South African Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka With China's Premier Wen Jiabao
Originally uploaded by Pan-African News Wire Photo File
CHANGING FORTUNES BRING NEW GENERATION OF CHINESE TO SA
South Africa, the continent's economic powerhouse, and burgeoning global power China marked 10 years of diplomatic relations this week with a visit by the Chinese foreign minister.
The ties goes deeper than diplomacy-South Africa's Chinese community is the oldest and largest on the continent, with a history dating to the 1870s.
"This is where the Chinese sports ground was, the Chinese newspaper press, the Chinese gambling dens," Walter Pon says, gesturing up and down the block as he stands in front of the Chinese supermarket his parents opened in downtown Johannesburg in 1943.
"This is where my roots are," Pon said in an interview Monday as Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi was meeting President Thabo Mbeki.
New Chinese immigrants are putting down roots now, as China places increasing importance on resource-rich Africa as part of its massive global expansion drive.
"The last decade has witnessed the rapid progress in our
relationship," Yang told reporters in South Africa. "I believe this is because the top leaders of our countries attach a great deal of importance to this relationship."
Today, South Africa is China's largest trading partner on the
continent with trade volume for 2007 projected to have reached US$40 billion -eight times what it was in 1998.
With its technological expertise and sophisticated infrastructure, South Africa is a "springboard" for China into the rest of the continent, said Martyn Davies, executive director of the Center for Chinese Studies at South Africa's Stellenbosch University, said.
"We are the only economy (in Africa) that can engage with China, the only one with a substantial private sector," Davies said.
Bilateral investment last year amounted to US$1 billion with South African companies such as Anglo American and SAB Miller becoming key players in the Chinese market.
Last year, China's biggest bank, the state-owned Industrial &
Commercial Bank of China Ltd. bought a 20 percent stake in South Africa's biggest lender, Standard Bank Group Ltd. in one of the country's biggest foreign corporate acquisitions to date.
Davies argues that the banking deal will be followed by a surge of interest by Chinese firms in South African companies, especially in the finance and engineering sectors, that will negates the stereotype of "China Inc." as being only interested in Africa for its resources and paying little attention to developing an impoverished continent.
And that, said Davies, will mean even more Chinese immigrants.
For Pon, business is certainly more competitive. Products like green tea, tofu or hoisin sauce that once could only be found in his store can now be bought at most commercial supermarkets.
But he's also doing roaring trade with shoppers from other African countries as far north as Nigeria who buy his best rice by the bulkload.
Skinny, warmhearted and fiercely loyal to China, which he visits once a year, Pon is proud of China's achievements as a modern global player. But he credits his success to his adopted country.
"I have benefited from a better economy in South Africa," said the third generation Chinese-South African.
South Africa's first Chinese immigrants arrived from southern China in the 1870s.
From the start, the Chinese community made up of mostly of artisans and traders - and a few indentured mine workers who came in the early 1900s - was subjected to restrictive laws by the colonial powers and forced to live in dismal conditions.
Under apartheid, Chinese were classified as "nonwhites" and denied the right to vote or own property and were kept away from skilled jobs and certain residential areas.
Later, Taiwanese immigrants were afforded special status thanks to an alliance between Taipei and the pariah state in Pretoria.
Their descendants have became professionals and businessmen. As many13,000 lived in South Africa in the 1980s, Pons said.
But in recent years their numbers have dwindled to about 6,000, he said. Davies, of the Center for Chinese Studies, says the population has been fairly steady at about 8,500, but acknowledges a slight decline in recent years.
Many, especially young Chinese-South Africans, driven away by the threat of political uncertainty and the country's high crime rate.
Shops and restaurants in a Chinatown that had developed just west of downtown Johannesburg closed. Only a few die-hards like Pon are left downtown.
However, after South Africa dropped Taipei for Beijing, an ally to the liberation movement of the African National Congress, new Chinese immigrants began to arrive.
Initially they came as employees of state-run enterprises. A decade later, most of the newcomers are entrepreneurs as hungry for a share in a growing African market as their motherland appears to be. In the last five years their ranks have swelled to about 250,000.
Their presence is felt in the new and vibrant Chinatown that has sprung up in a leafy suburb of eastern Johannesburg and in giant warehouses with names like Dragon City that sell clothes, plastic ware and electronic goods at discount prices.
Few of the newcomers speak English and as Mandarin speakers find themselves at odds with the established Cantonese-speaking Chinese community.
"Theses guys are here to make money," Pon said admiringly. "But they don't know what we went through to pave the way for them."
With his passable Mandarin, Pon is one of the few South African Chinese who is as comfortable in the old Chinatown, of which he's been dubbed the unofficial mayor, as he is in its rival across town.
"We have to change. We have to adapt," he said.