Chinese malls in Johannesburg. Towards a process of spatial and commercial hybridization

acms-logo2by Romain Dittgen
PhD Candidate in Human Geography
Sorbonne University in Paris (Panthéon-Sorbonne),
Associate Researcher, South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA).

Wednesday 27 November 2013
12:30 PM – 1:30 PM
Graduate Seminar Room 10, South West Engineering Building, East Campus, University of the Witwatersrand



South Africa embodies the most complex portrait of Chinese presence in Africa, both as a preferred destination for Chinese investment and also attracted rising numbers of independent migrants. In Johannesburg, a large number of these new arrivals are involved in trade and operate inside malls, many of which are concentrated in an area dedicated to wholesale in the Southern parts of town.

Composed by various layers of economic agents, the Chinese malls display a hybrid approach in terms of settlement dynamics. On the one hand, their spatial footprint translates into the establishment of a visible boundary aimed at regulating their contact with the “outside”, perceived as hostile. On the other hand, while trying to limit the effects of the surrounding environment, the Chinese commercial structures interact nonetheless in complex and diversified ways with the host economy, thus acting as “grafts”, contributing to the expansion of the supply and accessibility of products at affordable prices. As privileged “resources spaces”, the Chinese malls attract various economic operators and generate economic opportunities at different scales.

The articulation between enclave and active linkages with host societies is not only a physical reality from a spatial point of view, but also emerges with regard to economic strategies. The configuration of the Chinese malls in Johannesburg seems to change over time; from an initial role to provide a safe workplace for merchants (mainly Chinese) and building a platform for exchange in the field of wholesale, to the newer establishments that aim to create a more elaborate and diverse business environment, accommodated in modern structures. This transformation appears to be an effort to adapt not only to the strengthening of the competition, but also to the changes of the demand as well as the composition of the customer base.

In the midst of the current transitional period, this presentation focuses on the changing nature of behavioural dynamics and the spatial embeddedness of Chinese malls in Johannesburg. Due to the various challenges related to settling in the South African business environment, it is worth examining and questioning the resilience as well as the long-term processes of these commercial structures.


Biographical note

Romain Dittgen is a PhD candidate in Human Geography and former assistant lecturer at the Sorbonne University in Paris (Panthéon-Sorbonne), as well as an associate researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA). He is also affiliated to UMR 8586 Prodig, a geography research institute in Paris.

His research deals with the spatial dimension and settlement processes of Chinese presence in Sub-Saharan Africa (predominantly in Chad and in South Africa), looking in particular at how interactions are influenced as well as remodelled by host economies. Having submitted his thesis manuscript, Romain has recently been expanding this research angle towards the Chinese cultural productions of space. Being included in SAIIA’s ‘Global powers in Africa programme’, he has published several papers on China-Africa related topics.


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