By Bob Wekesa (first published in China Daily)
Apart from the legendary visits by Chinese seafarers under the command of Admiral Zheng He in the 15th century at Mogadishu (Somalia) and Lamu and Malindi in Kenya, the only other mainland African country to register an early presence of the Chinese is South Africa.
The Indian Ocean island countries of Seychelles, Madagascar and Mauritius also have sizable populations of Chinese descent.
The Chinese pioneers in South Africa arrived under the most difficult of circumstances in the 1660s, as recorded by Melanie Yap and Dianne Leong Man (Colour, Confusion and Concessions, 1996), Yoon Jung Park (A Matter of Honor, 2009) and Ufrieda Ho (Paper Sons and Daughters, 2012).
The three authors lay out heart-wrenching narratives of bigotry, prejudice and excruciating labor, interspersed with light moments borne of the ludicrous ironies that the early generations of Chinese migrants encountered.
The connecting thread throughout the hundreds of years is that South African Chinese had to fight against racial discrimination by forming membership associations. The most prominent of the associations is the Chinese Association, founded in 1903 and which has branches in various parts of the country.
The relative youthfulness of Erwin Pon, chairman of the Chinese Association of Gauteng, does not mean he lacks knowledge about the history and contemporary developments of the community.
“Although the vast majority of Chinese migrants were brought to South Africa in the early 1900s by British colonists and European settlers to work on the gold mines as indentured laborers, most of them were forced to return to China when the indentured labor scheme collapsed less than 10 years after their arrival,” he says.
“Those of us who remained trace our roots to Chinese settlers who came here to set up shops and other kinds of enterprises mainly in Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth.”
In apartheid South Africa, the Chinese were classified as Asiatic and therefore “coloured”, with all the discrimination that came with that categorization. Unable to bear some of the worst forms of the colour bar, some Chinese South Africans left South Africa. One of these was Patrick Soon-Shiong, the award winning American surgeon credited with the first encapsulated human islet transplant, an experimental diabetes treatment, and considered among top 50 wealthiest individuals in the US.
Pon, also a business development director with Rand Merchant Bank, says that a trickle of Chinese arrived in South Africa between 1900 and the 1980s.
“In the 1980s, a substantial number of Chinese from Taiwan, and to a lesser extent Hong Kong, came and set up factories and invested in various sectors,” he says, adding that as many as 20,000 came during this wave. But a good number would return to Taiwan or move to other countries in the 1990s after apartheid ended and the new South African government recognized the Chinese mainland.
As Chinese from Taiwan were leaving, a new wave of Chinese from the mainland started arriving in the late 1990s, many coming to work in joint ventures with South African companies or to set up factories, malls and real estate developments.
Branches of the Chinese Association, one of which Pon was elected chairman in 2008, have a long record of protest against racial discrimination, often in league with black Africans and Indians and other so-called coloured South Africans. In the early 1900s, the associations teamed up with organizations representing South African Indians to sustain the nonviolent resistance movement that Mahtama Gandhi headed. The apartheid regime was unshaken, and in 1956 classified the Chinese as coloureds.
It is against this background that the Chinese association was alarmed to learn that a new law in post-apartheid South Africa sought to place them in the category of white, a tag that would distort history, as well as deny them the benefits of accessing government affirmative action programs and policies meant to bring South Africans who once suffered discrimination up to speed with their white counterparts.
“The community was concerned enough to lodge a case with the South African high court challenging our exclusion from the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Act,” Pon says of a ruling whose delivery in 2008 is commemorated on June 18 each year.
“We enlisted the support of freedom fighters such as lawyer George Bizos. A court in Pretoria heard us and we won the right to be classified as black, recognizing the history of the Chinese in South Africa, as well as allowing us to access the benefits of the employment equity and empowerment legislation.”
South African Chinese enjoy a dual heritage, Pon says.
“If people ask if I am Chinese or South African, my first response is that I am South African. I then add that I am also Chinese. This is because many people can’t reconcile my Asiatic looks with being an African.”
Pon describes himself and those of his ilk as fourth-generation South African Chinese who have “a romantic connection” to China.
The connection is romantic because, Pon says, “with over 100 years since our ancestors came from China, there are few if any direct family links”.
“Our forefathers came from a very different China from the China as we know it today; it was under imperial rule, but China has since then gone through the “cultural revolution” (1966-76) and then the reform and opening-up process. Let me surprise you. You might imagine that our culture has been compromised by the many years in South Africa. But some of the Chinese traditions practiced by South African Chinese might actually be purer than those of the Chinese mainland.
“While we have tried to maintain our culture as it was in the distant past, some of the traditions in China have changed over time due to political changes. For instance, we observe two qingming (tomb sweeping) ceremonies, in April and September, here in South Africa, while in China this has been reduced to one, in April.”
Chinese in South Africa may have lost some aspects of Chinese culture due to distance and environment but retained others as a means of generation-to-generation memory of its roots, he says.
Throughout waves of Chinese migration, there have been moments of tensions between the new arrivals and the settled communities, Pon says.
“It’s a little like kids playing in a field when a new kid unknown to them arrives. The new kid will not be accepted immediately but after some time he blends and becomes part of the fun.”
The empowerment court case stands as one of the few instances in which South African Chinese have collectively campaigned for their recognition, “as an option of last resort”, in Pon’s words.
“We are generally a low-profile community, and our association is more inclined toward organizing cultural events, dragon boat and Chinese New Year festivals and generally educating our fellow South Africans to understand and appreciate us as part of the rainbow nation.”
The community also takes part in activities such as campaigns against wildlife poaching and charity events.
“We don’t usually want to rock the boat. It is an example of our Chinese heritage where we want to contribute to society in a peaceful way. It’s in our DNA to observe noninterference and coexistence.”
Pon sees his association as a bridge between the Chinese government and South Africans.
“We were born and bred here and therefore we have completely integrated with fellow South Africans from all races. Some of us are professionals, accountants, bankers, doctors, lawyers and scholars. I think the Chinese government values us since a select number of us are invited to China annually to meet the top Communist Party of China leadership during the National Peoples’ Congress.”
Pon has been given an award by Guangdong province for his part in promoting the Chinese mainland’s relations with South African Chinese.
Bob Wekesa is a research associate with the Wits China-Africa Reporting Project. He is also a PhD candidate at the Communication University of China.