A paradox exists between the growing presence and the continued invisibility of Chinese migrants in South Africa, a study revealed on Tuesday.
“Despite having arrived as mineworkers in the beginning of the 20th century, Chinese communities in South Africa continued to be invisible, peripheral and silent,” said journalist Ufrieda Ho, presenting her study in Johannesburg.
Ho has been looking into the common experiences of Chinese migrants in South Africa, part of a study sponsored by the Anthony Simpson Foundation.
She pointed out that before 1994, most Chinese arrived in South Africa as stowaways and illegal immigrants.
Ho said they were considered “prohibited individuals” by the apartheid government as part of the 1904 Chinese Exclusion Act and made their living on the peripheries of society.
Chinese migrants kept their allegiance to mainland China and adopted a policy of “don’t rock the boat” as their means of survival under the apartheid regime.
It is a misconception that the Chinese did not suffer under the apartheid regime, she said, adding: “People who say today that the Chinese did not feature in our apartheid history are wrong. They flew under the radar.”
The study was an attempt to “deepen the level of inquiry” concerning migrants and their role in South African society. It shows a similarity between the experiences of all migrants in South Africa as far as repression, intimidation and exclusion from society are concerned.
“These are the realities of migrants,” Ho said.
There is a shrinking definition of citizenship, of who belong, throughout countries in Africa, she said. “Skin colour cannot be a measure of citizenship.”
Professor Karen Harris of the University of Pretoria wrote in a 2006 article entitled “Not a Chinaman’s chance” that the Chinese Exclusion Act was introduced in South Africa in 1904, coinciding with the introduction of indentured labourers to the country’s gold mines.
“After 1904, 63 695 indentured labourers were recruited by the European mining magnates to work the gold mines in the Transvaal on a stringently regulated contract basis,” Harris wrote.
South Africa in May this year has experienced a wave of xenophobic attacks. Some of those attacked have been Chinese. Ho said that most of Chinatown had closed down during this period and some “shops were attacked”.
“The BEE [black economic empowerment] legislature, which now includes the Chinese, only accounts for about 10 000 Chinese,” she said, referring to last month’s court order that categorised the Chinese as previously disadvantaged people who have a right to jobs.
“The BEE ruling includes Chinese South Africans who were present in South Africa before 1994 and excludes all new Chinese migrants. There is a lot of confusion; we are not stealing job,” she said.
There are approximately 40-million Chinese living across the world with about 120 000 staying in South Africa, according to Chinese statistics.