African fashions in the Pearl River Delta. Photo: Justus Krueger
African fashions in the Pearl River Delta. Photo: Justus Krueger

Oliver Mthembu used to sell sunglasses on a street corner in Johannesburg. Ten years after he started out, things have worked out pretty well for him. “I bought 35,000 pairs of shades this week,” he says as he digs into his dinner in the Destiny Restaurant: cow’s stomach, a huge serving of rice, and a bottle of Guinness.

The Destiny is an African eatery in the southern Chinese metropolis of Guangzhou. “It’s only my second time in the city,” says Mthembu. “The first time around” — just three months ago — “I bought 12,000 pairs of sunglasses. They sold well, so here I am again.”

It has been a long journey for Mthembu from selling in the street to acquiring his own shop to building up a distribution network that covers most of South Africa. His China connection played an crucial part in it.

“I used to buy from a wholesaler in Dubai. But I realized that all his merchandize — really everything — was from China. I asked him: Are you an Arab, or are you Chinese? In the end, I decided that I might as well buy in China myself.”

Mthembu is not the only one who had this idea. Guangzhou has the largest African community in all of Asia. The Chinese authorities are not very forthcoming with information, so there are no precise numbers. But according to estimates in the Chinese press, there are up to 200,000 itinerant merchants from sub-Saharan Africa in Guangzhou at any one time. Africans are constantly coming and going.

The center of their activity is near the Sanyuanli subway station. The entire neighborhood revolves around their business. Wholesalers in no fewer than eight large shopping arcades sell wares to customers who are exclusively from Africa. Merchandize for the Africa trade pours out of shops onto the pavements. There are Nigerian restaurants, hotels where virtually all guests are from Africa, logistics firms specializing in door-to-door delivery from Guangzhou to Nigeria, Ghana, Chad…

An African market in Guangzhou's Sanyuanli district. Photo: Justus Krueger
An African market in Guangzhou’s Sanyuanli district. Photo: Justus Krueger

Formerly an inner city slum, the neighborhood has been transformed. Free traders from sub-Saharan Africa have made it a hub of globalization – one in which developed China plays no part, other than acting as a location.

Mthembu is one of them. Merchants like him are in the vanguard of a trade connection between China and Africa that is shaking up the economies of their home countries — for better and for worse.

While cheap goods from China benefit customers in South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, the Congo and many other countries, they have also have been knocking African producers out of business.

“Have you seen those colorful dresses that many women in southern Africa wear?,” says Roberto Castillo. An anthropologist who works at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, he has spent several years studying the African community in Guangzhou. “Producing these fabrics used to be an important part of traditional African economies,” he says. But now the fabric comes from China.

While it is cheaper, it is also of lesser quality. The African Silk Road could be more properly named the Polyester Road. But that does not deter most customers. Electronics are also among the most traded goods, besides a smorgasbord of cheap merchandize for everyday use.

Does this mean that flip flops and shoes, broomsticks, underwear, belts and t-shirts, pants, dresses and baby toys look the same now in all marketplaces across sub-Saharan Africa? “That’s pretty much the picture,” says Castillo.

It is impossible to quantify the volume of the overall trade, he adds. “The business is done by thousands of merchants, most of them small, from dozens of countries. This is not traceable.”

The majority of the footloose African businesspeople in Guangzhou are from the west of the continent, especially Nigeria. “If you see a group of 20 Africans here,” says Mthembu, “15 of them are from Nigeria.”

“They often come with tens of thousands of dollars and use their one month visa to ship as many goods as they can to their home countries”

While the current presence of Africans in Guangzhou is new, the trade routes that link West Africa and China have an ancient pedigree. Itinerant merchants have always been an important part of the traditional economies of Nigeria and its neighboring countries, linking them with central Africa and with the Middle Eastern traders who penetrate the continent from the opposite side. These in turn have long-standing links to China.

“Guangzhou has a continuous Arab presence since well over a thousand years,” says Castillo. “The Maoist years, when most foreigners had to leave, were an anomaly.”

When things started to normalize again in China in the 1980s, African businesspeople were once again linked to China via Arab traders. And as with Mthembu deciding to shun his wholesalers in Dubai, it did not take them long to find out that they no longer needed the middlemen.

As international travel became cheaper in the 1990s, west Africans slowly started moving to Asia – first to Kuala Lumpur, then to Guangzhou. Some of those who came early were successful and acquired very substantial wealth.

Their success stories motivated many others to emulate them. Today a significant number of those who come to Guangzhou are soldiers of fortune. They have very little money and not much of a plan, but they have plenty of faith in their abilities.

“These are mostly young men,” says Castillo, “and as such, they are pretty reckless.” Many of them get themselves into trouble for overstaying their visas while they are looking for a chance to succeed.

Many of the merchants are women — their husbands stay at home in southern Africa. Photo: Justus Krueger
African women in Sanyuanli shop for Chinese wares to take home and sell. Photo: Justus Krueger

The majority of African merchants in Sanyuanli are anything but poor, however. “They have nothing in common with the refugees who are now arriving in Europe,” says Castillo. “They often come with tens of thousands of dollars and use their one month visa to ship as many goods as they can to their home countries.” On returning home, they typically spend a few months selling their goods before going back to Guangzhou to buy more goods.

Among the places they reside is the Tungtung-Hotel in Sanyuanli. At first glance, it looks more like a warehouse than a hotel. The lobby is so full of boxes to be shipped to Africa that it is hard to see the reception — or the signs that prohibit the stacking of boxes in the lobby.

Meanwhile, the rooms in the hotel are also used for temporary storage, with shirts, pants, shoes and bras — definitely not made for the Chinese market — almost bursting out into the corridor.

One Zambian lady in the hotel explains that she is piling up merchandize in her room because she is on one of her “short income boosting trips” — four-week buying runs to China, at the end of which she goes back home to sell everything.

She and her neighbors in the hotel are busy packing their cargoes, each shipment about one cubic meter. The ripping sound of Scotch Tape being yanked around the boxes is audible across the corridors until deep into the night. It’s the sound of globalization. Not the corporate type, but effective all the same.

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