South Africa: Chinese Account of Attacks on Foreign-Owned Businesses

On June 27 riots started in Botshabelo, east of Bloemfontein, in reaction to the Mangaung Municipality's decision to remove makeshift stalls and evict street vendors from a site in central Botshabelo. The rioters’ anger then turned towards foreign-owned businesses, and more than 13 shops owned by Bangladeshis, Somalis and Ethiopians were attacked and looted. In the following days the looting spread to nearby Thaba Nchu.

Shen Beilei, a Chinese employee of a factory in Thaba Nchu, provided her eyewitness account of the rioting and looting on Sina Weibo [zh].

Such riots are taking place more and more frequently due to high unemployment amongst South Africans. The official unemployment rate in South Africa was above 25% in the first quarter of 2012.

The following clip posted by SABC News on June 29 reports on the violence and looting at Botshabelo, which were the catalyst for the attacks in Thaba Nchu:

Shen Beilei's account reveals much about the life of Chinese immigrants in South Africa, and shows how racial stereotypes have been reinforced through such conflicts with South Africans. The following is a translation of her micro-blogs from July 3 to July 6 [Beijing time]:

July 3, 2012

南非自由州Free State Thaba Nchu发生骚乱,众多黑人从周日晚上就开始打砸抢烧中国人和印巴人商店,今天早上10点多开始有几十个人冲击我们工厂和附近工厂。经过我们抵抗黑人没有得逞。隔壁印度人开的家具厂因为缺少警卫已经被半空。黑人town上我们的中国人客户开的店,昨夜已经被抢空。

A riot broke out in Thaba Nchu, Free State. Many black people started attacking Chinese, Indian and Pakistani shops on Sunday night. This morning [July 2] around 10am, a couple of dozen people started attacking our factory and other factories in the district. We fought back and the black people failed. But the Indian furniture factory next door has been raided as they don't have enough security. In the black town, all our Chinese clients’ shops were emptied last night.


The riot hasn't stopped yet. The police force cannot cope with the situation. It is said that some Chinese, Indian and Pakistani shops have been set on fire, and only one police vehicle has arrived. The factory campus is too huge. Workers have been divided into several groups to guard the factory. Someone tried to light a fire. Now all the women and children have retreated to the centre of Bloemfontein while the men have stayed to guard the factory with the security staff and police.


The riot is led by some black people. The majority of the rioters are from the black district. They joined the riot to rob the shops. The riot is a reaction to the municipality's policy of cracking down on street hawkers, and the black people blame Chinese, Indian and Pakistani shops for that. The riot then spread to the factory district. I wonder when the South African government will be able to take control of the situation. When I retreated with my family and colleagues, I saw a large police vehicle broken down on the highway. So far the rioters have not had guns.


Hope to find someone to help us, please repost my messages. The Chinese consulate has not replied to us yet. We can only defend ourselves and the situation is not looking good. A large number of black people are still occupying the town. It is now about 11pm South African time.


Now there are security and police armed with guns on the factory campus. The rioters are only armed with iron rods and stones. They managed to break in once and steal a few things. They caught us by surprise and we were not prepared. Later a police car arrived and we organized to defend ourselves. Hope the situation will get better.


In the morning, we heard noise and thought that it was just some labour conflict. When I went out then I realized that it was far more serious. The intruders had iron rods in their hands and they beat up all the Chinese they came across. I was caught at first. Since all the staff in the office are female, I threw the key to one of my colleagues and asked her to close the door. The rioters threatened me with bricks and asked me to open the door of a campus shop. They also broke the office window; a colleague was hurt by the glass as she was standing close to the window to see what was happening to me.


Since I was worried that the looters would break into the office, I asked my colleague to give me the key of the shop, and opened the door. They dragged me into the shop and asked me where they could find the money. I told them that that it was just a snack shop and there wasn't any cash. They took out some huge bags to gather expensive items, such as cigarettes. Then they heard the sound of a police siren and ran away.


Now four more anti-riot police vehicles have arrived. The owner of the furniture factory next door has returned, and he borrowed our forklift to move their remaining goods away. Our factory remains safe. We have obtained permission from the police to open fire to defend ourselves from the black rioters. The police and security are all armed with guns now and we can defend ourselves.

回复@只争昭羲: 隔壁厂被抢空了,就是因为缺乏防守。我们还一直防卫着,现在情势没有恶化,目前不能这么轻易放弃,因为那么多人根本没地方去。在工厂里团结起来还好一些。我们昨天联系使馆,使馆也没再联系过我们,我们联系了上海商会,在条件允许下现在不能放弃。准备去买彩弹枪

Reply to @只争昭羲: The reason why the factory next door was emptied is because they did not have their own defense. We keep defending ourselves and have managed to control the situation. We can't give up as we have nowhere to go. It is better to fight together. We contacted the Chinese Consulate yesterday, but they have not called us back. We also contacted the Shanghai Business Association. We can't give up now. Will buy more [modified] paintball guns.

回复@只争昭羲: 恩,工厂里每个厂区边上都有高压水龙头,厂里也有灭火器,严阵以待。我们只所以不放弃,一个骚乱人群不是武装抢劫,如果是武装抢劫我们肯定全撤了,而且还要考虑以后,毕竟工厂这么大,如果不抵抗一下,我们更怕黑人会习惯性来抢劫。

Reply to @只争昭羲 We have high pressure water cannons on the campus, also fire extinguishers. The reason why we won't give up is that the rioters are not armed. If they were armed, we would definitely leave. As the factory is so big, if we don't defend it, we are afraid that the black people may get used to looting us.

July 5, 2012


I planned to return to the factory today, but got a phone call on my way. A black colleague heard that the rioters may launch another looting attack again today. But until now there is no sign of it. There are police officers outside the factory and the local security staff and Chinese workers are taking turns day and night to guard the factory. I am planning to go to the factory tomorrow.


Local news in South Africa on Monday [July 2] said that police have arrested more than 150 suspects. But my colleague told me more than 300 had been arrested.


Yesterday a friend working in a Chinese restaurant in Bloemfontein heard from a Fujian businessman that on Monday night, another Fujian businessman opened fire to warn the rioters away from his shop; he did not hurt anyone, but was arrested by the police. I feel so frustrated about the news and wonder if the Chinese consulate will step in.

July 6, 2012


We returned to the factory today. When I passed through the black district, seeing black people scattered here and there, I felt that they really looked like criminals. There are so many rumors, but I found it still peaceful back home. The broken door in the office had been fixed with an iron sheet. We gathered at dinner time and started learning how to use the [modified] paintball guns and air guns. I am serious about learning how to fire a gun.


  • I’m disappointed there are no comments here. Thank you Oiwan Lam for bringing this valuable story to our attention. 

  • Cleo

    carpetbaggers are free to do as they please in China – there are so many Nigerians making money in Southern China bringing Chinese made goods back to Africa  – why is it every side by side comparison of how expats are treated in China and how Chinese are treated in their respective countries always showing the Chinese giving more than they receive and the media never draws this comparison – when the Chinese are attacked, the local attackers must be justified to use violence – how about an economic boycott?  Just don’t give them your money and they will go away.  

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