Using CSR to influence positive perceptions of the Chinese by South Africans: Hit or Miss

Sharon Tshipa


The notion of migration is as old as time. Throughout history, and to date, human migration has been spurred by varied economic, political, social and environmental reasons. In the case of the Chinese people in South Africa, their felt presence dates back to the 1600s. Larger numbers settled in the late 1870s. To this day, new Chinese immigrants are still arriving.

“My grandfather came to South Africa in 1898. My father, born in China in 1910, he came to South Africa just about the time Japan attacked China and its persistent actions eventually sparked World War II. My father came because he had gotten a job here though; in 1938,” says Walter Wai Pon, a Chinese-South African septuagenarian.

Pon, who is the Retail Director of Sui Hing Hong, Direct Importers & Wholesalers, a company established in 1943, was born in South Africa in the year 1940, before the apartheid era. Preceding apartheid, some Chinese people in Johannesburg had made places like Soweto home. They lived among black South Africans, trading and running successful businesses in Soweto. Today, some black South Africans look back at this era as a happy time, a time wherein Chinese people were family and were viewed in positive light.

As a child, the Founder and Programme Manager of Ikageng AIDS Ministry, Carol Dyantyi said she and her friends often went to China City to shop when sent by their parents. Sometimes however, she said they simply went to China City to just ask for things they needed or wanted and the Chinese shop owners would happily give them things for free. “China City was like China Town as you know it now. China City was located in Soweto, where Fox Lake is now, but the Chinese left Soweto after the 1976 Soweto uprising,” says Dyantyi.

Of what used to be, Dyantyi says only a Chinese run butchery remains. Their departure, in her view, has not done the perceptions of Chinese people by South Africans right. “Chinese people even spoke Zulu back then,” she says. Not only that, she shared that Chinese people were very helpful, and were like the larger part of the Sowetan family. Now she says all that they were has been forgotten, when people think Chinese people they think of people who keep to themselves, people who sell cheap clothing. The positive rapport that once existed between Chinese migrants and the majority of black South Africans has since grown old.

“During the apartheid era Chinese people and black South Africans suffered the same fate, but we were eventually accepted into whites only spaces because of our good behavior,” says Pon.

This acceptance distanced these Chinese economic migrants from black people. It did not help that over the past decade and a half, South Africa witnessed an influx of migrants from China. Their investments, though significantly contributing to the development of South Africa’s economy, do nothing for the estranged relations. Even doors that some white South Africans had opened to the Chinese have begun to close as white South Africans fear stiff business competition from their Chinese counterparts. Some South Africans, both black and white, seem to have a common disdain for the Chinese.

Chinese government’s CSR motives

This contempt stems from various crimes the Chinese are accused of. Crimes such as tax evasion, cheap labour and poor treatment of African employees, wildlife poaching; donkey skinning, ivory and rhino horn illegal trading to cite but a few that have contributed to the negative imaging of China and the Chinese people by South Africans. To dispel these unfair generalizations, and to shape a good image of China in South Africa, the Chinese government came up with and implemented a strategy that strongly encourages its over 155 Chinese state owned enterprises operating in South Africa to integrate Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) into their corporate reforms. These they are expected to undertake by adapting CSR measures compatible with conditions at the national and organizational level, and ultimately implementing them step by step. By so doing the enterprises become leading examples for all Chinese companies, who are expected to emulate efforts that the Chinese government believe will positively influence how South Africans view China and the Chinese people.

South African government’s CSR motives

CSR by Chinese companies, state or private, in South Africa only strives to live up to South Africa’s CSR policies. This is because the South African government compels all foreign and local companies operating in the country to help write the wrongs that were written by the Apartheid era. The era was dotted with racial inequalities in areas of education, economic power, infrastructure and land ownership as well as access to basic services. In levelling the imbalances, CSR regulations motivate the private sector to invest in social projects that help advance the sustainable development of communities they operate in. This they are expected to do by investing in areas such as environmental management, health care, infrastructure, and education among other humanitarian interventions.

Chinese investors’ CSR motives

In fulfilling these expectations, some Chinese companies like Huawei have done impressively well with their Seed for the Future project, a global CSR flagship program launched in South Africa in 2016 as singled out by Nathan Zhao, a Senior Manager at Huawei Technologies South Africa’s Government and Public Affairs Department. The program aims to develop local ICT talent, promote a greater understanding and interest in the telecommunications sector, while improving and encouraging regional building and participation in the digital community among other objectives. The first intake of 10 South African students taken to Beijing and Shenzhen received training in cutting edge technologies such as 5G, LTE, and cloud computing to cite a few. Such good efforts however are outweighed by the fact that most Chinese companies do not actually implement CSR projects that they would have signed up for when applying for their licenses.

Charles You, an Associate at Hogan Lovells located in Sandton, when speaking on companies run by his fellow countrymen said, “If you look at all the mega Chinese companies’ website, all of them mention Corporate Social Responsibility, but very few actually implement it in South Africa.”

You said this is fuelled by the fact that Chinese companies in South Africa don’t comprehend the importance of public relations, nor do they see the benefits of CSR unless they are required by law. “Another problem is that top management in the Chinese companies operating in South Africa are not here to stay, they typically have a rotation after 3-5 years, so it is highly unlikely that CSR is on top of their list,” he says. You called on relevant authorities to focus their attention on educating Chinese companies on the benefit and need for engaging in CSR. This is because You believes that the current situation can only be changed if mindsets are changed.

An interview with Jacques du Plessis an Executive Mining, at Taung Gold conceded with Charles You’s view that CSR by Chinese companies in South Africa is only done to sate the law. “We do CSR because we are bound by law. To get our mining rights we had to come up with Social Labour Planning programmes,” shares du Plessis.