South Africa

Nosedive: Chinese shopkeeper cover story a new low for South African journalism

By Kevin Bloom & Richard Poplak 31 October 2012

Martin Welz, the editor of Noseweek, recently published a cover story on the phenomenon of Chinese shopkeepers in South Africa. It's a humid conspiracy theory wrapped in the guise of journalism, and when it isn't racist and xenophobic, it's plain wrong. KEVIN BLOOM and RICHARD POPLAK take issue with its loose facts and downright dangerous perpetuation of stereotypes.

It starts with the headline “Howzit China?” From here, you know what you’re in for is journalism at its most banal, vile and vacant. Noseweek, that beloved pamphlet of self-proclaimed journalist-warrior Martin Welz, has in its latest issue taken racism and myopia to a level not often seen in South Africa’s media space. By comparison, the comments section on News24 reads like it’s been moderated by the United Nations Human Rights Council.

The investigative exposé, a lesson in “how not to do it” so exacting that journalism schools would do well to append it to their first-year introductory courses, opens with the following blanket contention: “[More] than 6,000 Chinese shops have popped up in every dorp of South Africa, effectively forming the country’s biggest-ever chain store.”

Never mind the obvious problems with loose language like “popping up,” in using the loaded term “chain store” Noseweek appears to want the reader to believe that those 6,000 shops are somehow linked, part of an insidious plot hatched in Beijing to take over the South African retail space. This insinuation is reinforced by the “yellow peril” subtext in the remarkably stupid strapline on the cover, “Here come the Chinese shopkeepers”. Of course, as with most scaremongering narratives, the facts here tend to fall a little short of the thesis.  

In the course of our own research—and unlike Noseweek, we’ve not only travelled South Africa looking into this phenomenon, but throughout the continent—the striking thing about Chinese shop owners is their very disassociation from Beijing, or any formal business network in mainland China. The immigrant Chinese shopkeeper is notable for his or her ability to adapt to conditions almost anywhere, and a tolerance for risk that is culturally woven into coastal communities, Fujian Province in particular. The disconnect between official Beijing and peripatetic Fujianese migrants is so sharp that when we recently met the ranking Chinese diplomat on African affairs, Ambassador Zhong Jianhua, he slapped his hand on his forehead and said, “Ay, they give me a headache, those Fujianese.”     

But back to Noseweek’s detached and decontextualised prejudice, which gets progressively worse. At the top of the second paragraph, we are treated to this magnificent hat-tip to the principles of decency and accuracy in the craft of journalism: “Suddenly there’s a Chinese shop (maybe three) in every suburb, village and town in South Africa. Every single one. Noseweek has checked.”

Where to begin? With that non-sequitur, that bone-crushing collision, between the hesitant parenthetical phrase “maybe three” and the megalomaniacal certainty of  “every single one”? With the sheer audacity of the declarative statement “Noseweek has checked” (as if Noseweek had a reputation for fact-checking to match the New Yorker magazine, and therefore stood above suspicion on questions of veracity)? With the obvious fallacy in the assertion that every “suburb”—never mind every “village” and “town”—in South Africa has a Chinese shop?

Still, let’s give Welz the benefit of the doubt. Let’s assume that he hired a journalist to drive through every suburb of every dorp in South Africa, starting in Agulhas and ending in Zeerust. Let’s assume that Statistics South Africa sponsored part of this trip, and that our valiant editor is right now helping them get the spelling right on place names in their forthcoming publication. Wouldn’t Welz maybe want to cite the statistician-general as a source?

Apparently not. At the end of the impressively long screed, after some to-ing and fro-ing on the actual number of Chinese migrants in South Africa—the range, according to the august magazine, runs anywhere from 100,000 to 400,000—we are served the following bewildering morsel: “Home Affairs media spokesperson Ronnie Mamoepa told Noseweek it was not in the department’s mandate to conduct a census. Their mandate was to facilitate legal entry into South Africa’s ports of entry, he said.”

Meaning that Welz, by his own admission, doesn’t know that the Department of Home Affairs and Statistics South Africa have different mandates—or, if he does, that the quote from Mr Mamoepa is nothing more than disingenuous window-dressing (look, folks, we even telephoned an official!). Whatever the truth, a lot more lipstick needs to go on this pig.

The Noseweek article wants us to understand that we are being infested with a plague of vermin, a plague guided by some unseen hand. “Visualise it,” the article advises, in its best tough guy posturing, “12,000 [newly arrived] couples equals 24,000 young, start-up Chinese shopkeepers who have managed to enter, settle and work in South Africa, most of them in 2006. That’s 240 Boeing-loads of would-be Chinese shopkeepers.”

While we cannot be sure which configuration of Boeing the Noseweekers mean—727, 737, 777?—we can certainly take their calculations a little further. Twenty-four thousand Chinese represents 0.043 percent of the South African population. Man, is it ever getting crowded in here. 

This is the part where we have to point out the fact that nowhere does the article grasp the finer, or even the broader, nuances of globalisation. Included are graphs—yes, graphs, we tell you!—insisting that as the land south of the Zambezi has been flooded with Chinese migrants, so too have we been flooded with cheap Chinese crap, mainly clothing. Implication: Chinese shopkeepers are responsible for the fact that “exports of clothing from China to South Africa have risen from R4 billion in 2005, when the shopkeeper migration got under way, to R8.5bn in 2006, and to R11.3bn in 2010…”

Again, where’s the proof in this conjecture? While the two variables may appear to be linked, where’s the thread that actually links them? Could anything else have caused this boom? For instance, the termination of the infamous Multi Fiber Arrangement in 2004, or other complex elements inherent in the increasing pace of globalisation? (During the course of 2005, it should be noted, Chinese textile and clothing imports to the West increased by over 100%. At the same time, Tony Blair fought the “Bra Wars” with China, as 75 million pieces of Chinese clothing languished in European ports.)

And as if to verify their ignorance of the world outside their own newsroom, all of this happened, according to Noseweek, “virtually unremarked-upon”. Unremarked upon by whom? Not to put too fine a point on it, but the China-in-Africa theme has become a mainstream item on local and international news agendas in the past few years. Seeing as we’re writing a book on it, we have cleverly set up Google alerts, and receive roughly ten stories on the topic daily.

Maybe Welz, a dyed-in-the-wool print man, a self-styled lone wolf, an intrepid disparager of the sheep mentality, doesn’t believe in search engines and the facility they offer in checking one’s lead stories against the trends of the day. For that, some may be willing to forgive and even laud him. Yet the question must be asked: has Welz or Noseweek ventured into a township or rural community since the Mbeki era?

“Most South Africans,” Noseweek claims, “perhaps ignorant of the scale of the phenomenon, appear to have accepted [the Chinese] as just the umpteenth bunch of brave, eager immigrants to reach our shores who will further enrich our multicultural, multi-ethnic society.”

We’re sorry, which South Africa is Noseweek referring to? While Azanian hospitality toward, and acceptance of, those from foreign climes is justly world-renowned, we might take this moment to mention some of our own research, which rubbishes the above statement so forthrightly that we wonder if Noseweek didn’t get sucked into some alternate Twilight Zone reality. Because the two local communities we’ve reported on in greatest detail did not “appear to have accepted” Chinese shopkeepers at all—quite the contrary.

The first, in Nquthu, KZN, spread vicious rumours about a Chinese store called the New King, involving accusations of cannibalism. A community leader told us that he expects the young Fujianese men who work in the store to come to harm in the near future. He made it clear that following the end of apartheid, he expected the local community to run the local economy. But liberalisation and globalisation and bad governance have ensured that this has not been the case. The Chinese are, for him, another instance of Zulus north of the Buffalo River getting shafted by circumstance. Unprotected, without backing from the police or the Chinese embassy or anyone, the boys who work at the New King become an easy scapegoat.

The second story, which we followed from Ganyesa, North West Province (SA), to Fuqing, Fujian Province (China), tells the sorry tale of four Chinese nationals burned alive in their place of work, a small wholesale store in a rural village 70km from Vryburg. So “accepting” were the Ganyesa tribal council of these newcomers that they condoned a campaign of intimidation against foreign storekeepers (including Pakistanis and Bangladeshis), which eventually and inevitably lead to violence, in this case the petrol bombing of a store in which four people were sleeping. The murders, along with several other incidents involving Chinese nationals on the continent, are very much on Beijing’s radar. So much so that they wiped the story from the Chinese Internet, and we were warned a number of times in Fujian Province not to pursue it. Why? Because Beijing doesn’t want to stir up nationalist sentiment at home with regard to the fact that they refuse to protect their citizens abroad. (To do so would conflict with their official non-intervention policies.) Chinese traders outside Chinese borders, and often inside Chinese borders, are completely and utterly on their own.

Yet Welz won’t allow these facts to get in the way of a good quote from a retired professor. Colin MacCarthy, who works as a member of the consultant-ocracy at an outfit called Econex, told Noseweek, “I am not a conspiracist [sic]. All the empirical evidence indicates that the project to set up such an extensive network of Chinese shops, all following the same pattern and targeting the same market-segment, was well researched, well planned, well organised, and well financed. It effectively now constitutes the biggest retail chain in South Africa… and there we were, wasting our time worrying about Walmart!”

Sorry, professor, but this seems to bring us to a bit of an impasse. Because what you’re clearly suggesting is that the Chinese shopkeeper presence in South Africa mimics the intent of a multinational like Walmart—which to us is just manifestly insane. (And there we were, worrying that boilerplate Sefrican xenophobic attitudes and genuine economic disenfranchisement was resulting in the brutal deaths of Chinese migrants. Silly us!)

Of course, Prof MacCarthy, you are not a “conspiracist”. How could you be? Even if the article in which you’re quoted implies that there is a conspiracy afoot. Because without saying outright what that conspiracy might be—Noseweek seems to believe that its fans are sly enough to know how to read between the lines, having lived in a Banana Republic since 1994 and all—the best we can make out is that Beijing and Pretoria are in collusion, with Pretoria turning a blind eye towards illegal Chinese immigrants and shopkeepers who aren’t registered with SARS, so that the bilateral relationship can continue apace.

Beijing gets a new market for its manufactured goods, while the South African government gets, well, we don’t know what. In Mr Welz’s irreproachable worldview, there are “good” Chinese (those that came here when the United Party ran the show), and “bad” Chinese (those that have come recently, under the otherwise effective razor wire that keeps skilled immigrants from flooding the country). Most unnervingly, they are breeding, with toddlers “scooting in the aisles” of the stores—note the cute Chinese baby gracing the web edition of the story…

Sure, the article mentions once or twice that crap governance and customs and immigration corruption might have something to do with the phenomenon. But to go any further, to actually do some real reporting on that angle, might be to get in the way of a good conspiracy theory.

Oh, and we almost forgot to include the Noseweek disclaimer, a banner under which we in our personal and professional capacities sadly do not fly: “While every reasonable effort is taken to ensure the accuracy and soundness of the contents of this publication, neither the authors nor the publishers of this website bear any responsibility for the consequences of any actions based on the information contained therein.”

Indeed. DM

Read more:

“Howzit China?” in Noseweek.

Photo by Reuters.


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