Long-distance call

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 June, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 June, 2016, 5:26am

'Growing up as a Chinese in South Africa constantly made me conscious of the cultural differences,' says Chris Wang Yi-ju, who, until April 21, was one of three Chinese members of South Africa's parliament. 'It was easy for me to adapt but quite difficult for my parents.'

In 1990, Taipei-born Wang moved to Cape Town with his parents - a military man turned university lecturer whose family was originally from Shanghai and a housewife whose roots lie in Fujian province - and his younger brother. He was 13.

Wang was very much in a minority at school. 'We did have some racist schoolmates and teachers but the majority were friendly and willing to assist.

'As we grew up, we could feel more and more stereotyping of what Chinese 'should be', both good and bad. Even now, [assumptions are made]: people often assume we are foreigners and probably speak bad or no English; when I was introduced as an MP at functions, quite often the guests thought I was from overseas and found it very surprising that I actually represented South Africans; people almost automatically assume you are involved in some form of business; we are immediately recognised for our courteous manner.'

Wang's journey into politics began after high school. 'It started when my mother initiated Tzu-Chi charity work in Cape Town, affiliated to the Tzu-Chi Foundation [a Buddhist relief organisation] in Taiwan. We would visit elders, deliver food parcels and assist disaster relief, etc. We had to often deal with government officials, community leaders and politicians.

'Upon graduation [with a degree in information systems from the University of Cape Town] I started my own consulting service in software development. I was approached to design and administer a computer solution to manage political party memberships and later, in early 2004, stood as a candidate for the National Assembly.

'I wanted to prove that one person could ... make a difference. I wanted to be able to [rectify] injustice for the public. I wanted to use my IT skills to make people's lives easier and reduce the cost of public services to the poor. I also wanted to [integrate] our often-closed Chinese communities [into wider society].

'African National Congress policies were one of the factors that influenced my decision [to join the party] but I think it was probably through working in the community and learning the history of past struggles that convinced me. I have confidence that the ANC's policies are in the best interests of our country. There are a lot of implementation problems but that is more of a reason for people to join forces.'

Given the country's race-related troubles, is being Chinese a help or a hindrance in South African politics? 'There have been more advantages than problems. We are a minority group but known by the public as having a strong community presence - we don't have the numbers to influence government policies but almost every little town has a Chinese takeaway restaurant.'

Wang chose not to stand in the last elec-tion, in April, but he is still actively involved in his constituency.

'I am not married yet. A lot of after-hours political and parliamentary duties have kept me busy. Perhaps now is the right time,' he says.