Wang’s mother was able to marry her way to permanent residence, but she and her son had to jump through a few hoops to gain him the right to live in South Africa.
It all started with an adjustment to Wang’s high school grades to meet the requirements for admission into a foreign university, but that part was easy. “You just tell your Chinese high school you are going to a foreign university and they will let you adjust your marks. There’s no cost, they’re advertising you,” explains Wang. Every Chinese high school has an “honorary list” of alumni who get into foreign universities. It’s symbolic capital for the school.
Once Wang had added 78 points to his Gaokao score, he needed South Africa’s higher education board to evaluate his school-leaving results and issue a certificate to accompany his university or college application.
He and his mother paid a visit to the Chinese director of one of the country’s five Confucius Institutes, the controversial state-run Chinese “cultural centres” found on university campuses in over 500 cities around the world. This particular Confucius Institute director’s side gig was forging the certificate that Wang required from South Africa’s higher education board, which she gladly did for R 10,000 (approximately $750).
“She’s very famous,” Wang explains, referring to her reputation within South Africa’s Chinese community. “She’s married to a South African, and she can also do visa stuff.”
Soon after he had been admitted to college, he applied for permanent residence status. Permanent residence is the golden ticket pursued by all kinds of foreign nationals who hope to make South Africa one of their official homes. As a permanent resident, Wang could pay local tuition fees at university. More importantly, he could stay as long as he liked in the country where his mother had chosen to live, without the fear of rejected visa applications or long periods with his passport stuck somewhere in South Africa’s nightmarishly inefficient Home Affairs Department.
Almost three years later, the coveted document arrived – accompanied by the wrong date of birth in inalterable letters.
“Back then, there was a rumour that all the heads of Home Affairs branches went to the Head Office to help to approve [the backlog of] permanent residence documents. So we went back to bribe them. We offered R10 000.”
The official accepted the bribe and promised to ensure that Wang’s date of birth was corrected, but three more years later the document still hadn’t been returned.
Fortunately for Wang, a record of his permanent residence permit was sufficient for enrolling in a new university course, but without a valid visa, he couldn’t risk even a short trip to visit his remaining family in China.
Each month, Wang’s mother would phone the official who had made the seemingly empty promise, but there was no resolution. Eventually, she paid the Home Affairs official a visit in person. “It was R20 000 (approximately $1500) this time to fix the problem,” says Wang.
In South Africa’s Home Affairs offices, it’s not only big money that talks. The notoriously long queues that can be blamed on an antiquated ticket-issuing system and a dawdling, ill-trained staff are not an issue that Chinese people have to face, Wang tells me. “It costs R20 or a can of Coke for Chinese people to get into the Home Affairs offices. No need to queue. All Chinese do this.” A month later, another Chinese man in Cape Town complained to me of exactly that: being constantly being asked for “one Coke” whenever he encountered gatekeepers at government offices or borders.
Bribery and corruption are a fact of life in China. The fact that China and several African countries share a culture of corrupt business practices explains the free flow of deals in the broader story of China-Africa engagement. But, somewhat ironically, endemic corruption in China is one of the reasons that Wang is no longer considering a career in his home country.
“Getting a job all depends on who your parents know – it’s about relationships. Suppose my father knows someone in government or in a big company, then he can bribe a little bit to try to find me a job.” But you need the connections in order to know who to bribe, he emphasises.
“One of my classmates from high school studied nursing. She is trying to find a job in one of the best hospitals in Shenyang; the salary would be 12 000 yuan a month. But it’d take a 300,000 yuan bribe to get the job.”
Wang feels that China’s northeast is particularly corrupt. The coal and oil-rich region became the centre of heavy manufacturing under Mao Zedong, but as China started opening itself up to the world in the 1980s, it was left behind. Today the old rust belt is struggling to transition from a hub of heavy industry into a centre for modern manufacturing. It no longer embodies China’s iron rice bowl, a fact that may well encourage bribery among the underemployed or the apathetic.
“If you don’t have any power, then you just have an ordinary life earning two or three thousand yuan a month,” says Wang.
“China is too crowded, too competitive, housing is too expensive, and incomes are too low. Living there is crap.”
The one thing Wang misses is the convenience of public transport. He doesn’t drive in Cape Town, and the overstretched and unreliable public transport means that he has to get around by taxi.
Unlike many foreigners who fall in love with South Africa’s laid-back coastal city, Wang’s reasons for staying are mostly pragmatic and, in many ways, more about not going home than staying here.
Read Part One of ‘Hurdles to a new home: A Chinese adolescent arrives in South Africa’ which belongs to a broader series of portraits of Chinese living in Africa.