children and parents can go their separate ways if they want and, while Lee will stay in Johannesburg next year, Sue can move on.
For Sue, her job is done, at least for now. Lee has received a good education and she talks of his finding a wife or even a girlfriend, one with blonde hair and blue eyes.
Sue has no other family in South Africa. Her husband has remained in China all this time and, in September this year, the protracted separation between husband and wife ended in a divorce.