Taiwanese South Africans

Taiwanese engagement with South Africa is a fascinating and understudied topic. Between the late 1970s and the early 1990s, tens of thousands of Taiwanese moved to South Africa, set up shop, made some money and subsequently left. In many ways, their behavior can be likened to that of other ethnic Chinese transnational migrants who regular flit between East Asia, Southeast Asia, Australasia, and the Americas (as described by Ong [1999]). As with many transnational migrations, some of these new migrants can only be described as opportunistic capitalists: they took advantage ofincentive schemes and then moved on when conditions for business deteriorated.

Cheap South African Passports

Starting in the late 1980s, and continuing into the early 2000s, many Taiwanese who had been living in South Africa took their leave. From a high of between 30,000 and 50,000 in the mid-1990s, there are currently only between 6000 and 10,000 Taiwanese in South Africa. Taiwanese investors cited South Africa’s increasing crime level and threats to physical safety as the top reasons for their departure (Pickles and Woods 1989). The post-apartheid increase in labor union power was another substantial reason for the Taiwanese exodus. A study conducted by the Center for Chinese Studies interviewed one Taiwanese investor who stated: “After 2000, 70 % of investors left because of wage demands from labor unions which negatively affected investors’ profit margins, and 30 % left the country due to security reasons ” (Grimm et al. 2014). Adding to their incentives to leave, South Africa shifted official recognition from Taiwan to the PRC in 1998. Taiwanese people, without formal diplomatic relations, were left more vulnerable insofar as they had no official authority that could protect or represent them in South Africa (Grimm et al. 2014).

One of the curiosities of these Taiwanese inflows and outflows is that so many Taiwanese had acquired South African citizenship. Political and economic ties between the two nations had permitted dual citizenship. South African citizenship had allowed Taiwanese business people to bypass costly visa renewals and simplify business transactions. The ease and speed with which some of them were able to acquire (and then discard) passports calls into question the value of South African citizenship. The behavior of these Taiwanese reinforces Benedict Anderson’s argument that passports have become “less and less attestations of citizenship, let alone of loyalty to a protective nation-state, than of claims to participate in labor markets” (Anderson 1994: 323). South African passports were simply a means to an end—a relatively easy way to avoid the additional costs of doing business as a foreigner. For those who stayed in South Africa, however, their South Africanness and their Chineseness have taken on more significance in a period of formation for the “new South Africa” and China’s global rise.

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