In the early 1990s, just before the first democratic elections in South Africa, tensions between the Chinese South African community and the newer Taiwanese community were running high. The Chinese South Africans were concerned about increasing reports of illicit and illegal activities of “the Chinese.” Media reports mentioned gill-net fishing, seal culling, rhino horn and ivory poaching, credit card fraud, gang warfare, and labor abuses (Yap and Man 1996; Park 2008). A clear “us” and “them” divide formed as Chinese South Africans grew increasingly frustrated that no one could tell the difference between them (the law-abiding citizens) and the newcomers. Chineseness, again, was in the spotlight. These conflicts also surfaced in politics at various levels: over leadership positions within local Chinese associations, over growing tensions between the Republic of China and PRC activities in South Africa, and over public pronouncements of support for local political parties in the lead-up to the 1994 elections. One Chinese South African woman complained:
The new (Chinese) immigrants make announcements on behalf of the Chinese in South Africa. Meanwhile, we don’t wear our political allegiance on our sleeves, okay? And also, the (local) Chinese feel that a lot of them trade in black areas and you know, to say that “I am DP (Democratic Party)” or “I am NP (National Party)” is just not on. Because, you know, you lay yourself wide open for victimization again, because you are identifiable. I mean, for a Greek or an Italian to get up and say “I support the ANC” or “I support the Freedom Front”—nobody is going the recognize that man after he walks down the street. (Interview, from Park 2008: 163)
As Taiwanese business leaders came out in support of the ANC, an acknowledgement of the changing tides, they exacerbated tensions with the Chinese South Africans who found that their primary mode of survival—being inconspicuous and invisible in South African politics was challenged by these newcomers. These newer arrivals, both Taiwanese and mainland Chinese, were often unaware of the vulnerable position of the Chinese South Africans during (and even before) apartheid. With no experience of discrimination, of second-class citizenship, and of the uncertainties and fears of living under apartheid as a “non-white, they blindly pursued their own ambitions in South Africa. For a small handful of Taiwanese, these included political ambitions.
In 2004, ethnic-Chinese civic engagement reached new heights when it was announced that the newest members of parliament included four Taiwan-born South Africans. Interestingly, there was one Taiwanese South African for each of the major political parties represented: the ANC, the Democratic Alliance, the Inkatha Freedom Party, and the
Independent Democrats. Such inclusivity in the political institutions of South Africa and the higher-level engagement of Taiwanese in those institutions is regarded by some as evidence of the increasing integration and acceptance of Taiwanese (and therefore other Chinese) residents, both citizen and immigrant.
While differences between Chinese South Africans and the Taiwanese South Africans remain—as evidenced in their separate community organizations—the gaps are closing as they gradually become more identified with South Africa. There is anecdotal evidence of greater social interaction, especially among the younger members of these communities, both between these two communities and with other South Africans. They also seem united in their concerns about the growing community of new Chinese migrants from mainland China to South Africa.