The People of South Africa: Chinese South Africans

Share this article

The first in a series about the history of the various peoples who make up the rich and varied tapestry of South Africa.

Members of the passive resistance movement (1906)

Members of the passive resistance movement (1906)

Despite being a tiny minority in the country for most of its history, Chinese immigrants have been part of South Africa’s cultural heritage since the first colonists settled in the Cape of Good Hope in 1652. Maybe even further back than that. According to Melanie Yap and Daniel Leong Man, in their book “Colour, Confusions and Concessions: the History of Chinese in South Africa” there is evidence of Chinese contact with, and presence in southern Africa long before the first European colonists settled in the Cape. Chinese cartographer Chu Ssu-pen drew the first known map of southern Africa in 1320. The Chinese admiral, Zheng He, explored Africa’s east coast between 1405-1433, and there has been speculation that at least some of Zheng’s ships may have travelled beyond the Cape of Good Hope. Archaeological sites in Zimbabwe and South Africa have produced Sung dynasty porcelain (960-1279 AD) which may have been the result of trade with passing Chinese vessels. In recent times there were some tribes north of Cape Town who claimed to be descendants of 13th century Chinese sailors. Light skinned, with Mongolian features and a Mandarin sounding tonal language, they called themselves the Awatwa or “abandoned people”.

Three main Chinese groups have settled in South Africa since the 19th century. The first group started arriving in the 1870s with the discovery of diamonds in the Kimberley area and later when gold deposits were discovered on the Witwatersrand. The majority of them were independent immigrants from Canton (modern Guangdong Province). Due to discrimination, which prevented them from obtaining mining permits, they mostly became small business owners. This first group can be considered the ancestors of today’s 3rd and 4th generation Chinese South Africans, currently numbering about 10,000.

At the beginning of the 20th century large scale immigration from China was prohibited by legislation like the Transvaal Immigration Restriction Act of 1902 and the Cape Chinese Exclusion Act of 1904. Other laws denied citizenship, prohibited land ownership, and restricted trade for the Chinese. Ironically, the British colonial government in conjunction with the mining industry brought almost 64,000 indentured labourers from China to work on the gold mines of the Witwatersrand between 1904 – 1910. They were all repatriated after 1910 due to strong White opposition to their presence, but only after helping the South African economy, through increased gold production, to recover from the effects of the Anglo-Boer War.

Migration from China to South Africa was effectively shut down after the National Party formed the South African government in 1948, and the Chinese Communist Party triumphed against the Nationalists in 1949. After 1948 Chinese South Africans were subject to discrimination together with other non-European groups under apartheid legislation. The Group Areas Act assigned racial groups to different residential and business sections in urban areas, which threatened Chinese economic viability as it removed them from their diverse customer base.

In the late 1960s, the Chinese community started lobbying for their right to live among other races. They argued that Chinese communities in South Africa were too small to warrant their own separate areas, and that they could not survive by trading amongst themselves. Eventually the government relented, because of the high cost of creating separate areas for the small and widely scattered Chinese population. They were allowed to live and work in certain areas subject to approval by the surrounding white communities. Thus the Chinese created what were arguably apartheid’s first mixed-race areas.

The second group of Chinese started arriving in South Africa at the end of the 1970s, after South Africa and Taiwan (Republic of China) established closer diplomatic and economic ties. The South African government, keen to attract investment, offered various economic incentives to investors from Taiwan, as well as exemption from most apartheid laws. Incentives included paying for relocation costs, subsidised wages for seven years, subsidised commercial rent for ten years, housing loans, cheap transport of goods to urban areas, and favourable exchange rates. Many of the Taiwanese entrepreneurs set up textile factories across the country, especially close to or inside the internationally unrecognised homelands of Transkei, Bophuthatswana, Ciskei and Venda. The influx of Taiwanese doubled the total Chinese South African population to 20,000 by the early 1990s. However, since the late 1990s many Taiwanese left South Africa due to the official recognition of the People’s Republic of China in 1998 and because of increased crime levels. Approximately 6000 Taiwanese remain in the country today, virtually all of them South African citizens. In 2004 there were four Taiwanese South African members of Parliament, representing four different political parties: the African National Congress, the Democratic Alliance, the Independent Democrats and the Inkatha Freedom Party.

The third group of Chinese began arriving in South Africa soon after the first democratic elections in 1994. 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. Current estimates range between 350,000 and 500,000, making it the largest Chinese population in Africa. Their arrival has changed the South African landscape with almost every town now boasting a Chinese owned business, even in remote, rural areas.

The Chinese population of South Africa is by no means homogeneous. It varies greatly with regards to: religion (mainly Buddhist, Taoist and Christian); language (3rd and 4th generation Chinese South Africans tend to speak English, Afrikaans and African languages, while most recent arrivals only speak their native tongue); citizenship (ranging from full citizenship or permanent residence to illegal immigrant status).
There are also huge differences in social integration, education and income levels between the various groups.

In 2008 the High Court of South Africa ruled that Chinese South Africans who were South African citizens before 1994, as well as their descendants, qualified as previously disadvantaged individuals, and were therefore eligible to benefit under Black Economic Empowerment and other affirmative action policies. The ruling, after a case was brought by the Chinese Association of South Africa, affected about 20,000 Chinese South African citizens.

The Chinese South African community has produced some well known figures:
Patrick Soon-Shiong – South African-born American billionaire businessman, surgeon, medical researcher and philanthropist.
Ina Lu – Miss Chinese International 2006
Quentin Chong – former World Muay Thai super middle weight title holder

Maybe it’s time to start celebrating one of South Africa’s ‘invisible minorities’ for their fortitude and long standing commitment to their home at the southern tip of Africa. After all China has become South Africa’s biggest trading partner in recent times. The successful integration of a burgeoning community may add long term value to the country and its foreign relationships.

Further reading:
Paper Sons and Daughters (a memoir of growing up Chinese in South Africa) by Ufrieda Ho.

2 thoughts on “The People of South Africa: Chinese South Africans

  1. Well researched, my friend. So why the hullabaloo about the new “Chinese Government funded” Chinese shops that are propping up over the whole of Africa, apparently? Care to comment?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *
To prevent spam, no links are permitted in comments. Comments Policy