Although most people outside of the country are unaware, South Africa has a long history of receiving populations from China. In fact, the very first groups, comprised of laborers and slaves, were brought over from China to the newly-founded Dutch colony in South Africa during the late 17th century. However, it wasn’t until the 1870s that Chinese started to flock to South Africa in much greater numbers on their own, and this trend continued until Chinese immigration was banned in 1904.
In more recent times, many Chinese immigrants have again been drawn to the Continent, and most estimates now suggest that there are well over 1 million Chinese living throughout Africa. Still, the relative stability and economic strength of South Africa means that it has generally still been the preferred destination over the past three or four decades. This is evidenced by the fact that there are currently between 350,000 and 500,000 Chinese immigrants currently living in the country. However, it seems that the honeymoon may be over as recent statistics suggest that many of the immigrants are now leaving in search of greener pastures.
The Impact of Chinese Immigrants in South Africa
The reason that so many Chinese immigrants were originally drawn to South Africa is not hard to understand. As Africa’s most developed country, South Africa presented these new immigrants with plenty of financial opportunities, and the majority of immigrants immediately set about opening up their own small shops.
These Chinese entrepreneurs and traders rightly saw a huge untapped market and began importing furniture, clothing, electronics and other goods from China. The majority of the immigrants settled in the major financial centers like Johannesburg, Durban and Pretoria, and these cities soon became filled with so-called ‘China malls,’ buildings filled with a range of shops owned by Chinese traders selling almost any type of good imaginable.
Problems Facing South Africa’s Chinese Immigrants
Even now these ‘China malls’ are a very visible indication of the Chinese presence and impact in the country. However, they have also started to become a very common target of thieves. Both the shops and the Chinese immigrants are often targeted by locals, which has left many of the shop owners and their families afraid to leave the relative safety of their shop and living quarters in these China malls. Statistics show that xenophobia is on the rise in South Africa, and unfortunately, these Chinese immigrants are easy targets.
However, the rise in xenophobia isn’t the only problem facing these immigrants. South Africa’s economy was relatively strong and stable for many years, but this has begun to change in more recent years. The poor economy has seen a drastic reduction in profits for most Chinese shop owners, while at the same time they are also suddenly facing increased competition from African shop owners—many of whom now have their own contacts in China that allow them to import the same cheap goods.
Further complicating the problem is that the South African government has placed stricter regulations on foreign-owned businesses. This has made life much more difficult for those already in the country, and also had the effect of drastically reducing the flow of new immigrants.
Potential Destinations for Chinese Immigrants Leaving South Africa
All of the above factors have created something of a mass exodus of Chinese immigrants from South Africa. Although many have debts or otherwise cannot afford to leave, those who do have the money have begun returning to China or seeking out other more-desirable foreign destinations. Some of these immigrants have ended up settling in Australia, North America and Europe. However, many of them are now being drawn to other countries in Africa, particularly to countries in West Africa, which is suddenly in the midst of a huge economic boom.
So far, the Chinese immigrants seem to only be leaving South Africa. However, it also seems that many are facing some of the similar problems with xenophobia elsewhere on the Continent. For this reason, it remains to see what the future will hold for Chinese-African relations.