Chinese migrants who arrive in South Africa with a lack of English depend on local shop assistants to help them speak to their customers. For shop owners and their assistants to understand each other, they have to come up with creative ways to communicate.

Wishes Kondowe has been working at China Multiplex for over a year now, but she still does not know the name of the general store she works for and only refers to it as “shop number 46”. Though she has no idea what the Chinese printed board hung boldly outside says, she is familiar with more than 500 items in the store. Kondowe starts her day at 7.30am. She cleans the store, helps with stock-taking and stands ready to sell anything from faux Polo handbags to large, brightly-coloured, rubber water guns.

Neither she nor her employer know each other’s names and have come up with a way of addressing each other. Kondowe calls her employer Madala, a common slang word in isiZulu which refers to an elderly man and Madala calls her Sisi, which means sister in isiZulu, a term commonly used at Multiplex for black female cleaners and shop assistants.

Kondowe (23) came to South Africa two years ago after leaving Zimbabwe for a better life. Like her employer she is an economic migrant. She was one of the many men and women who queued for work outside China Multiplex shopping centre. Zimbabweans, Ugandans, and Malawians are some of the foreign nationals who work as shop assistants for Chinese shop owners. Kondowe says the majority of their customers are South African, but it is rare to find South Africans who work as shop assistants at China Multiplex.

It is common for Chinese shop owners to hire foreign nationals to help them communicate with customers in China malls. Foreign nationals who are proficient in English have been an ideal choice for shop owners in the day-to-day running of Chinese businesses. Kondowe believes that Chinese shop owners prefer foreign nationals to South Africans because they can interpret better and are more creative in how they communicate with the owners.

Clarrissa Borman*, one of the managers at China Multiplex, says most Chinese immigrants at the centre speak very little or no English at all. This makes Chinese shop owners vulnerable in the sense that they do not have direct communication with their clients and have to leave negotiations in the hands of their shop assistants. Chinese shop assistants also manage the stock, help communicate with the drivers of delivery trucks and ensure that the shop owners get what they want.

According to Borman, Chinese shop owners have very little control over what goes on in their store because of the language barrier. Shop owners do not approach customers, do not market their goods using sales tactics or even interact with customers. They do however step in when it is time to pay for the purchase.

Pricing practices

The one aspect that Chinese shop owners manage tightly is finances, Borman says.  They solely manage the till, step in with price negotiations and the costs for stock deliveries.

“The word price they understand very well. They have two prices, single purchase prices and stock prices.” A single purchase price is the price if one item is bought and the stock price is what they charge when customers buy in bulk.

Regular customers are also given discounts and some stores work on a card roster system to manage discounts given. The more times a customer comes to the store, the more discounts they are eligible for.

Doreen Maseko is one of Madala’s loyal customers. As soon as she walks into his store, he smiles and waves frantically. He starts shouting Sisi at Maseko and calls Kondowe to stop mopping the toy aisle and help with the sale. Maseko asks for a chair from Kondowe and starts pointing at the bags on display she would like to see.  Maseko buys handbags at Madala’s shop and re-sells them at higher prices to her clients. She is a regular customer and, whenever she stocks up on her handbags, she presents a card to Madala at the till and on her fifth purchase she will be eligible for a free handbag.

Borman says the language barrier between Chinese shop owners and South African customers has resulted in multicultural business negotiation. Borman says shop assistants, mall security and neighbouring shop assistants are sometimes required to step in to translate and help shop owners to make a sale. Many foreign nationals are not proficient in South African languages and mall security usually has to help whenever an Nguni-speaking customer communicates with shop owners.


Kondowe considers herself lucky to be Ndebele. This means she does not need much help from mall security guards when dealing with Nguni-speaking customers as Ndebele is similar to isiZulu. Kondowe says she can understand a lot of South African languages because she rents a room in Soweto with her sister.

“Some of the people I stay with are Sotho, Tswana and Zulu so I have learnt to pick up the things they say.”

Kondowe has a diploma in management of business from Tourword College in Zimbabwe, and she says her qualification helps her run Madala’s business. She assists in managing the stock, customer relations and sales.

Poor working conditions

While Chinese traders believe they have a good relationship with their African employees, the tale is sometimes different for their employees. One female Malawian shop assistant says: “Working with the Chinese traders we have [a] language barrier; the communication is based on simple words in broken English. I was working in another Chinese shop before this one but because of strict rules from my boss [no days off] I resigned. If you miss a working day, you are not paid.”

The shop assistant says, because of the arrival of Chinese traders in South Africa and the large numbers of China malls in the city, the job market is better than in her home country. “I found an opportunity with the arrival of Chinese traders.”

“When you work for the Chinese, some things they don’t understand. Like public holidays, how can you explain that?”

Kondowe works seven days a week and, because of the language barrier, she does not know how to ask for days off. “When you work for the Chinese, some things they don’t understand. Like public holidays, how can you explain that?”

Communication techniques

Kondowe and Madala have invented their own language to communicate with each other.  Kondowe says the language consists of a system of gestures, a mixture of languages and sometimes re-enactments to communicate.

“[We communicate] with a little bit of Chinese language, looka looka [to look, or check], and sign language. Sometimes if he doesn’t understand, I show him pictures or draw things customers want.”When customers bring toys or damaged bags back, Kondowe finds out why and tries to explain the damage to Madala. She is not allowed to touch the till and needs permission from Madala to approve an exchange or return.

When customers do complain about a purchase, Kondowe says Madala shows them the “no refund” sign.

Borman says South Africa is home to various communities of Chinese people who arrived at different times from different parts of China and Taiwan. Chinese shop owners speak different languages, practise different religions, and have vastly different levels of integration into society.

 “There is an absence of an organised Chinese traders’ association to defend their interests, and communicate the needs to management.”

Chinese shop owners complain about not receiving assistance from the complex with matters relating to rental. “There is an absence of an organised Chinese traders’ association to defend their interests, and communicate the needs to management.”

Borman says China Multiplex is in the process of trying to find a Chinese manager. There are instances where management has tried to implement a new policy and conditions of the lease, but they fell on deaf ears as Chinese shop owners were left confused or just did not understand.

“When we ask them something, they tell you straight that they don’t understand, and this can be very frustrating.”

Help from mall management

George Mystris, a restructuring consultant for China Mall and China Multiplex, says language is a major problem within China malls. “Chinese people have their own negotiation style but it gets complicated when you have different cultures and nationalities negotiating. Things don’t always end up as intended.”

Mystris says the mall has put in place support structures to help shop owners with customers. The mall has a few South African security guards with walkie-talkies on every floor if a translator is needed. Most of the shop assistants at China Mall are Malawians and do not speak local languages.

“People that work here try to do their translations [into local languages]; although there are a lot of workers here, their English is not good but they do speak Zulu, Xhosa, and Sotho.  But the majority of [Chinese shop owners] use their staff to find out what their customers actually need,” Mystris says.

A new family

The work relations and relationship between Chinese shop owners and their assistants has evolved. New traditions have emerged and relationship bonds strengthened.

Henly Gumibe (24), has been working at China Multiplex for more than three years. He left Malawi after his father died from a long illness. He has been working with Allen Lui for three years now and considers her as his family.

“I work here every day, all year without any public holidays, so I spend a lot of time with my boss and we have an easy relationship here at work.”

Lui sometimes brings lunch to work for Gumibe and they have created a communication system for themselves. “For example, if she wants a pen, she will start writing in the air and, if I show her a pencil, she will say ‘no another one’ and I will bring out a pen.”

Gumibe guesses what Lui wants until he gets it right. He says their relationship is mutually beneficial. He complains that the wages are low but appreciates the fact that Lui will give him old clothes, shares lunch with him and that they even play games together when the shop is not busy.

“When we are bored we use Makro[wholesale store] pamphlets, I will show her what I like and she will smile or nod or show me what she likes.”

Chinese shop owners

Ron Yang (44), runs Nizams, a supermarket in Protea South.  He is a qualified medical doctor in Fujei, China. Yang came to South Africa with his wife and son in 2006 and cannot practise medicine in South Africa because he is not proficient in English.

Yang says he loves Soweto because of its safety aspect. “People in Soweto treat me well. Bad experiences towards Chinese people are scarce. They greet me saying ’Chinese, China’ and I say ’hello’ to them”. Yang cannot speak a local language but he can pick up what customers want and if he struggles, he calls one of his assistants.

When customers are looking for items in the store, he can pick up things such as rice, tea and washing powder and show them the aisle in which they are located. Yang says he is learning to memorise South African phrases. When he first arrived to South Africa, he spoke little English. “I was using smaller English,” he says. “Now in South Africa, I can hear what customers want but I don’t talk too much.”

Yang is not the only Chinese foreign national in the shopping centre as Korean and other Chinese shop owners also trade. Yang prefers hiring people from Malawi to help translate in his store. Though they do not speak South African languages, they are more proficient in English. “William, speak nice English.” William is Yang’s assistant who has been the store manager for three years.

William can understand South African languages, mainly Setswana and isiZulu, which he attributes to living in Soweto. Yang also says Soweto and its people treat Chinese people well. “Chinese people are too much [many] in Soweto, you get Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese – in Soweto are all welcome.”