Life after death in the time of covid-19

The covid-19 pandemic, and corresponding health restrictions placed on hospitals and funerals in South Africa, have completely changed the way we grieve and say goodbye to our loved ones. 

“Standing there in the cemetery, looking at the deep holes all around me, I just remember being overwhelmed with anxiety,” recalled Margarida Khadhraoui about the day of her brother’s burial.

“They’re probably all filled now,” she reflected.

Khadhraoui, a 50-year-old mother of two young boys, is just one of the many South Africans who have experienced loss during the covid-19 lockdown period, which began in March. The nationwide lockdown was characterised by various health restrictions, with one being a ban on all hospital visitations to prevent new coronavirus infections. These health restrictions compromised people in different ways, but for many it affectedtheir last moments with their loved ones, along with their grieving process.

Lost final moments

The ban on hospital visitations remained throughout the duration of South Africa’s strictest levels of lockdown, being levels five, four and three. In August some hospitals began to allow visitations, with News 24 reporting that covid-19 patients at the “end of life” stages would be allowed visitors, but still in line with strict safety protocols.

Khadhraoui was not so lucky. Her brother, Alvaro Jose Oliveira Goncalves, passed away right before such exceptions were established, so she was unable to visit him before he died.

“The most difficult part of it all was that when my brother was admitted, we weren’t able to visit him. Usually when someone is ill, you go see them and it almost gives them that push to fight and carry on, but we couldn’t,” said Khadhraoui.

Khadhraoui remembered her brother having flu-like symptoms a few days before he was admitted to hospital, but he had not thought a covid-19 test was necessary. He assured Khadhraoui that he was fine and, because he had no pre-existing issues that would put him at a higher risk for covid-19, she let it go.

Early one Friday morning in late July, Khadhraoui received a distressed phone call from her sister-in-law, who exclaimed, “Margi, Alvaro can’t breathe!”

Khadhraoui told Wits Vuvuzela, “It was all so sudden. He had some symptoms, but he was fine, and then her couldn’t breathe two days later. We managed to get the paramedics to the house that morning.”

She added, “His oxygen level was at 56, which is really bad. Your normal level should sit at 94 or 95, so they immediately put him on oxygen and rushed him to the hospital.”

Goncalves was first diagnosed with bacterial pneumonia, which is an infection in the lungs caused by bacteria. It was later confirmed that he had tested positive for the coronavirus as well. Goncalves stayed in Linksfield Hospital for two weeks, and remained on a ventilator throughout.

The day before he passed, he was intubated and placed in an induced coma.

“I knew he wasn’t going to make it. I could feel it. I told my husband, ‘my brother’s leaving us,’ and I got the phone call 10 minutes later,” said Khadhraoui.

While rummaging through her bag for tissues to conceal tear-filled eyes, she said, “I couldn’t be there to hold his hand, tell him that I’m there for him or tell him to not be scared. I don’t think he necessarily needed it … I was the one that needed it.”

Stefanie Bove, a clinical psychologist of 16 years, explained that the covid-19 restrictions, and new circumstances created by the pandemic, will have an effect on the grieving process experienced by individuals who have lost loved ones.

“Grieving under these circumstances will definitely affect one’s general mental wellbeing, more so than usual. And the restrictions will play a role in the prolonged grieving process,” said Bove.

Bove, who consults for Saheti School in Senderwood and has her own private practice in the Bedfordview area, confirmed that she has had more people coming in for grief counselling than before the start of the pandemic.

Bove told Wits Vuvuzela, “I think that most grief now will result in complicated grief because there are so many new factors that have come into play. For example, not being able to have contact with loved ones or not really being able to say goodbye.”

Complicated grief refers to a prolonged grieving process, as described by Mayo Clinic, an American academic healthcare company. It is associated with, for example, difficulty in recovering from loss and resuming one’s normal life.

While psychologists may have different versions of what a normal grieving period is, Bove explained that a normal grieving period usually lasts three months. With the new circumstances created by the pandemic, however, Bove believes new factors have made it more complex and difficult to predict.

Khadhraoui recognised the covid-19 health restrictions, which prevented her from seeing her brother, as a big challenge for her.

“I needed that comfort,’’ she said. ‘‘I still struggle to come to terms with the fact that he is gone. And I don’t know if I’ll ever get over it.”

Rushed goodbyes

Another area disrupted by the covid-19 pandemic and lockdown restrictions in South Africa was the funeral industry.

The health restrictions placed on funerals denied many South Africans control over the way in which they laid their loved ones to rest. Funerals play a big role in how we say goodbye to our loved ones and so, according to Bove, can also have implications on ones grieving process.

“Rituals are so important because it’s essentially saying goodbye officially. Covid has meant that those rituals are thwarted, resulting in an even deeper sense of loss of control, and death already has that effect,” said Bove.

In many religions, white candles are often lit during funerals or after someone has died, as a symbol of remembrance for the soul that has passed on and in order to strengthen prayers. Photo: Catia De Castro.

The first restrictions placed on funerals began before lockdown, on March 15, when President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a national state of disaster. Restrictions included a limit of 50 attendants at funerals. When lockdown began, further restrictions were added to the government gazette, such as a one-hour limit on funeral services and a ban on night vigils.

South Africa is known for its cultural diversity and so naturally there are many different funeral rituals. Consequently, health restrictions have disrupted these rituals.

Nelisiwe Makaringe, a 19-year-old first-year student at the University of Johannesburg, studying public management and governance, was affected by these restrictions during her nephew’s funeral.

Makaringe and her nephew, Sifiso Mo’koena, were the same age and grew up together. She often referred to him as her brother when talking.  Mo’koena passed away suddenly in May from an unknown cause.

“He became really sick one day and started having cramps in his stomach, so he went to Thelle Mogoerane Hospital [in Vosloorus]. We still don’t know what his cause of death was because the hospital records say, ‘natural death’, but he was negative for covid,” said Makaringe.

Although Mo’koena did not pass away from the coronavirus, Makaringe disclosed that the family was still affected by the pandemic due to the funeral restrictions, as some of their African and Christian rituals were not allowed.

Makaringe told Wits Vuvuzela, “With African homes, the deceased usually comes home in the casket a day before and stays overnight at the home. We then have the funeral and memorial the next morning, and afterwards people usually cook and have a celebration. We weren’t able to do any of that.”

Makaringe said the inability to bury Mo’koena the way they had hoped to, had an impact on the way she and her family have grieved.

“The funeral was so rushed. We weren’t even able to have a memorial service. How can you have a funeral in one hour?” exclaimed Makaringe, an air of frustration in her voice.

“I was very close to him and I feel like I wasn’t able to say goodbye. We weren’t able to grieve properly.”

“Afterwards, I felt like he hadn’t died,” Makaringe added.

Funeral home workers have been on the front lines during the lockdown, so they have witnessed the way in which families have been affected by funeral restrictions.

Willem Schuwte, an assistant manager at AVBOB Funeral Parlour for the Johannesburg Central Business District branch, has been involved in funeral arrangements during the lockdown period and has had to interact with, and assist, families throughout.

AVBOB is one of the few funeral parlours that offer grief counselling to the families they assist.

Schuwte told Wits Vuvuzela, “A lot more people have requested [grieving counsellors] during lockdown. I definitely think that families have been affected by these restrictions.”

Dealing with families during this time has been extremely challenging for Schuwte due to the families’ reluctance to accept the new health restrictions. Schuwte explained that the body should go straight from the mortuary to the grave site, as outlined by covid-19 health regulations in South Africa.

“[The new process] doesn’t fit in with some beliefs, and families don’t always understand or want to comply when they are told that their loved one can’t be transported or buried the way they want,” said Schuwte.

Bove reiterated the importance of funerals in relation to grief. She said, “When you’re not given a chance to attend or pay your last respects correctly, it complicates the grieving process.”


Technology: A saving grace

Technology has proved to be helpful in many ways amid the pandemic. One such way has been through the ability to livestream funerals when family members or friends have been unable to attend.

Schuwte has seen many families utilise technology to livestream funerals via Zoom, Facebook and other online platforms. He said, “A lot of families have been livestreaming. It’s become the new norm, and I think it’s a trend that’s going to stick around.”

Livestreaming funerals has not only provided a way for those who cannot attend to say goodbye to their loved one, but has also eliminated the high risk of being exposed to the coronavirus when attending physically.

The high risk of funeral gatherings has been continuously seen throughout the lockdown period in South Africa. During the initial level-five lockdown period, three funerals in Eastern Cape accounted for more than 200 covid-19 cases, as reported by News 24.

Sumentha Naidoo, a 45-year-old mother of three and logistics manager at Whirlpool (a home appliances company), personally experienced the benefits of technology when she was able to attend her uncle’s funeral online.

Naidoo’s 71-year-old uncle passed away from the coronavirus in August. He had previously attended a family member’s funeral and his family believes he was exposed to the virus there. Due to the unfortunate circumstances, the family decided it would be best to have the funeral via Zoom.

“The family did it over Zoom because they didn’t want to put anyone in that position, especially since my uncle had gotten the virus from a funeral,” Naidoo told Wits Vuvuzela.

She added, “We would’ve been scared too, because we (Naidoo, her husband and children) had just recovered from the virus ourselves.”

Sumentha Naidoo acknowledged the difficultly of not having, or being able to give, physical comfort following the death of a loved one during the national lockdown in South Africa. Pictured: Sumentha Naidoo and husband, Jogi Naidoo. Photo: Catia De Castro

Naidoo explained that, although technology had been extremely useful, she wished there was no need for it, as physical support and comfort are important when grieving.

“With Christians, but especially in our Indian culture, friends and family come together the very same night someone dies. There are always people around, and that support is so important. The family was missing that embrace of a loved one, and it’s a big part of mourning,” said Naidoo.

Bove highlighted the way covid-19 restrictions have changed the expected behaviour at funerals and prevented people from conveying compassion during the sensitive period after loss.

“Social distancing makes it so difficult when you’re not able to extend normal gestures of love and care. And even afterwards, there’s no celebration. This could all prolong the normal grieving process,” said Bove.

Many South Africans have experienced loss under the already stressful context of the global pandemic, but all have been unique in their own personal way.

Khadhraoui struggled to hold back tears and subtly wiped her nose as she described her experience.

Tearfully she said, “We were only a year apart but, being the oldest, I was almost like a mother to him. Whenever there was a crisis, he knew, ‘Margi will fix it’. I felt like it was my responsibility to look after him, and I couldn’t even be there to hold his hand.”

FEATURED IMAGE: The Braamfontein Cemetary in Johannesburg remained quiet over the weekend of October 31, despite the rise in deaths during the covid-19 pandemic. Photo: Catia De Castro.


Teachers, the unsung heroes of the pandemic

Primary school teachers at government schools in Benoni and Actonville, Gauteng, have gone beyond the call of duty to ensure the class of 2020 have been protected, educated and well-nourished despite the threats of the covid-19 pandemic.

Arbor student

As an Arbor Primary student raises a victory sign during class, pupils around South Africa celebrate their own victories of receiving an education despite the threat of covid-19, thanks to the endless dedication of primary school teachers. Photo: Niall Higgins

Arriving at the silver gates of Arbor Primary School in Benoni, Gauteng, it is not difficult to understand from where the school derives its name and crest: Strong and sturdy oak, elm and ash trees line the perimeter of the lush grounds. 

Like the nurturing trees, Arbor’s teachers also stand tall and strong as they welcome their arriving learners as if they are precious seeds of a future rooted in the grounds of the school.  

The pupils, of grades one to seven, with vividly coloured masks covering their noses, mouths and cheeks, sit metres apart from each other, each in perfectly demarcated circle. They giggle as they gaze, squinting, at the sun overhead, oblivious to the dangers now lurking in our viral new world. 

Actonville Primary School, however, seems a stark contrast to the apparent serenity of Arbor. Here, teacher and covid-19 co-ordinator Zuhra Balle stands at the school’s gates on a crisp Monday morning, taking each students temperature and asking important questions: “Have you been coughing lately, Allaina? Feeling out of breath today, Tshepo? Had any headaches, Martin? Keep two metres apart, you two! 

The next learner in line for the temperature gun poses a profound question Balle says she will never forget: “Ma’am, you always ask us all these questions, but why don’t you ever ask us if we sleep at night?” 

The mental and emotional wellbeing of students

Balle tells Wits Vuvuzela that this startling question made her and other teachers worry that students might be suffering symptoms of depression, due to the effects of the covid-19 lockdown. 

The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) has advised parents all over the country to watch for warning signs of depression in their children, as South Africa has the eighth highest rate of suicide in the world. 

An article in health publication Spotlight, published in April this yearserved to underline this warning by noting, “Rather than bouncing back’, children instead incorporate trauma into their growth and future lives. 

“Ma’am, you always ask us all these questions, but why don’t you ever ask us if we sleep at night?”

Balle voices her own concern. “Some of these children lost parents, some lost homes and some were abused, so we as teachers had to do something,” she says. We are now in the process of counselling over 200 children and we have a psychologist coming on board full time.”

Seeing her students experiencing stress and anxiety left Balle in need of emotional support too: “I myself broke at one point, I had to give it up because I needed counselling myself.”

The headmistress of Actonville Primary School, Venessa Moodley, reveals that she almost lost her life to covid-19 and therefore understands the severity of the pandemic better than most.  

Anticipating the impact lockdown would have on her pupils, Moodley created a ‘covid survey’ which was distributed to every student. The survey asked questions regarding pupils experiences of illness, anxiety, trauma, violence and poverty 

“This really allowed us to see what was happening to our students beyond the school walls, and to take action by providing aid in any way we could,” says Moodley. 

primary school students

Actonville Primary school students posing in a colourful hallway wearing equally colourful masks. Photo: Niall Higgins

Counselling and care

With these new insights, teachers at Actonville Primary incorporated counselling into the everyday school programmeGrade seven English and creative arts teacher, Rani Chetty, took this course of action to heart 

I was encouraged to really get to know the kids. Every morning, our teachers will start class with a prayer and then open up the class for a discussion on how they are coping and feeling, just so they know we are a family,” says Chetty. 

“I myself broke at one point, I had to give it up because I needed counselling myself.”

Emotional and physical stress are not exclusive to lowerincome schools in Actonville. Just to the north, Arbor Primary has taken steps to address the trauma experienced by its learners due to the covid-19 pandemic 

The principal of Arbor, Patrick Arentson, swiftly decided to enlist religious leaders and mental health professionals to aid his pupils 

“We continue to bring in a ministeby the name of Basil Panayi to de-brief the children and staff, as well as a psychologist who works through the students’ emotions and feelings regarding the lockdown,” he said.

Arbor teacher and pupil

Throughout the covid-19 pandemic, teachers watched over pupils to ensure that they not only received a quality education, but also had access to nutritious food and emotional support. Photo: Niall Higgins.  

Despite accounts of learners being frightened of having their temperatures taken, Arbor Primary’s head girl13-year-old Shadae Figueira-Parratt, says teachers do everything they can to comfort their pupils 

“My one friend has panic attacks sometimes and we call our teachers, who really help a lot when you’re not doing okay,’’ she says with a smile. ‘’One of my friends talks to her teacher about everything she goes through. 

For many teachers and pupilsthe transition to online learning during the lockdown invoked acute anxiety and stress. Schools such as Arbor Primary knew that quick action was essential to preserve the academic year. 

Online learning and overcoming data struggles

As a result, the school established WhatsApp groups and created Google Classroom programmes to relay vital information to its students. Through these platforms, the teachers worked tirelessly to put together course content from scratch. 

Arbor’s deputy headmistress, Wendy Lewis, says educators never stopped working and were incredibly innovative’’ in the face of lockdown restrictions. “We would use our WhatsApp group and online classrooms to create pre-recorded videos of us re-enacting lessons, in order for students to feel as close to being taught in real life as possible,” she says.  

Online learning is not an option for everyone though, since digital divide statistics in South Africa are high. According to broadband company Cable, the cost of data in South Africa is prohibitive, at an average cost of R106.20 for 1GB. 

Additionally, an article in Daily Maverick in July this year stated, “The adverse effects of the [digital] divide are likely to remain a factor in education for the foreseeable future. 

Keeping these statistics in mind, the Department of Basic Education (DBE) did not provide any public primary school with data stipends to accommodate online learning practices during the lockdown.  

This was disappointing for Arbor Primary grade four English teacher and head of department Colleen Liebenberg, who says teaching has now become an expense out of her own pocket. 

“Many students and staff battled with access to data as well as affording it. This meant students would struggle to access video lessons and teachers would sacrifice income to provide classes, because we had to buy data ourselves in order to upload our lessons online,” says Liebenberg. 

Arbor students

Arbor Primary students attending class in the school hall. Photo: Niall Higgins.

The creation of “lockdown packs”

Actonville Primary was hit hard by similar data and financial implications. Despite it being a proud and dedicated school, many of its students cannoafford internet access or smart devices, due to poverty and socio-economic challenges. The school’s 1 356 students battle to even afford the school fee of R1 100 a year.  

Despite these disadvantages, Actonville educators rose to the occasion wholeheartedly and began to create customised workbooks for their learners. 

Actonville teachers became the authors of their own ‘lockdown packs’ and created entirely unique models of learning so that students could continue working from home,” says Moodley. Our teachers filled the gap by doing whatever was necessary. 

In the absence of data stipends, one might assume the DBE would have provided lockdown packs to public schools. According to the Teacher Guidelines for Implementing the Revised Annual Teaching Plans (ATPs) statementhowever, the DBE provided subject guidelines and recommended’ class work, but no physical reading material. 

Poppy Benny, subject adviser at the DBE in Ekhuruleni North, says, We developed resources per subject, which were then shared with teachers online to assist with creating their own learning programmes. 

Arbor’s Lewis says, however, producing these workbooks was necessary but not cheap or easy: “Prepping work for lockdown learners has been a huge sacrifice of time and effort, and printing out and delivering course packs at our own expense has been essential to continuing students’ education.  

Actonville student

During the lockdown, many lower-income students from Actonville Primary and beyond were not taught through online classes due to no access to data or internet devices and therefore, relied on customised learning packs created and distributed by teachers. Photo: Niall Higgins.

Changes to the academic year

On top of limited access to class time, months of formal schooling were losdue to the lockdownIn response, government schools applied ‘curriculum trimming’ as part of their recovery plan by cutting the academic syllabus down to core learning material. 

Subsequently, primary schools will set and moderate their own examination papers this year. Exam marks have, however, been reduced in most cases and class assessment marking will be increased. This does not negate the fact that many students still did not have any schooling at all during the lockdown, and therefore have less training under their belts. 

The pressure on teachers to perform and be trustworthy is huge now, more than ever, especially in disadvantaged areas with little to no class time, says Memory Panayi, head of the language department at Arbor Primary. 

Varying class schedules also led to difficulties in creating and implementing teaching plans. Some children came in on a bi-weekly basis, whereas some stayed home. This meant  teachers had to teach both formally at school and by distance for online students.  

“We essentially had two jobs,” says Arbor’s Liebenberg. “We had to constantly restructure the programme, redo each class prep multiple times and then teach the same class over again because, as time got reduced to complete the syllabus, we had to adapt.” 

Increased poverty and hungry children

What is more, the academic pitfalls are not the only obstacle. As I stroll through the corridors of Actonville Primary, made colourful with posters, to investigate the unique challenges of ‘covid learning’’, an intriguing area catches my eye. It makes me wonder whether academics are, after all, teachers’ only concern.  

The small area contains buckets and patches of fertile soil in sunny locations. These are home to a rich variety of carrots, onions, potatoes and other vegetables.  

Noticing my curiosity, a grade seven teacher and co-ordinator of Actonville Primary’s feeding scheme, Ellen Buthelezi, speaks with a heavy heart. There is no way you can teach a child with an empty stomach. During lockdown, there were literally queues of students lining up outside school looking for a decent meal, she says. 

Her comment implies there are many children from impoverished families, and for them coming to school means getting something to eat. 

Buthelezi senses my sudden gloom and speaks reassuringly. “We currently feed more than 400 students daily and maintain these food gardens to keep our children well-nourished, she says. 

According to a Stats SA report posted in July, more than 62.1%, or six out of 10 South African children between birth and age 17 lack the funds for daily meals. 

The DBE normally contributes to food security through the National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP) by providing meals to more than nine million learners a year. During the lockdown, howeverthis service came to a halt, leaving many students hungry. 

Actonville Food Garden

Grade seven pupils from Actonville Primary tending to one the school’s food gardens. Photo: Niall Higgins.

Food packs and nutrition schemes

Arbor’s Panayi recalls that during the lockdown, teachers were worried about what was happening to kids at home who did not have food“Wwent and delivered groceries to families personally during lockdown,’’ she saysWhat started as a temporary feeding scheme became a permanent initiative that now feeds more than 40 families. 

When the students finally began returning to school, teachers quickly picked up that they were arriving without lunches. “We then decided to begin an adoptachild scheme by assigning teachers to select and feed students in need,” says Arentson. “Suddenly our teachers began ‘adopting’ more and more children, and they supplied lunches every single day.” 

AActonville Primary too, learners experienced the difference and joy one extra meal could bring to their everyday lives“In the covid lockdown it’s a struggling time,’’ says grade seven pupil Enock Mateke. ‘There wasn’t enough to eat for everyone at school, but now we get nice food packages that we take home, so noone is hungry.

There is no way you can teach a child with an empty stomach.

With justified pride, Actonville deputy head girl Micayla Pillay says, Us grade sevens grew the food garden all by ourselves. We need energy to study, and the fruit we get every day helps a lot!” 

Each school meal adds up to one more child whose future looks a little brighter. 

As the school day comes to a close in Gauteng, precious young seedlingare returned to their guardians by caring ‘gardeners who toil long after their stipulated working hours, tired but unbroken.  

One cannot help but wonder: does the nation know that its teachers are true unsung heroes of the covid-19 pandemic?

Hear the voices of this story in the podcast episode below:

FEATURED IMAGE: As an Arbor Primary student raises a victory sign during class, pupils around South Africa celebrate their own victories of receiving an education despite the threat of covid-19, thanks to the endless dedication of primary school teachers. Photo: Niall Higgins 


More than a merchant, more than a migrant: A look at Chinese traders in Johannesburg

What do we really know about small Chinese businesses in Johannesburg? We might think of red lanterns, black-bean pastries, herbal teas, doll-like chiffon dresses and a fat, golden cat with a metronome paw. We delve a little deeper and speak to Chinese business owners about their struggles to fit in – and their struggles to get out. By Caro Malherbe.

Johannesburg is home to a vast number of small Chinese businesses. Crown Mines, Cyrildene and various China Malls around the city are recognised as a nexus for all small Chinese traders.

Generally offering a good deal, not many have explored how they came to be here. Chinese traders have a distinctive way of managing their money.

Not entirely integrated into the South African banking system or the tax system, Chinese business owners feel targeted and unsafe in this country.

The history of the Chinese trader 

Alexander Chou is a Taiwanese diplomat at the Taipei Liaison Office of South Africa. Speaking with a slight American twang, he paints a picture of the unhappy Chinese merchant in South Africa.

“Even today there is a large group of Chinese in Johannesburg waiting for more gold to be found, wanting ‘to make it big’.”

Small Chinese businesses developed when independent Chinese immigrants started coming to South Africa in 1870, says Chou.Unlike indentured Chinese slaves who were forced to work for a fixed term and salary in the mines, these independent immigrants were prohibited from obtaining mining contracts so they turned to trade instead.

During a more recent wave of immigration, Steve Yeh arrived in South Africa with his family in 1991 when he was 10. His uncle’s family had already settled in Johannesburg and was convinced that more gold would be discovered.
Chou confirmed this by saying that even today there is a large group of Chinese in Johannesburg waiting for more gold to be found, wanting “to make it big”.During apartheid Chinese traders were affected by the Group Areas Act of 1950 and forced to operate from areas designated as “non-white”. These small businesses catered exclusively for the black community.

Chinese traders have been part of the city of Johannesburg for generations but many still feel they will return to China one day. Photo: Dinesh Balliah.

Chinese traders have been part of the city of Johannesburg for generations but many still feel they will return to China one day. Photo: Dinesh Balliah.

Although apartheid has been officially over for almost 20 years, Chinese traders still seem to be separated from the rest of Johannesburg, choosing to do business in specific areas.

Yeh works as a general manager and head of security at China Mart in the Crown Mines area of Johannesburg. He is a South African citizen but desperately wants to return to Taipei, Taiwan, with his wife and child.

“Asians are not safe in this country,” Yeh says. He feels that Chinese people are specifically targeted by criminals in Johannesburg.  “It’s because we don’t like banks.”

The miserable merchant

According to Chou, Chinese traders do not plan to stay in Johannesburg forever. He says, if there is one thing to understand about the Chinese, it is that they are not scared to face hard times. Most Chinese put a great emphasis on education and working hard for their families, unlike other cultures.

“They will live off vegetables for the rest of their lives, to be able to afford a good education for their children. White people are so selfish. They will never sacrifice anything. They will never give to their brothers and sisters. Each and every one lives for themselves,” he says.

The honorary white

Skilled Taiwanese traders came to South Africa in large numbers between 1970 and 1990. South Africa saw Taiwan’s potential to help increase foreign investment and provided incentives to start up manufacturing companies in the rural and industrial areas of Johannesburg. This also helped the apartheid government keep non-whites out of urban Johannesburg as the Taiwanese businesses provided jobs for them outside the city.

These Taiwanese traders were given “honorary white” status. They were exempt from segregation legislation. The benefits did not seem to last long, though, as many Taiwanese immigrants later decided to leave.

This was due to the lack of job opportunities, the increase in crime, difficulties with South African labour legislation and strict laws on importing goods. In 1998 South Africa also officially recognised the People’s Republic of China, which created a strong economic relationship between the two countries, yet subsequently alienated people of Taiwanese origin.

“They [Taiwanese immigrants] were so well skilled, but they couldn’t find jobs. The unions did nothing to protect them and the South African government flushed away their investment like one flushes a stool,” Chou says.

Yeh explains the Taiwanese attitude towards government officials: In Taiwan, if someone doesn’t get an answer within 15 minutes of inquiring at official state institutions, the head of the department will have a big problem, “to the point where he might even be asked to step down. We as citizens pay your [government officials] salary. If you are not capable then you must step the hell down!”

Avoiding tax

Yeh says Chinese merchants do not trust the South African government. They do not want to pay tax or be “on the record”.

Almost all of the small business owners in Cyrildene only accept cash. Yeh says small Chinese businesses are “barely getting by” and they do not want to have to pay extra for bank charges. Instead they choose to have a substantial amount of cash on hand daily which makes them “easy targets” for robbery, says Yeh.

China Mall in Crown Mines is a hub for Chinese wholesalers. Surrounded by containers, it is where most Chinese small business owners come to purchase goods in bulk for their stores in other areas of Johannesburg.

“I have to stay here, thanks to your home affairs.” 

“A family that comes to Johannesburg to make money doesn’t want to lose money by becoming involved in the tax system when they know it is all corrupt,” says Frank Zhang, a restaurateur and clothing shop owner.

Zhang explains that when traders come to China Mall to purchase goods, they are spending hundreds of thousands of rands in cash at a time. “There is no way they will swipe for that and lose money from the bank charges.

“Of course this makes them vulnerable to crime because then criminals know they have large amounts of cash on them. That is why many people will live behind, or very close to, their business,” says Zhang.

Recognised, registered and taxed

It is not only bank charges that prevent Chinese traders from making use of bank services. Like Yeh, who says he still has not received his South African passport, which he applied for 15 years ago, many Chinese traders have a non-resident status. “I have to stay here, thanks to your home affairs,” says Yeh.

This makes opening a bank account difficult and further removes Chinese traders from the South African business network.

Chinese traders tend to avoid the formal banking system in South Africa preferring to operate on a cash-only basis. Photo: Dinesh Balliah.

Chinese traders tend to avoid the formal banking system in South Africa preferring to operate on a cash-only basis. Photo: Dinesh Balliah.

According to Anile Hlalukana from the South African Revenue Services (SARS), a small Chinese business owner can only be taxed if they are registered as a sole trader with SARS.

To make use of card machines, they would need a business bank account and the only way to get one is to be registered as a business with SARS.

Alycia Jacobs, a business banker at Standard Bank, says as long as someone is receiving a monthly income in South Africa, foreign or not, they have to be taxed.

“Where does the money go if they don’t have a bank account? Are they sending it abroad? Are they keeping it in their homes? They must have an account.”Zhang says some small Chinese traders register their businesses under the name of a company to get a tax number.

This company will usually be associated with a freighting or shipping firm. Traders can then open a bank account for their business which they use “for show” as all major money transactions are done in cash only.

Unhappy in Johannesburg

For the most part, Chou believes Chinese and Taiwanese people living in Johannesburg live unhappily. He says crime is rife, unions do not protect them and, if they study and become professionals, there are no jobs for them in South Africa.

“Sacrifice for the betterment of your family is part of the Chinese spirit.” 

Chou says: “Since this country has managed to deter all Chinese and Taiwanese manufacturers, some of the manufacturers decided to settle down and become importers. They know the language, and it’s easier than trying to get into the industrial division here.”

South Africa is my home

Zhang sees himself as part of a small percentage of the Chinese in South Africa who have made this country their home. “Every country has its problems and there is crime everywhere. I laugh when they try to rob me.”

Both he and his wife are from northern China. Their eight-year-old daughter is the only Chinese pupil in her school and, according to her dad, she is excelling academically and does not have any problems socially. Zhang has bought a house in Bramley, a suburb of Johannesburg, and is very happy with his job.

Yeh feels differently “You have to consider where a person comes from to understand why they feel the way they do about being in South Africa.

“Northern China can be compared to a Zulu homeland. So do the math, what is better? If you come from a shitty place, you will love it here in South Africa.  If you come from Shanghai, this place is a shithole.”


“Have you ever been in poverty all your life? Have you ever been so hungry that your hands shake automatically? Where you wake up in the next morning and think: ‘Hmm, I just made another day’? Well, the fat guy sitting in front of you used to be in that situation.

For us, sacrifice is a virtue, something to be proud of. Something you don’t enjoy, but something that you have to do. Sacrifice for the betterment of your family is part of the Chinese spirit,” says Chou.

Yeh agrees that it is part of the Chinese culture to suffer in silence in the hope that your children will have a better future. “Up until the age of 30 we are living for ourselves. After that we get married, we have kids. That is when the weight of our responsibility shifts.

We don’t live for ourselves anymore, our kids come first. Our children are the ones who will carry our family name. They are the ones who will carry on what we leave behind,” he says.

Chou explains the Chinese philosophy on work. “The Chinese and Taiwanese alike work hard, they will do anything to make money. They will sacrifice their family life and their joys.”

He says he knows of a family in Cyrildene who owns a small supermarket. The five family members live together in one room behind their store. They share one toilet and use a bucket of water to wash as they do not have a shower or bath. The family sleeps on a double bunk bed with the parents at the bottom and their two adolescent children and 32-year-old cousin on top.

“To the Chinese, these are mere hardships to go through to taste the fruit of success. In your eyes it is suffering but to them it is living. They will sell anything, all in one store, as long as they can make a profit,” says Chou.

Gordon Lee came to Johannesburg and started a nursery called Golden Rod, which has grown over the years to the point that its net value is currently R15-million.

Lee has two children who went to university in South Africa and are both very successful in their respective industries. Because jobs are scarce, he says, his son moved to Australia to work as an engineer and his daughter moved to England.

He has no family in South Africa but closing up shop to be closer to his children is virtually out of the question for him.

“The reason I stayed on is, if I close it up, I will lose everything,” Lee says.

The business of family

Simon Hong, a curtain and bedding store owner at China Discount Mall in Randburg, says he sends money to his parents in China every month. “When that money arrives it is a sign that everything is well and good and that you are thankful to have been brought up in a way where you can be a successful business owner.”

Eva Lang and her husband own a small Chinese business in Cyrildene. She lives in South Africa with her six-month-old baby and manages their family business while her husband lives in China. Her husband sees Lang and their child twice a year when he comes to South Africa to monitor the progress of his business.

Chou explains that this kind of lifestyle may not be ideal and can cause strain on family life, but it is part of the Chinese culture to have a “spirit filled with hope for the tomorrow”.

“Often the reason they stay is that they believe they have little or no choice.”

“There are many people in South Africa who are poverty-stricken and live under the worst circumstances. But they are at least in a community, with their loved ones,” says Chou. The reason the Chinese do not mind going through hardships is because they live in the hope that things will get better – unlike South Africans, who don’t see their future improving, according to Chou.

Today, some Chinese small business owners in Johannesburg may be unhappy with their situation but there seems to be very little they can do to get out of it. Often the reason they stay is that they believe they have little or no choice. Whether they are suffering or embracing South African culture, they just want a better life for themselves and their children.

Chinese culture, their traditions and history influence the way they do business. Chou strongly believes that other cultures can learn a lot from the Chinese and what they prioritise in life. Although they emphasise financial success, their professional goals also lie in education.

Small Chinese traders are part of the community that makes Johannesburg the diverse city it is today, a city that houses many different cultures, each with its own story of how they came to be here. It is these merchants and migrants who are often overlooked and whose stories make Johannesburg distinctive.


This feature was originally produced for the 2013 in-depth project of the Wits Honours in Journalism class. See more here.