Exploring Guanxi in a Cross-Cultural Context

The Case of Cantonese-Speaking Chinese in Johannesburg


In: Journal of Chinese Overseas
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  • 1 PhD candidate (Anthropology) in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Carleton University
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Using a case study of recently arrived Cantonese-speaking migrants, this article examines the role of guanxi in shaping Chinese newcomers’ economic activities and opportunities in South Africa. In Johannesburg, Cantonese-speaking migrants tend to be employed in restaurant and fahfee (gambling) sectors, which are partially inherited from the early generations of South African Chinese. Through narratives and stories, this article reveals that Cantonese newcomers often strengthen personal and employment relationships through the practice of guanxi, but that doing so can also constrain their employment decisions. Moreover, the ambiguous boundary between the act of bribery and the practice of guanxi may facilitate Chinese participation but can also result in the victimization of the newcomers.


Using a case study of recently arrived Cantonese-speaking migrants, this article examines the role of guanxi in shaping Chinese newcomers’ economic activities and opportunities in South Africa. In Johannesburg, Cantonese-speaking migrants tend to be employed in restaurant and fahfee (gambling) sectors, which are partially inherited from the early generations of South African Chinese. Through narratives and stories, this article reveals that Cantonese newcomers often strengthen personal and employment relationships through the practice of guanxi, but that doing so can also constrain their employment decisions. Moreover, the ambiguous boundary between the act of bribery and the practice of guanxi may facilitate Chinese participation but can also result in the victimization of the newcomers.

Ms Tsang1 and I walked into a Chinese restaurant during lunch break on a Sunday afternoon. I had been struck by the extent of Chinese restaurant entrepreneurship when I first came to Johannesburg to research the lives of Chinese migrants, and Ms Tsang had agreed to help me get to know the restaurant owners so that I could further this research. Ms Tsang greeted the owner and explained my background and research purpose to him. The owner asked a few questions and then agreed, on the spot, to let me do fieldwork there. Weeks later, I found that many of the restaurant staff, including the owner, were not so fond of Ms Tsang. Still, they trusted people that she referred to them because of their guanxi, a Chinese concept that can be loosely translated as “interpersonal connection.” If I had walked into the restaurant alone, even if the owner had believed my every word and verified my documents, I would still have been unable to gain his trust easily. This is the power of guanxi, which I realized was too important to be overlooked in any research on the economic activities of Chinese newcomers in Johannesburg.

Based on an original ethnographic study,2 this article explores stories of guanxi among recently arrived, Cantonese-speaking Chinese migrants who came to South Africa after 1995. Guanxi is arguably one of the most important everyday social relationships in Chinese culture, and a key sociocultural concept in understanding Chinese social structure (King 1991). This is especially evident in the context of migrant-owned businesses, as they usually rely on kin-based resources and the transnational connections of overseas Chinese people (Smart and Hsu 2007). Particularly, I address how guanxi plays a significant role in the process of migration and in shaping job opportunities for newcomers, but also how Western interpretations of corruption as something universally constituted lead to ambiguous boundaries between the two practices, and can therefore result in the victimization of newcomers.

The first section of this article provides an overview of the concept of guanxi to understand its complex nature. In Chinese societies, guanxi can be conceptualized in different ways: as a type of power, a cultural norm, an everyday practice of extending and maintaining social relationships, or a connection that is operated with an instrumental purpose (King 1991; Zhai 1993; Yang 1994, 2002; Yan 1996; Chen and Chen 2004; So and Walker 2006; Smart and Hsu 2007). Due to scope, this paper is unable to cover every study of guanxi; only a small part of the literature is reviewed here, to show the differences in Western and Chinese perceptions of guanxi. The discussion of these cultural differences provides a further understanding of how and why guanxi is distinguished from other types of social-networking theory (see Zhai 1993).

Then, I trace the guanxi phenomenon in the experiences of Cantonese-speaking Chinese migrants in Johannesburg and elaborate on two related concepts — mianzi (face) and renqing (sentiment) — which are important elements in maintaining guanxi. Early Chinese immigrants in South Africa were predominantly Cantonese and Hakka from Guangdong who related mostly through ties of common dialect or place of origin (Yap and Leong Man 1996). While most Hakka settled down in coastal towns like Port Elizabeth, East London, Cape Town, and Durban, most Cantonese stayed in Pretoria and the metropolis of Johannesburg (Yap and Leong Man 1996). Before the 1970s, most Chinese businesses in Johannesburg were operated by Cantonese migrants, including restaurants and fahfee. Fahfee (fafi, also known as mo-china in South Africa) is a popular but illegal lottery game that has mainly been played by black South Africans in urban townships, suburbs, industrial centers, and rural towns of South Africa for nearly a century (Krige 2011). Chinese people brought this betting game to South Africa, but they no longer play it themselves; instead, it has become an important business for the economic survival of Chinese im/migrants (Ho 2011). The demographic and regional backgrounds of new-generation Chinese immigrants are much more diverse than those of previous generations, and the number of Chinese migrants has grown significantly since the late 1990s. Still, the most common guanxi that Cantonese newcomers have established in Johannesburg is based on shared birthplace and common dialect. Because of the overlap with an older generation of Chinese South Africans, with whom the newcomers can easily establish guanxi, the restaurant and fahfee sectors continue to employ many Cantonese-speakers.3

The last part of this article explores the common forms of corruption that Chinese migrants often face in their everyday lives, and how closely these can be related to practices of guanxi, leading some to confuse the two practices depending on their perceptions. By drawing on anthropological analyses by Mayfair Yang (1994; 2002), Alan Smart and Carolyn Hsu (2007), and Daniel Smith (2007), I first illustrate how Chinese migrants have become victims of as well as participants in corruption in Johannesburg. I then examine my ethnographic data alongside a South African survey on corruption (Struwig et al. 2014) to point out that guanxi tactics may be used in corruption, because both practices share an ambiguous nature and have overlapping activities (Yang 2002; Smart and Hsu 2007). The perception of what constitutes corruption, as Smith (2007) argues, varies widely depending on specific socio-cultural scenarios and individual experiences. However, some forms of corruption are clearly defined globally; for instance, when politicians steal public funds for private gains, most people consider this corruption. Other forms, such as nepotism, patronage, and gift giving, tend to be defined differently according to local and cultural norms. Moreover, different conditions or outcomes affect how one may experience and interpret corruption. Smith therefore calls into the question the notion of a universal definition of corruption, which is often oriented toward Western ideologies.

It is important to note that this article is by no means a complete discussion of guanxi and corruption, and does not try to use “cultural norms” to justify corruption. Rather, it aims to probe the following question for further research in the growing field of study regarding Chinese migrants in Africa: how are the boundaries between pulling guanxi and engaging in corruption challenged when Chinese migrants operate in new contexts? The cases discussed here are not meant to imply that a large number of Chinese in South Africa engage in illicit activities. By investigating Chinese migrants’ experiences of corruption in South Africa from their own perspectives on the basis of rich ethnographic data, I hope this paper can deepen our understanding of the recently-arrived Cantonese migrants’ realities in Johannesburg.

The Complexities of Guanxi

There are several English translations of guanxi, including “particularistic ties” (Jacobs 1982 in Chen and Chen 2004), personal relationships (King 1991), interpersonal connections (Xin and Pearce 1996), and personal ties (So and Walker 2006). However, since none of these translations can fully reflect the rich complexities of guanxi, most scholars prefer to use the original Chinese term rather than the translations (Yan 1996; So and Walker 2006). It is challenging to clarify guanxi and reduce it to a simple definition, as it is conditional, dynamic, and ambiguous. Most Chinese people practice guanxi, but few can explain systematically what it is; it is not something practitioners would admit to practicing, nor a subject that people would discuss in public (Yang 2002).

For Chinese people, to say someone has “good guanxi” usually conveys a positive image of an individual who is well connected to economic or social resources, like government officials or successful businesspeople. Having good guanxi might help to open doors; however, it does not necessarily mean that guanxi can unlock the exact door you want to open whenever you wish. There is always a gap between the ideal expectation and the practical reality of guanxi. In some cases, it is difficult to determine whether someone’s accomplishment is due to guanxi or personal efforts. After all, guanxi is not a fixed phenomenon, and not all guanxi is practical, functional, or reciprocal (Yang 1994, 2002).

Scholars have deployed diverse research approaches in understanding and explaining the concept of guanxi. Xiao-Ping Chen and Chao C. Chen (2004: 308-309) have identified different scholarly approaches in understanding and analyzing the concept and its practices: some scholars explain guanxi as a particular type of personal relationship, while others tend to examine guanxi as an instrumental social function — either way, scholars differ in their value judgement on guanxi, as having positive or negative implications.

Scholars who tend to view guanxi as a standard Chinese cultural norm often emphasize guanxi’s inevitable influences over Chinese people’s characters and behaviors. For example, Ambrose Yeo-chi King (1991: 63) argues that guanxi is key to understanding the foundation of Chinese cultural structure; King traces the notion of guanxi back to Confucian social theory, an ideology that is “concerned with the question of how to establish a harmonious secular order in the man-centered world” (1991: 65). King further compares the Chinese social system with Western ones: “Chinese society is neither ko-hen pen-sei (individual based) nor she-hui pen-sei (society based), but kuan-hsi [guanxi] pen-sei (relation based)” (ibid). In King’s explanation, every human being is integrated into a guanxi-oriented (relationship-oriented) society according to the Confucian system; therefore emphasis is placed on the importance of associating oneself with others, and these associations must be formed to maintain social order. The fundamental relationships are aligned in a hierarchical manner: ruler-subject, father-son, husband-wife, elder brother-younger brother, and senior friend-junior friend. While the roles listed first in these pairings have more authority than those listed second, they are also obligated to provide help and care to those with less authority. Each role has its own sets of responsibilities and performativity. Every person should act accordingly, and reciprocity between people in relationships is also expected.

Scholars who tend to look at guanxi as a social practice pay more attention to the conditions and contexts that lead to the existence of guanxi. Mayfair Yang (1994, 2002) is known for her ethnographic research on guanxi among Chinese people and bureaucratic systems in China during the 1980s and 1990s. Given the complex nature of guanxi, Yang advocates that we should understand guanxi as an art, or guanxixue (the art of guanxi):

Guanxixue involves the exchange of gifts, favors, and banquets; the cultivation of personal relationships and networks of mutual dependence; and the manufacturing of obligation and indebtedness. What informs these practices and their native descriptions is the conception of the primacy and binding power of personal relationships and their importance in meeting the needs and desires of everyday life (1994: 6).

Yang illustrates how guanxi was developed in the midst of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and then spread rapidly in the 1980s when China re-entered the global money economy pushing for market reform and wealth redistribution. In her analysis, because of the lack of adequate formal social and financial institutions in China, guanxi served a positive function in helping people build trust and gain support through expanding networks. As Yang argues,

I suggested that the rise of guanxixue in the midst and aftermath of the Cultural Revolution was a way of reversing the governmentalization of everyday life, by redistributing what the state apparatus had distributed according to very different principles of personal relations rather than political evaluations. Thus guanxi did not only have economic significance, but was a way to subvert state power as exercised through the state redistributive economy (2002: 469).

Drawing on anthropologist Marcel Mauss’ renowned concept of the “gift economy,” Yang shows how the “gift economy” operated when China had just begun to reconnect with the rest of the world and was emerging as a global economic entity. However, although guanxi is also based on the principles of gift and favor exchange, the practice of guanxi places a great emphasis on mutual trust and obligation. In other words, building relationships between practitioners comes first, before any “gifts” are exchanged (Smart and Hsu 2007).

Contrary to Chinese understandings of guanxi as a powerful aid or a network of extended mutual trust that determines important outcomes, the practice of guanxi has negative connotations in the West, and is often linked to manipulation, unfairness, and indeed corruption. One explanation of these opposing views lies in different Chinese and Western perceptions of private life and the public sphere. For instance, Chen and Chen (2004) point out that most Westerners prefer to separate their personal lives from their work. In China, the overlapping of work and personal life is a common phenomenon. As Chen and Chen write, “[b]uilding guanxi in China requires greater willingness and effort to be involved in the personal and social lives of other organizational members as well as allowing others to be involved in one’s own non-work lives” (2004: 321). Another explanation of the differences stems from the different ways of forming social relationships, as Alan Smart and Carolyn Hsu state: “In Western Judeo-Christian tradition, the ideal friend is one who lays down his life for his friends, the antithesis of the false friend who ‘uses’ friends for personal gain. In contrast, in Confucian ideology, ‘using’ friends for personal gain is lauded as the path to true friendships” (2007: 170). In other words, guanxi puts an emphasis on emotional attachment, which leads to long-term bonds between parties. The combination of sentimental and instrumental characteristics of guanxi is what distinguishes guanxi from other concepts of social capital.4

Guanxi is not just limited to groups of kin-based relatives but is often extended to others who are bound to each other in different networks of mutual trust, such as sharing a common birth place, graduating from the same school, or working in the same place (currently or even in the past). People who share more similarities (e.g., birthplace and language) tend to bond more through guanxi, but this does not mean (for example) that Cantonese people do not have guanxi with non-Cantonese Chinese; relationship building is encouraged in guanxi practices. Most overseas Chinese associations are established on the basis of shared provenance (Chen and Chen 2004), including in the case of the Chinese in South Africa.

A Brief Background of the Chinese in South Africa

Chinese im/migrants in South Africa are by no means homogenous; they include different regional, linguistic, class, and generational groups (Park 2009). Scholars who work on the Chinese in South Africa (e.g., Yap and Leong Man 1996; Park 2009; Harrison et al. 2012) agree that the immigration timeline can be roughly categorized into three periods: 1) Cantonese- and Hakka-speaking Chinese people migrated to South Africa before the 1970s; 2) Taiwanese migrants (and some from Hong Kong) migrated between the early 1970s and the mid-1990s; and 3) Chinese newcomers of mixed regional origins migrated from the 1990s onwards.

From 1904 to 1910, between 63,000 and 64,000 Chinese laborers from Guangdong province were imported to the Transvaal Colony (Gauteng, Limpopo, Northwest and Mpumalanga provinces in South Africa today) to work in the Witwatersrand gold mines. Most of these contract miners eventually returned to China, but around 2,000 stayed in South Africa and about half of them settled in Johannesburg (Yap and Leong Man 1996). During the 1970s, as a result of both the Republic of South Africa and the Republic of China (Taiwan) having been isolated from the United Nations politically and economically, the apartheid government offered a number of investment opportunities to attract Taiwanese businesspeople to set up factories in South Africa (Pickles and Woods 1989). Approximately 30,000 Taiwanese migrated to South Africa to do so between the late 1970s and the mid-1990s (Park 2009).

Following the end of apartheid, the new South African government ended diplomatic relations with Taiwan and in 1998 recognized the People’s of Republic of China (prc) instead. Many Taiwanese immigrants left and their number continues to drop; meanwhile, the population of immigrants from China began to rise in the 1990s. Currently, there are approximately 6,000 immigrants from Taiwan, about 8,000 to 10,000 South African Chinese who have been there for several generations (usually referred to as laoqiao by the new generations),5 and 300,000 to 400,000 new Chinese migrants in South Africa (Park 2009; Chan 2013; Ho 2015). The exact number of Chinese in South Africa is impossible to verify for a number of reasons: the Chinese community in South Africa has been historically underrepresented (Harris 2007); there is a large number of non-registered Chinese migrants; and South Africa’s Home Affairs officials keep poor records (Park and Chen 2009; Harrison et al. 2012).

Among the newly arrived Chinese migrants, about one-third (around 100,000) are from Fujian province, and migrants from Guangdong are the second-most numerous (Chan 2013). The number of Cantonese in South Africa might be close to that of the Fujianese if we combine the Cantonese newcomers with the older generations of Cantonese immigrants (Chan 2013). Traditionally, Fujian and Guangdong, both coastal provinces, have been the main sources of emigration from China to other parts of the world. South Africa is no exception. However, even among the Cantonese and Fujianese there is tremendous diversity. For example, within Chinese restaurant circles in Johannesburg, there are at least five different Cantonese dialect groups. Migrants from Guangdong learned their own dialects at home; they learned baakwaa (“standard Cantonese”) mainly by watching television, and Mandarin (the official language in China) in school. When communicating with other Cantonese from different dialect backgrounds, they use “standard Cantonese.” There is no standard Fujianese, so migrants that speak different Fujianese dialects use Mandarin when communicating with each other as well as with other Chinese. Most of the time, Chinese migrants from different regional or linguistic backgrounds interact and live in the same neighborhood, such as Johannesburg’s “new” Chinatown in Cyrildene, without too many obvious conflicts. Marriage, business partnership, friendship, favoritism, and reciprocity are everyday forms of collaboration that build guanxi between and within different Chinese migrant groups.

Funglan Chan’s (2013) multi-sited fieldwork in a rural town in Fujian and in three South African cities suggests that more than half the residents in some small villages have moved to South Africa through their kin-based networks. The newcomers often work for extended-family members who are already settled in South Africa, until they have some savings and are able to open their own small shop. Yoon Jung Park and Anna Ying Chen (2009) conducted field research on Chinese migrants in Free State’s small towns. Their findings show that there is at least one “China shop” or Chinese-owned grocery shop in every small town, and the majority of these business owners and employees were from the same area of Fujian province. This facilitation of employment and economic opportunity between established migrants and newcomers from the same province exemplifies how guanxi works in South Africa.

While a large number of the Fujianese newcomers in South Africa are involved in the retail and wholesale trades, Cantonese-speaking people tend to dominate the restaurant and fahfee sectors. Most of my research participants are Cantonese-speaking migrants from rural areas of Guangdong and Guangxi provinces. I have met some Cantonese families whose extended-family members also moved to South Africa; in fact, it would appear that many of the Cantonese migrants share a regional birthplace. The migration process of Cantonese migrants demonstrates a similar pattern to that of Fujianese migrants in South Africa — migrants from a particular place follow others from that place to a particular city. However, by and large, the Cantonese extended-family networks are not as strong as the Fujianese ones described by Chan (2013) and by Park and Chen (2009), and the pattern of expansion strategies for restaurants is not as closely oriented around kinship ties as in the case of the Fujianese trading networks. In Johannesburg, many Cantonese migrants work for or with Fujianese-owned businesses, including restaurants, and Cantonese often depend on Fujianese for transportation or food supply because of the Fujianese migrants’ stronger global trading networks. The following story elucidates the role guanxi plays in migration flows and how guanxi may transcend differences of regional background.

Mianzi and Renqing

Ang Yilin, originally from a rural area of Guangdong, holds down two jobs. He works at a restaurant and as a “migration broker,” providing assistance to Chinese newcomers to Johannesburg. He works closely with a Fujianese human transportation network. In many parts of the world, Fujianese people operate and control “human migration organizations” (Chu 2010).6 South Africa is no exception; Ang Yilin provides newcomers with food and shelter, and assists them in finding jobs. He maintains good guanxi with several restaurant owners and managers, as he has established a good reputation for introducing diligent Chinese migrants to work at the owners’ restaurants. As a result of his strong track record, these businesspeople are more likely to phone Ang Yilin when they need to fill positions in their restaurants. Ang Yilin is in a good position to build his guanxi by working with Chinese restaurants, as most of his clients often end up working in the restaurant industry. Guanxi from Ang’s two jobs mutually strengthen and benefit each other. Guanxi then develops into a networked series of exchanges or transactions between the various relationship groupings.

Chow Hai, a Cantonese chef I interviewed, happened to be one of Ang Yilin’s former clients. Chow Hai came to South Africa three years ago with his help. When I asked Chow Hai how he met the Fujianese people who helped him get to South Africa, he explained,

It is no secret that Ang Yilin is working with Fujianese people and makes commission by bringing us to South Africa. Of course he has to make some profit, why would he do it for free? Ang Yilin has a good reputation, and I know he wouldn’t mess around with people from the same village unless he doesn’t want his mianzi (face) anymore. If it wasn’t for Ang, I wouldn’t trust these Fujianese people at all.

As Chow Hai’s interview demonstrates, he was worried about the Fujianese migration agency given that there have been cases of human smugglers using force or forms of deception or fraud for the purposes of exploitation. But his guanxi with Ang Yilin helped to build his trust with the Fujianese organization, even in the absence of legal contracts to protect his interest.

The literal translation of mianzi is “face,” and this concept is understood as “a combination of a sense of moral imperatives, social honor, and self-respect” (Yang 1994:141). Mayfair Yang points out that mianzi “is not only a matter of prestige, but an emblem for personal identity” (1994:196). As she explains (ibid.):

the Chinese relational construction of personhood represented by the importance of face provides the mechanism for the art of guanxi to constrain the actions of a gift recipient. Threats to one’s face constitute threats to one’s identity, which is constructed relationally by internalizing the judgment of others in oneself. And reduced or fragmented face poses a disadvantage in person’s position and leverage in social interaction.

In other words, gaining mianzi is building one’s credibility, and can be understood as part of achieving social personhood in Chinese relation-based society. People who come from the same village of China and want to find jobs in South Africa would go to Ang Yilin because of his good reputation. If Chow Hai was dissatisfied with Ang Yilin, he would tell people and Ang would lose his mianzi, thus ruining his reputation because his relationship to his clients as a broker is largely dependent on guanxi. However, Chow Hai fully trusted Ang’s arrangement with a Fujianese organization despite holding a negative impression of Fujianese as well as having never met them before. Chow believed that Ang Yilin would take care of his interests — or, at the very least, not harm him — as long as Ang wanted to preserve and maintain his mianzi, especially considering that Ang’s parents and family still live in the village.

Migration brokers play an important role in facilitating and maintaining migratory flows between China and South Africa. Although the majority of Chinese newcomers I spoke to during my research already had at least one relative living in South Africa prior to their arrival, their lack of a foreign language or an understanding of the visa application process would have prevented them from applying for South African work permits on their own. Most Chinese newcomers utilize services provided by Chinese migration agencies whether coming into South Africa through legal or illegal channels. In a number of cases, Chinese migrants did not know that their work permits were invalid until they had passed through airport immigration check points and were arrested. In some cases, Home Affairs officials had sold fake documents to the migration agencies (iol News 2015).7 Many Chinese working-class migrants, especially those who obtained their permits though agencies, often raised concerns about the validity of their documents. One interviewee showed me her South African work permit and asked how to recognize fraudulent documents. Another asked if I could show her my South African research visa to see if hers looked like mine. Guanxi and the related concept of mianzi, as these examples illustrate, is integral to the migration conditions of Cantonese-speaking newcomers to South Africa. But these informal networks can also constrain the decisions of newcomers. The next story is an example of how guanxi determines one’s employment opportunities and decisions, as well as how it can be a constraint because of it.

Working in a kitchen can be intense and stressful when the restaurant is busy. Sometimes it can be tedious waiting for orders or repeating the same tasks over and over. Most Chinese chefs I met were rather chatty and not shy about making (often dirty) jokes to make a slow working day pass more quickly. Zhang Baolou was a quiet man, especially compared to other chefs. We did not talk much to each other while I was working at the same restaurant. One afternoon, I bumped into Zhang Baolou after I left the restaurant. Perhaps he felt more relaxed outside of work, because we ended up talking for hours. He complained about his low wage, problems with the work environment, and his strong dislike of his co-workers. Having heard that other restaurant owners wanted to hire Zhang Baolou on a higher salary, I was curious about why he stayed. Zhang Baolou told me that he used to work at a few higher-paying restaurants, where things went well until he became addicted to gambling. He was a regular at casinos, and he used to go every day after work. He was fired when he was too drunk to show up at work. Then, when he was unable to pay his rent and owed people money, his wife and child left him. When he was at his lowest point, Mr Ng, his current employer, called him. Mr Ng and Zhang Baolou had been trained by the same chef and had, for a few years, worked together at this man’s restaurant, which Mr Ng had taken over when the master chef retired. Zhang Baolou explained,

Mr Ng told me just come back to work for him, as he was giving our master chef a mianzi (honor). I could not jeopardize our master chef’s mianzi (reputation). The first day I started working for Mr Ng, he paid off my debts. Even though I paid back every penny a while ago (by monthly payroll deduction), I still owe him a big renqing (favor).

Renqing, like mianzi, is closely associated with guanxi. Renqing can be translated as “favor” or “human feelings,” as it refers to “the bond of reciprocity and mutual aid between two people, based on emotional attachment or the sense of obligation and indebtedness” (Yang 1994: 68). Zhang Baolou’s case exemplifies the relationship among renqing, mianzi, and guanxi. For a period, Zhang Baolou was jobless because of his reputation as an irresponsible worker and a gambler. Based on their pre-existing guanxi and as a way of honoring their master chef, Mr Ng offered Zhang Baolou a job and gave him a second chance. According to the rules of guanxi, Zhang Baolou received a favor from Mr Ng, as well as a symbolic one from their master chef. Zhang Baolou is expected to return the favor. If he now performs poorly in his job, or leaves his current position, Zhang Baolou risks affecting Mr Ng’s and their master chef’s mianzi and his own guanxi with them, as well as their extended guanxi with others. Zhang Baolou feels obligated, because of these social values and practices, to work there as long as he can despite having higher salary potential elsewhere.

This story explains how the practice of guanxi, including renqing and mianzi, can determine — and constrain — one’s employment opportunities and decisions. At the same time, it also demonstrates the characteristics of a close-knit community among newly arrived Cantonese-speaking migrants, which is integral to their lives due to language and cultural barriers and, most importantly, their economic dependency. In Johannesburg, I have not met any new Cantonese migrants who do not work for or with other Chinese people. Many Chinese restaurant employees not only work with their employers but live with them. It is common to find that Chinese employees, especially those new to South Africa, usually live with their employers or at a rental flat provided by them, and ride to work in the same car as their employers.

There is competition among Chinese businesses as well. For instance, someone might open a cheaper restaurant next to an existing one. However, if these owners had guanxi with each other, the new arrival would find another location. Relationship is perhaps the most important foundation of guanxi, and guanxi evolves over time as relationships change. How it evolves is highly contextual, and I do not wish to overlook the complexity of people’s relationships. But generally speaking, the more renqing (favors and indebtedness) people engage in with each other, the deeper their guanxi. Guanxi in this sense transcends the differences of regional background among Chinese migrants.

Two of the most common employment opportunities for the Cantonese newcomers in South Africa are in the restaurant and fahfee sectors. Each fahfee man is assigned several stations within a territory. Players choose number(s) between 1 and 36, put the betting money in a bag, and give it to a runner (a local resident) who waits for the fahfee man to show up at their station in his car (usually twice a day). Fahfee men provide betting slips and the purses for players. Most fahfee men work alone, but some hire a driver or a helper. When a fahfee man’s car arrives at a bank, the runner approaches the side window. The fahfee man announces or pulls out a number on a small piece of paper while the runner passes the bag of purses to the fahfee man, who then makes a signal to let the players know the winning number. At the same time, the fahfee man opens the bag of purses, pulls out each player’s betting money and slips, takes all the losing money and puts the winning money back into the purse. After returning the bag to the runner, the fahfee man heads off to the next station.

figure 1
figure 1

Fahfee number guides, betting slips, and a purse.

Citation: Journal of Chinese Overseas 13, 2 (2017) ; 10.1163/17932548-12341357

figure 2
figure 2

A runner collecting purses from players.

Citation: Journal of Chinese Overseas 13, 2 (2017) ; 10.1163/17932548-12341357

photos by author.

Until the 1980s, the fahfee business in Johannesburg was operated solely by South African Chinese. The laoqiao (older-generation overseas Chinese) of South Africa in the Johannesburg and Pretoria areas are predominately Cantonese-speakers from the Sam Yup (Sanyi) area (Yap and Leong Man 1996). The first-generation laoqiao usually speak their home dialects and standard Cantonese, while English is usually the native language of South African-born laoqiao. They also have a good understanding of their home dialect and of standard Cantonese, or of both, and they learn Afrikaans in school. Most laoqiao do not speak or understand Mandarin. Unlike other non-Cantonese-speaking Chinese migrants, Cantonese newcomers can easily join Chinese organizations established early on by laoqiao when they need help. At the same time, when the fahfee organizations are expanding or the older fahfee men are retiring, they can easily recruit Cantonese newcomers through these types of networks. This Cantonese intergenerational connection is not limited to the fahfee industry; it is easy to see that laoqiao-owned restaurants employ a large number of Cantonese newcomers. It is also common to hear that, when they retire, laoqiao sell their restaurants to Cantonese newcomers, as well as train them.

Guanxi or Corruption?

Most Chinese migrants feel uncertain about South Africa. It has lovely weather, beautiful and diverse landscapes, a high level of food safety, clean air, and a green environment. At the same time, South Africa’s high crime and corruption rates present challenges that Chinese migrants face frequently. The majority of Chinese migrants I spoke to, regardless of their regional origins, educational background, or occupation, all claimed that they had been asked for bribes. The most common scenarios where they encountered this form of corruption included driving through police checkpoints, going through customs or immigration at border crossings and airports, and dealing with government officials. These are their stories:

Interviewee A (female/32): “I passed the driving test but they wouldn’t give me my license until I paid a bribe. I need the license so my husband doesn’t have to drive me to work everyday. What can I do? I told my coach to arrange it.”

Interviewee B (male/35): “Last month when I came back from China, an immigration officer took me to the room to check my luggage and claimed that a handbag I had bought for my wife was illegal. At first she said it was a fake, then she said I had to pay custom fees or something. I didn’t really understand until she asked me to give her the handbag if I wanted to leave. Then I realized it has nothing to do with if the bag was real or not. My wife and children were waiting outside and I didn’t want to be kept there any longer, so I paid her some rand, then she let me go.”

Interviewee C (male/47): “When I applied to renew my work permit, the Home Affairs officer asked me to pay a bribe to secure my spot. I refused. He said to me ‘No money, no paper.’ I told him I understand South African law and it is my right to report his unlawful behavior to his manager. He stamped my paper. Turned out, that bastard didn’t sign my paper! I ended up spending more money and wasting more time to get a valid one.”

Interviewee D (female/55): “We were leaving a shopping mall and driving on the N3, then we were stopped by the police. The police searched our car and found our money. They had planned on taking all our money until I started screaming, then they decided to take half and left.”

As we can see from Interviewees A and B, they were forced to participate in corruption in order to receive a service and to avoid further harassment. Interviewee C was “punished” for challenging the immigration officer and refusing to pay a bribe. As a result, Interviewee C said that he would consider paying a bribe next time he applies for permit renewal.

In these four cases, none of the interviewees reported their incidents to the police. Only one victim (Interviewee D) phoned the South African Chinese Community and Police Cooperation Centre. This center is located in Cyridene’s Chinatown and helps Chinese people communicate with the local police. However, Interviewee D further told me that she does not expect to get the money back, as they did not record the names of the policemen who robbed them or the license plate of the police vehicle. The other three interviewees did not report to any authority because they felt it would be a waste of time or a hassle, due to their lack of confidence in the police force. They believed that the police would not do anything about their cases, or, in the worst case, some were afraid that the police would ask for a bribe to look into their cases.

Among most South Africans, the South African police have a reputation for corruption. According to a survey conducted in 2013 (see Struwig et al. 2014),8 the South African Police Service (saps) and traffic police are considered some of the most corrupt government units. Because most Chinese migrants hold spousal or work permits that require regular renewals, and because many of them return to China regularly, Chinese migrants are more likely to experience corruption with the traffic police and saps, as well as with the Department of Home Affairs (immigration and customs officers). The following story reveals a common distrust of law-enforcement authorities among new Chinese migrants, as well as corruption within law enforcement.

During our interview, a chef complained that life in South Africa is sometimes hard because of loneliness. He works between 10 and 14 hours a day and 6 days a week, and he rarely has time to meet people outside the restaurant circle. He and his co-workers visit casinos regularly after work as the only entertainment available at that time in Johannesburg. One night, he and his friends were leaving the casino heading back to their residence. The car owner was too drunk to drive, and even though the chef also had a few drinks, he was in a better condition than his friend. The chef took the keys and started the engine, knowing that he did not have a local driver’s license. Not too far away from the casino, police stopped their car. The chef had a few thousand rand in his pocket and he worried that the police would steal it if they searched him. So instead, he rolled down the window and offered to “buy drinks” for the officers (a common code for bribery payments in South Africa). The police gladly accepted and told him to leave.

This chef paid a bribe to avoid the possibility that the police might find his large amount of cash. However, paying bribes does not always guarantee the expected result — as in the practice of guanxi, there is always a gap between the prospect and the practicality of this type of interaction. As a restaurant owner said to me: “I don’t mind paying people to speed up their services if I can get things done quickly. My problem with South Africa’s corruption is that these people took my money and don’t accomplish what they promised to fulfill.” In other words, forms of guanxi as well as forms of corruption, while sometimes seemingly practical, do not always have the desired result.

According to the survey (Struwig et al. 2014), 5.2 per cent of respondents (114 people) answered that “[p]aying a small amount of money to a traffic officer to make a ‘small’ offence ‘go away’ ” was acceptable, while the majority (94.8 per cent, or 2,566 people) said it was not. To the question “[would you] pay a small amount of money to speed up a government service,” 142 respondents (5.3 per cent) said yes and 2,540 (94.7 per cent) said no. As we can see, while the majority do not agree that people should pay bribes for better or faster service, a small number of South Africans still think it is reasonable to do so. The survey indicates that some forms of corruption are acceptable to some South Africans. For instance, when asked about “a government employee giving a job to a family member or friend that is qualified to do the job,” 32.4 per cent of the respondents found this action acceptable, while 67.6 per cent found it unacceptable. When asked about “government hosting large parties or other entertainment to improve relationships,” 16.6 per cent respondents said it was acceptable, 83.4 per cent that it was not.9 As noted, Daniel Smith’s ethnographic study in Nigeria shows that people’s perceptions of corruption are often vague, and their experiences are often contradictory. Smith points out that corruption is understood differently in different places and is culturally specific. Similarly, the Struwig survey can be interpreted as showing that the majority of South Africans do not support bribery, but my interview data suggest that bribery and other forms of corruption are still common experiences in specific contexts. Mayfair Yang (1994) also argues that guanxi is not a representation of Chinese culture but “a social fact in and of itself (Rabinow 1986), whose history, conditions of formation, and specific contours provide information not only on its referent, guanxi practices, but also on the larger social forces that produced the discourse and gave it prominence” (1994: 6-7). My ethnographic data in Johannesburg among the Cantonese newcomers reflects this description of the fluid, multilayered, and sometimes ambiguous nature of guanxi. Guanxi is often confused with corruption due to Western ideas of a universal concept of corruption, but this concept does not take into account cultural and context-based specificity.

One evening I was sitting in a restaurant waiting for the owner to give an interview. I noticed that many customers were smoking inside the restaurant. Even though it is illegal to smoke indoors in South Africa, some restaurants in Cyrildene do not follow the rule. However, it was unusual to see smoking at this particular restaurant because it was not located in Chinatown. Later during the interview, I asked the owner if he worried about police officers finding out about it. He explained, “If I do not allow customers to smoke inside the restaurant, I lose my business. I offer police free food and drink to maintain a good guanxi so that I don’t get fined.” I heard a similar idea from Lau Wen, a fahfee man, as we were heading towards a township outside of Johannesburg in a bulletproof bakkie.10 Lau Wan saw a police vehicle in his mirror, so he told me he would change the route in order to avoid police. As soon as we arrived in his territory, he started driving around visiting his stations. When we passed another police car, I worried that we would get caught. Lau Wan laughed at my reaction and said, “No worries about police in this area, I have good guanxi with them. They are good cops.” He then pulled over next to the police car, turned down the window, greeted the police, and handed over some cash. The police joked about Lau Wan having a new girlfriend and waved at me. After they shook hands, we left the scene to go to the next station. Before we get into the analysis of these two examples, it is important to understand the reason for the often-blurred boundary between guanxi and corruption.

In their article “Corruption or Social Capital? Tact and the Performance of Guanxi in Market Socialist China” (2007), Smart and Hsu argue that precisely because of the instrumental role of guanxi in China, the boundary between reasonable guanxi and corrupt practices has become questionable. As they state (Smart and Hsu 2007:172):

Although guanxi and corruption are associated with two separate discursive narratives, in practice they involve overlapping activities. Despite the rhetorical distinction between “warm human sentiments” and exploitation, the behaviors they describe are often identical: the exchange of gifts and favors for instrumental purposes. Indeed, a flourishing culture of guanxi transactions creates conditions that facilitate bribery and corruption.

Yang (2002) also points out that many guanxi tactics can be employed for the purposes of corruption where business interests and opportunities involve government officials who control resources. As she states, “corruption and bribery may be one outcome of the encounter between guanxi culture, official culture and a money economy” (2002: 461). In this case, Lau Wan has been in South Africa for six years. Like most newcomers, his English is basic, though good enough to communicate with his runners and even to joke with policemen. The policemen recognized that I was not his wife because they had met her many times when she joined Lau Wan during her days off from waitressing. Lau Wan shares cigarettes with the police and the policemen sometimes take Lau Wan for lunch, and they often joke together. Engaging in such activities does not mean that Lau Wan is not aware of the difference between bribery and guanxi. When he told me about how he once got caught by other policemen, he used the term “bribery” to describe how he offered the policemen some fees to let him leave. He used the term “guanxi” when describing his interaction with the policemen from his territory because, from his point of view, he is building a long-term relationship with them instead of engaging in a one-time transaction.

Lau Wen and the restaurant owner are aware of the questionable nature of their activities. They understood that a certain price has to be paid if they do not want to get into trouble with law enforcement, and in many cases they view it as guanxi building with the South African authority rather than an act of corruption. Although guanxi is easily conflated with corruption and bribery, Yang reminds us that there is a distinction: “Guanxi places much more emphasis on renqing and the long-term obligations and bond of the relationship than the material interest exchanged, whereas in bribery and corruption, the social relationship is a means, not an end, of the exchange” (Yang 2002: 465). This distinction is clear to Lau Wen and the restaurant owner.

Mayfair Yang (1994) also argues that although the line between guanxi and corruption is often a fine one, “the art of guanxi cannot be reduced to a modern western notion of corruption because the personalistic qualities of obligation, indebtedness, and reciprocity are just as important as transactions in material benefit” (1994: 108). Indeed, this distinction between guanxi and corruption is important to highlight here in order to understand why Lau Wan and the restaurant owner regarded their behaviors as practicing guanxi rather than as acts of corruption. Both interviewees stated that they have been maintaining this social relationship with the same policemen for years. Both givers and receivers knew each other’s names, talked about their work and business in daily conversations, and saw themselves as mutually benefitting from their relationship. Although we can understand the motivations from the point of view of the Chinese givers, we do not know how the South African police involved in these exchanges with Lau Wan and the restaurant owner perceive these interactions. Do they also see their interactions as a guanxi-based relationship or as just another act of bribery?

Without further research on the policemen, it is impossible to provide any answer. But one argument worth exploring here is that the definition of corruption is not clear-cut and interpretations of corruption vary depending on one’s social position, the particular behavior, and the motivation (Smith 2007). The ethnographic data from my research suggests that some Chinese migrants tend to employ guanxi practices when dealing with South African officials as an informal and efficient way to go around formal regulations. Corruption, like guanxi, is ambiguous in nature, as the Struwig survey illustrates that there is no broader agreement on what form of corruption is tolerated and what is acceptable. The motivation for corruption might be anticipated, but the perspectives of givers and receivers and their contexts are often lacking when dealing with such highly controversial and often sensitive issues. Although this case study is limited to restaurant and fahfee sectors operated by Cantonese-speaking Chinese in Johannesburg, by drawing on anthropological analyses (Yang 2002; Smart and Hsu 2007; Smith 2007), it offers an insight into Chinese migrants’ experiences of guanxi as well as of corruption, illustrating that their participation in the former is culturally expected but their participation in the latter is often reluctant.


The implications and practices of guanxi may differ from situation to situation, its meanings may change over time, and it is not a fixed phenomenon. While the practice of guanxi itself remains highly fluid, scholars like Yang (1994, 2002), Xin and Pearce (1996), and Smart and Hsu (2007) have demonstrated that guanxi tends to emerge more frequently when the financial institutions and legal systems are unable to provide reliable services. In the case of Cantonese rural migrants who are, for whatever reason, unable to emigrate through formal institutions, guanxi ties enable them to depend on an informal migration agency to relocate and even to find a job in South Africa. This explains why, though most Cantonese newcomers lack proficiency in any of the official languages of South Africa, this potential barrier does not exclude them from the job market.

Given that Cantonese new migrants are provided with working opportunities in the fahfee and restaurant industries, which are partially inherited from Cantonese South African Chinese, it is not surprising to see that many Cantonese newcomers find their first job either in a restaurant or in the fahfee sector. Accordingly, when I conducted research in restaurants, I met several Cantonese waitresses whose husbands were fahfee men, and some male cooks and sushi chefs switch jobs between restaurants and fahfee depending on conditions. Usually, a restaurant job is considered more stable and safe; however, the average income is lower than the earnings of a fahfee man. With businesses and job opportunities that are largely structured around guanxi relations, the new generation of Chinese migrants can avoid full engagement with the host society. In other words, operating in this parallel marketplace and society, Cantonese newcomers can function — at least to some degree and for some period of time — without having to learn a local language or adapt to local culture.

When the Cantonese newcomers encounter corruption in South Africa, linguistic and cultural barriers prevent them from understanding lawful ways of dealing with corrupt officers. Many of them tend to use a small amount of money to avoid harassment or resolve problems with South African authorities. These experiences of corruption are not limited to Chinese migrants. When the survey (Struwig et al. 2014: 34) asked South African participants if they had engaged in any form of corruption in the past five years, 230 respondents admitted that they have done so on various circumstances, while 362 respondents said they had never paid a bribe but would consider doing it.11 This indicates that a good portion of South Africans feel pressured to participate in corruption even when they disagree with these practices and complain about them — and my interview data suggest that Chinese migrants feel the same way about corruption and, sometimes, about guanxi.


* The author would like to thank the Department of Sociology and Anthropology and the Institute of African Studies at Carleton University, as well as the Department of Anthropology and Development Studies at the University of Johannesburg for their faculty support. Carleton’s Migration and Diaspora Studies and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada were both generous with their financial support and deserve thanks. Gratitude is also extended to Dr Yoon Jung Park and two anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments, criticisms, and suggestions.


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All research participants’ names are pseudonyms and the detailed locations of the restaurants and participants’ hometowns are not provided to protect their privacy. All interviews with Chinese participants were conducted in Mandarin or “standard Cantonese.” I translated all of the interviews, and the transcribed data have been edited for the purpose of confidentiality.


This study is part of my doctoral research on Chinese restaurant entrepreneurship and Zimbabwean migrant workers in South Africa, which was conducted in Johannesburg for a total period of fourteen months (November 2014-November 2015; July-September 2016) using three methodological approaches: 1) participant observation (where I worked voluntarily at several Chinese restaurants across the city of Johannesburg); 2) unstructured, semi-structured, or life-history interviews with 40 Chinese and 26 Zimbabwean migrants; 3) archival research (I have been collecting photographs, historical data, Chinese and English news articles online and hardcopy, and news from social media).


This is not to say that most Chinese restaurant owners are Cantonese. As the number of Chinese migrants rises and their regional backgrounds become more diverse, many non-Cantonese people also open restaurants in today’s Johannesburg, including Chinese from (but not limited to) Jiangsu, Fujian, Sichuan, and Hunan provinces. However, almost every restaurant has Cantonese-speaking employees. The fahfee industry, on the other hand, is still dominated by Cantonese. Rumor has it that some South Africans and Fujianese are taking over the industry in several territories; however, my understanding is that this industry is still mainly controlled by Cantonese.


See, for example, Xuewei Zhai (1993) for an in-depth discussion and comparison of Western and Chinese perceptions and practices of interpersonal relations.


Chinese newcomers call any Chinese immigrants “laoqiao” if they have been in South Africa for more than 15 years or so.


It is important to note that there are distinctions between “migrant smuggling” and “human trafficking” networks. The main division is that “smuggling” requires consent between clients and the “migration agency,” while human traffickers use coercion and abduction. As Julie Chu (2010) points out, many Chinese people do not necessarily view migrant smuggling networks as harmful or unethical, especially in the case of migrants from rural areas. Most Chinese people in rural areas of Fujian and Guangdong have very limited social and economic mobility. Their best option for economic improvement is to go abroad, and their best chance to find an overseas job is through this type of network.


This survey is available online at <> as of June 15, 2017.


The data is based on 2,696 participants, collected from 1,596 Black, 494 Coloured, 317 Indian/Asian, and 289 White respondents (Struwig et al. 2014: 31).


Bakkie is the South African term for pick-up truck.


The data is based on 2,809 participants, where 29 respondents refused to answer the question; 2,188 of them responded that they never paid a bribe and would never consider doing it.

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