Celebrating the Chinese New Year in South Africa - 2024 The Year of the Dragon

In this year China intends to continue with its path to modernization as part of implementing its 14th Five-Year-Plan.

Chinese President Xi Jinping

Published Jan 30, 2024


Jaya Josie, Advisor, China Africa Center, Zhejiang University International Business School (ZIBS), Adjunct Professor University of the Western Cape and University of Venda

The Embassy of China hosted the celebration of the Chinese New Year in Pretoria on 29 January this year. In his opening remarks to the guests at the event Ambassador Chen Xiaodong presented an overall assessment of the bilateral relationship between South Africa and China in 2023. Honoured guests at the event were the Patricia de Lille, Minister of Tourism and Siyabonga Cwele, South African Ambassador to China among others.

The ambassador used the opportunity to highlight China’s socio-economic and political achievements in 2023 after the lifting of the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown. He also highlighted the 25th anniversary of official bilateral relations between South Africa and the importance of trade and global strategic relationships of significance that could be an example for relationships in Africa and for South-South cooperation. The event was also attended by many Chinese residents living and working in South Africa. Ambassador Chen Xiaodong reminded the audience that 2024 also marks the 75th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

In this year China intends to continue with its path to modernization as part of implementing its 14th Five-Year-Plan. The year will also mark a new stage of China-South Africa and China-Africa relations in people-to-people exchanges and for cooperation in promoting world peace, stability and development. The Ambassador concluded his opening remarks by announcing that the United Nations adopted a resolution declaring the 2024 Chinese lunar new year a UN holiday. He declared that in Chinese tradition 2024 is designated the Year of the Dragon and ushered in the celebrations for the Chinese New Year

Pretoria’s Time Square was in a festive mood on 29 January when the world-famous Henan Song and Dance Performing Arts Group from China performed at the Square to welcome the Chinese New Year on 10 February. The group’s performance was part of China’s promotion in Africa of its civilizational development and cultural heritage.

The Lunar Calendar in China follows the astrological signs and uses a twelve-year cycle with each year associated with an animal. This year the New Year is associated with the mythical dragon. The dragon in Chinese mythology symbolizes strength, power, wisdom, good fortune and success. The embassy of China in Pretoria welcomed the Year of the Dragon by offering South African Chinese and South Africans in general an opportunity to see the Henan Song and Dance group perform ancient and modern items.

The Henan Song and Dance Group has performed all over the world. It is a modern performing arts group that incorporates traditional and modern themes into its performances. For the Pretoria performance the program lists eleven items that includes themes that have become popular in South Africa such as the opera Hua Mulan and Shaolin Kung Fu Dragon Soaring in Prosperity. The people in Pretoria include many descendants from China.

On the other hand many South Africans and other Africans are making their home in China as professionals, business people and teachers and students. Since 2012 when China proposed South Africa’s formal membership of the BRICS the people-to-people exchanges have increased. For the New Year festivities there are likely to be celebrations across South Africa and China with all groups celebrating wherever they are. South Africa has almost 300 000 citizens and residents of Chinese ancestry. As the people-to-people exchanges and friendly relationship between China and South Africa grows so too the number of people from China will grow. South Africa has the largest Chinese population in Africa.

Historical records show that the first descents of Chinese origin were brought to the Cape Colony in South Africa from Batavia, Indonesia by the Dutch to work as slaves for the colonialists after they settled in the country in 1652.

After the discovery of gold and diamonds in South Africa in the 1870s the British colonial government recruited Chinese indentured labour to work in the gold and diamond fields. From1904 to 1910 over 63000 Chinese indentured workers were brought from Zhili, Shandong and Henan. Many returned because of anti-Chinese feeling from the European settlers. However, the Chinese that remained encountered racial discrimination and were not allowed to own businesses and live where they wanted.

Chinese South Africans, along with African, Coloured and Indian South Africans, were removed by the government from areas declared "Whites only" under the Group Areas Act in 1950. By 1955 suburbs in Johannesburg with Chinese South African populations were subject to forced removals.

Many Chinese moved into areas around Johannesburg such as Pageview and Sophiatown where other African and Indian, Coloured and other African communities lived. Many also moved into South End in Port Elizabeth. They suffered under the Group Areas Act and apartheid laws as African, Coloured and Indians communities did. They were also classified as “Non-European” and suffered from the same deprivations as the other victims of apartheid. In reaction to the colonial restrictions imposed upon the Indians and Chinese hundreds of Chinese joined the protesters led by Mahatma Gandhi against the laws that barred Asians from purchasing land in the Transvaal province.

The Transvaal Chinese Association decided not to carry pass books and joined the Mahama Gandhi passive resistance movement against discrimination. In 1907 discriminatory laws were passed that required Indians and Chinese to carry pass books. It was later reported that the secretary of the Chinese Association informed Gandhi that the Chinese were prepared to be imprisoned alongside Indians. On August 1908 members of the resistance movement burnt 1200 registration certificates outside the Hamidia Mosque in protest. In 1984 the Chinese community refused the apartheid government offer to be co-opted into the Tricameral Parliament for Indians and Coloureds.

The Tricameral Parliament was a co-opted pro-apartheid structure parallel to the so-called self-governing Bantustan reservations for the African populations scattered across South Africa. Many members of the Chinese community became active members of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. Today the descendants of the Chinese community from before 1994 qualify for the same post-apartheid affirmative action policies as all previously disadvantaged members of society.

The Henan Song and Dance Group will give expression to the celebrations of the Chinese New Year. While the Chinese New is being celebrated using the symbol of the mythological dragon in the twelve-year cycle of the Chinese Lunar calendar, South Africa will also have its own heritage presented in a mythologised ballet. During the week of the Chinese New Year from the 7 to 17 February The Gold Rhino of Mapungubwe Ballet presented by Mzansi Ballet will be performed at the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town.

The ballet is significant because it is also a mythologized rendition of the discovery of ruins and artefacts of the Great Mapungubwe empire in the Limpopo province of South Africa. The Great Mapungubwe empire represents the ancient historic links between South Africa and China that go beyond the nineteenth century. There are in fact archaeological records that show that China and Africa were trading partners in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

The Kalanga people living in the north of South Africa had well established communities and traded on the East Coast of Africa. The ruins of the Kalanga settlement are located at the UN Heritage Site known as the Mapungubwe.

At this site gold artifacts were produced. The most famous artefact was the Gold Rhino of Mapungubwe. The story of the ballet is a mythologized account of the discovery of the Gold Rhino. The story takes the audience back to an ancient time when there was a thriving trade with Chinese, Indian, Arab, and Persian merchants. It is important to recall that the famous Chinese explorer He Sheng visited the East coast of Africa and Chinese porcelain artefacts were also discovered at the Great Mapungubwe. Today, the University of Pretoria is the home of the Mapungubwe Museum and the Gold Rhino. The ballet The Gold Rhino of Mapungubwe was first presented in April 2023 at the State Theatre in Pretoria.

It is a ballet that celebrates precolonial South Africa and Africa through the story of a young Jerry van Grean and his friends finding the historically significant gold rhino. The story transforms into a mythologized account of how a princess from Mapungubwe takes them on the road to see the ancient civilization at the height of its development. In the 2023 Pretoria show the ballet included a cast of dancers from South Africa, China and Europe. The costumes were designed by internationally acclaimed South African designer David Tlale and the set was designed by Andrew Botha. Mzansi Ballet comprises both South African and international dancers. The performance is dynamic and an amazing fusion of classical and afro-ballet and contemporary dance, infused with poetic narration.

The story of the ballet, much like the mythical dragon in the Chinese New Year links the discovery of The Gold Rhino of Mapungubwe with the ancient and mythical world of African civilization. The story revives and connects an African one thousand-year old ancient and internationally known civilization with a one hundred year-old archaeological find. The discovery and the story dispels the colonial political falsehood that Southern Africa had no civilization and no culture before Europeans arrived.

Aubrey Sekhabi, Artistic Director of the South African State Theatre, remarked “that the staging of The Gold Rhino of Mapungubwe Ballet harnesses the historical, cultural and economic sectors that converge to boldly articulate SA’s pan-African philosophy. This project also profiles the Mzansi Golden Economy (MGE) strategy which is to reposition the cultural industries in South Africa and pedestal South Africa as the home of diversity in the arts, contributing to economic growth and job creation”.

The rainbow nation of South Africa is perhaps the ideal crucible for the development of President Xi’s initiative for civilizational development towards a common humanity and common prosperity. Common humanity and common prosperity resonate with the African principles of Ubuntu - umuntu ngamuntu ngabantu (people are people because of other people or, I am because you are) and, the Confucian principles of the five constant virtues or wu chang, ren (benevolence), yi ( righteousness), li (propriety), zhi ( wisdom) and xin (fidelity).