Today 37-year-old Dr Liu Dong is the managing director of Tubatse Chrome Minerals, a Johannesburg-based mining company specialising in the extraction of chrome ore used to make stainless steel. The company is part-owned by Sinosteel Corporation, one of China’s largest resource development and trading companies. Dong’s office is on the 16th floor of the Sinosteel building in the Sandton business district. He is one of a number of professionals employed by large Chinese companies in Johannesburg.
Origins of Chinese business in South Africa
Johannesburg has one of the largest populations of Chinese immigrants in South Africa. Their origins date back to the early 20th century when families moved to “the mountain of gold”, finding work as traders and small business owners when they were denied land ownership and individual mining rights.
Today, Chinese migration into Johannesburg continues to grow but the scale of trade has diversified. Johannesburg has become the preferred location for Chinese businesses with investments in Africa. Many of these are state-owned companies that came to South Africa at the onset of the country’s democracy, drawn in by the rich natural resources, developing infrastructure and strict legal policies that provide a stable environment for business.
According to Erwin Pon, business development director at Rand Merchant Bank, popular sectors for Chinese business in South Africa include mining, finance and infrastructure development. And the professionals are well trained in these sectors. “Many of them have been educated overseas [in China and other countries] and they are very experienced in their fields. They [Chinese professionals] are experts and a lot of them are geologists and miners and engineers.”
“People always ask my parents: ‘How can you let your only child move to South Africa?’ Most of the parents, if their kids were in New Zealand or Australia, they wouldn’t ask: ‘When are you coming back?’ They would say: ‘We are so proud of you’.”
Dong’s reasons for coming to Johannesburg differ from those of small business owners. For him it is about carrying out the company’s strategic plans rather than searching for opportunities for personal wealth and a better life. He and many of his colleagues are fluent in both Mandarin and English and are committed to serving Chinese state-owned companies.
Companies like Sinosteel deploy their employees globally. Sinosteel has 86 subsidiaries – like Tubatse Chrome Minerals – 63 of which are in China and 23 abroad. Apart from South Africa, Sinosteel also has offices in India, Australia, Singapore, Indonesia, Germany, Zimbabwe and the Philippines with representative offices in Vietnam and Turkey. These countries are linked by a network of skilled, well-travelled professionals like Dong, who link Chinese businesses with new markets.
Who’s willing to take the leap?
Pon says age influences the extent of the professionals’ nomadic lifestyles. In Johannesburg, professionals vary in age from their late 20s to late 40s and, he says, their age allows them to make the jump into unfamiliar territory. “Before that [age], you don’t have the money to cover costs or you are still studying and after, in your early 50s onwards, you’re retiring and you don’t really take the chance.”
Chinese professionals like Dong form a very small section of the Chinese immigrants coming to South Africa, according to Pon. Of the 350 000 Chinese immigrants in South Africa, professionals only account for about 5% of this figure. Roughly 60% of the professionals are male and 40% female. Francis Lai Hong, treasurer of The Chinese Association of Johannesburg, says China produces over 18 000 engineers a year. Even with China’s major interest in mining, few of these professionals choose to work in Africa.
Africa is a professional no-go zone
Africa is not the first choice for most Chinese professionals. What deters them, Dong says, is the South African crime rate.
Thirty-year-old Jin Zhang had a difficult time convincing her parents that moving to South Africa was the best choice for her career. Zhang has been working for the China Africa Development Fund in Sandton for a year and heads up the Swaziland and Mozambique representative offices. She chose to come to South Africa when all her colleagues refused to be positioned in Johannesburg by the state-owned company.
“People always ask my parents: ‘How can you let your only child move to South Africa?’ Most of the parents, if their kids were in New Zealand or Australia, they wouldn’t ask: ‘When are you coming back?’ They would say: ‘We are so proud of you’.” Regular relocation is part of the package for professionals employed by state-owned companies. This can sometimes come at a cost to the families of the employees.
Planning for the future
Unlike many state-employed professionals, who do not have any say over where they are stationed, Dong specifically requested to work in South Africa. He has been in Johannesburg since 2007 and currently has no plans for moving back to China. Dong’s wife of four years recently joined him in South Africa and is making a home for herself in Johannesburg.
“She’s a student at Wits University now. She likes it very much. She doesn’t want to go back,” he chuckles. Although they do not have children, Dong is aware that starting a family means he will have to decide whether to return to China or not.
But for Zhang, the prospect of having children in South Africa is more appealing than doing so in China. She says, in China, public healthcare is of better quality than the private healthcare system. But the large population means that doctors do not have the time to give every pregnant woman a long or thorough medical examination.
“For an appointment with a doctor, you have to wake up at four o’clock or three o’clock in the morning to queue there until eight o’ clock, when they start giving out the tickets. And then you will have a minute to see the doctor at 10 or 11. And the doctor will probably only see you for 10 minutes or 15 minutes. Then you will be kicked out from the room.”
Access to healthcare, and the freedom she believes South African children have, are reasons she intends to have her children here. “It’s so great to have a South African environment to grow up with. It’s such a relief when you don’t always have to be learning and studying with no other things to do. No activities, no sport. Nothing but studying.”
VIEW GRAPHIC: Chinese migration and social assimilation