Days before the Forum on China-Africa Co-operation in Beijing in July 2012, the Mail & Guardian carried a story about a ‘new form of colonialism’. Warning readers about labour law violations and the exploitation of Africa's resources, author Paula Akugizibwe noted: ‘The boom of China in Africa is proving to be one of the most striking developments of twenty-first-century geopolitics’. But what the article did not say – and what has been largely forgotten in the South African imagination – is that there were equally dramatic headlines about the Chinese in South Africa slightly more than 100 years before. In the first years of the twentieth century, however, they signalled the geopolitics of an expanding British-South Africa ‘labour empire,’ as the SS Tweeddale docked at Port Natal (Durban) in July 1904, with a shipload of contracted Chinese labourers destined for the gold mines of the Transvaal.
The sudden influx of Chinese labour in 1904 was the beginning of a six-year ‘experiment’ in saving the white mining industry's cheap labour economy. As lowwage black labour from South Africa and Portuguese East Africa became less reliable and gold production levels dropped, mine-owners looked to China, where drought, floods and the Boxer Rebellion had driven unemployment rates to unprecedented levels. With the new Milner government's support for the mining industry, the Chamber of Mines capitalised on British networks and administration in China to set up a vast system to import Chinese labour.
Chinese men who were successfully recruited arrived into a world that was racist, violent and exploitative. The very ordinance that legislated their recruitment outlined a range of restrictive employment conditions. These included preventing Chinese miners from leaving the compound without a permit and for more than 48 hours; the exclusion of Chinese labourers from all skilled work and an absolute restriction on trading or owning any property. While sources from the Chinese miners themselves are quite limited, it is clear from the records of the Chamber of Mines that the conditions of employment were unbearable for many. Gary Kynoch quotes figures from the first four years of the Chinese mining presence, showing that there were ‘145 murders, 124 suicides, 28 state executions, 17 killed during the commission of “outrages” – crimes committed off mine premises – and 268 deaths directly related to opium use’.