The number of Chinese businessmen is growing in the Namibian capital, where they supply affordable but low quality goods especially to low-income earners. But not everyone is excited about the presence of the foreigners.
As in many African countries, Chinese traders have established businesses in Namibia. The early Chinese traders in Namibia were originally from Taiwan and were involved in the textile industry around Southern Africa. Due to the low purchasing power of many Namibians in general and the non-availability of consumer products, linked to a lack of industrialisation and lack of local manufacturing industries, the Chinese traders explored the trade opportunities Namibia could offer.
Following the early presence of Taiwanese migrants in Namibia, there is a growing population of mainland Chinese from Fujian in Namibia (as is the case in many Southern African countries, where they are involved in trade and other business activities). Based on the author’s interviews, conducted in Mandarin and English, with Chinese shop owners and shopkeepers as well as Namibians in Windhoek in April 2013, this piece explores the presence of Chinese traders in Windhoek, their activities and the location of Chinese businesses near Katutura, a township in the suburbs of Windhoek city.
‘CHINATOWN’ IN WINDHOEK
Located nearly ten kilometers from Windhoek’s city centre, ‘Chinatown’ is nestled close to Katutura. The close location of ‘Chinatown’ to Katutura is strategic for the owners of complexes where Chinese traders have rented shops to sell ‘Made in China’ products. Mr. Wu from Fujian and Mr. Li from Taiwan own each of the two complexes facing each other, separated by the main road going through the township. The average price to rent a shop in Windhoek’s ‘Chinatown’ is 10,000 Namibian dollars a month (about $700). Services and local security guards to keep the premises of the complexes clean and safe are provided.
Katutura is home to the largest population of Windhoek, with a population with low purchasing power. As in most townships in Southern Africa, poverty and economic disparities exist. With people’s low purchasing power in Katutura which restricts them to buy expensive, quality brand products, the Chinese traders see the location of ‘Chinatown’ as strategic for securing a potential clientele or niche market for their businesses, as they offer cheap consumer goods, marketable even though the quality is relatively low compared to genuine brand products.
Among other products, the shops sell the usual clothing and footwear, bedding items and electronics, but there are also hardware stores, grocery stores and even showrooms which display construction material, office supplies and equipment, furniture and so on. These showrooms target companies and big businesses interested in placing important orders from China. Chinese representatives in the showrooms facilitate the orders and the shipment of the products from wholesalers in China. Some Chinese traders have also invested in selling solar geysers, the prices of which are relatively cheap and their usage not requiring power consumption, which is expensive for many people in Katutura. The sales of solar geysers by Chinese traders can also be linked to irregular power distribution, power shortages and the lack of power connection in some places around Windhoek, mainly in townships.
GROWING PRESENCE OF CHINESE TRADERS
Putting aside the early presence of Taiwanese in Namibia in general and Windhoek in particular, some of the Chinese respondents during the author’s field research in Windhoek mentioned that they had spent 17, 13 or 8 years in Windhoek. They are mainly from Fujian, though there are some from Liaoning, Shandong and Shanghai. While some arrived through family links, others arrived through Chinese companies which operate in Namibia. There are more and more Chinese coming to Windhoek either directly from China or from African countries where they were established before. Those met in Katutura are shop owners or shopkeepers.
Two Chinese the author met at a textile and garments shop during his field research mentioned that they arrived in Windhoek in 2011 from Fujian. Mrs. Lu, one of the interviewees, stated that pressure is high among Chinese late comers, mainly shopkeepers, whose trip has been paid for by family members or shop owners already present in Namibia and is to be refunded. Often the trip is arranged through travel agencies in China and family networks in Namibia working to get a short-term tourist visa. Once they arrive in Namibia, they aim to change their tourist visa into a business visa. One of my interviewees mentioned that it is very difficult, at times impossible, to do so. But existing corruption among Namibian immigration officers enables them to get a business visa by paying bribes. When asked about their immigration status in Namibia, some Chinese shopowners answered that they were illegal and still awaiting their visa application results, and in the meantime, when there was an issue with immigration officers, they pay bribes.
According to Mrs. Lu, these shopkeepers don’t have any other options aside from working in the shops. They are originally from very poor areas in China and their main activity before coming to Namibia was farming. They want to make life better for themselves and families; Fujianese, for instance, see emigration from Fujian as a key to success, playing an important role in social values.
Even though the Chinese shopowners hire Chinese shopkeepers, there are also shopkeepers from Namibia and other African countries who work in the Chinese shops. These shopkeepers are mainly from the North of Namibia or Zambia. The Chinese shop owners hire these shopkeepers in order to overcome the communication challenges they themselves face while dealing with Namibian customers (as many shop owners do not speak English or any Namibian language), paying the shopkeepers between 700-1,200 Namibian dollars a month (about US$ 50-84). Even though the shopkeepers do not sign contracts to work in Chinese shops, some of them claim to have good working relationships with their Chinese employers. Some shopkeepers I talked to had already spent 5 to 7 years working with the Chinese shop owners by the time of my visit.
In other countries where research has been conducted to explore the presence of Chinese traders, often there are tensions between African shopkeepers and Chinese shop owners due to the lack of contracts, lack of social benefits, long working hours, low salaries (which, in Namibia, are at times higher than the average salary among low-income earners) and so on.
The Chinese traders have an association led by a Fujianese trader. As with many African cities where research has been conducted, Chinese traders in Windhoek do not have any contact with the Chinese embassy.
SPATIAL PRESENCE OF CHINESE TRADERS IN NAMIBIA
In Namibia, the Chinese traders are not only in Windhoek. Even though ‘Chinatown’ is located close to Katutura and where most of the Chinese shops are situated, there are a few Chinese traders in downtown Windhoek around and in shopping centres and malls along Independence Avenue and the Town Square.
As well, there are more Chinese shops in Oshikango, at the Namibian border with Angola. These shops supply Angolans with Chinese products and some of the Chinese shops across Namibia. Few Chinese traders run shops in Walvis Bay and Swakopmund. Some of the Chinese traders in small towns around Windhoek at times get their supplies from Windhoek’s Chinatown.
However, there is an important movement of Chinese traders within Namibia, as well as between Namibia and other countries and vice-versa, movement in order to counter competition due to the presence of a growing number of Chinese in the trade sector. This has been a strategy seen in other African countries with a growing number of Chinese traders. Besides trade, some of the Chinese in Windhoek invest in other businesses: textile, manufacturing, pure water supply, construction material, air-conditioning, housing and so on.
REACTIONS FROM NAMIBIANS
Compared to Namibian officials, who have strengthened political ties with their Chinese counterparts leading to expanded party-to-party relations between Swapo and the Chinese Communist Party, among the large number of the Namibian population, resentment about the Chinese presence in Namibia is very strong.
A Namibian businessman I met at a restaurant in Windhoek argues that with the arrival of the Chinese in the Namibian economy, corruption is at its highest level. The government enables the Chinese to operate in various sectors of the economy, and Chinese company managers pay bribes to win tenders for infrastructure development projects. Further, while some Namibians in Windhoek, due to their low purchasing power, find the Chinese products affordable to them, others mention the low quality of the Chinese products and the competition it poses for local traders across Namibia.
* Daouda Cissé is based at the China Institute, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada.
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