When you work with people, you should make an effort to learn their language, says Chinese businessman Gui Weng.
Weng, of Pietermaritzburg, who arrived in South Africa about 10 years ago when he was just 19 to help his brother run his business, practises what he preaches. He speaks pitch-perfect Zulu, but, ironically, struggles to get through a word of English.
He owns a liquor distribution business in Pietermaritzburg, which started out small and has grown over the years. It now services other liquor businesses in the city.
The Mercury visited Weng on Tuesday on the eve of the visit to South Africa of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The visit is significant as South Africa and China have signed numerous co-operation agreements in the past few years.
The number of Chinese business people living and running businesses in South Africa has grown significantly.
The South African government is putting a lot of faith and resources into the South Africa-China relationship, with recent media reports that schoolchildren will now be learning Mandarin and sections of the police will be doing the same.
“I arrived here 10 years ago to assist my brother who was running a clothing shop in Howick. I only spoke Mandarin,” said Weng.
“When I first started, I struggled to communicate with customers. I had to learn because I was working with Zulu speakers; my customers also spoke Zulu. The girls I worked with at the shop started teaching me. I started with small words, like greeting: ‘Sawubona,’” he said.
Weng then moved to rural Sweetwaters, where he worked with people who spoke Zulu and his Zulu skills improved.
“It took me about five years to learn to speak Zulu fluently.”
Weng, who said he initially came to South Africa looking for a better life, is also known as Jabulani, the name given by one of his many customers
Asked how it came to be that he learnt to speak Zulu well but could not speak English, he said: “That’s just how it happened. I worked with people who spoke Zulu and I learnt the language.
“Many people are surprised that I speak Zulu. When I address my customers in Zulu, they are happy and those trying to gossip about Chinese people are always surprised that I can understand them.”
Asked what the most common gossip he overheard was, he said: “They always say another Chinese has now taken over here.”
Weng said the visit by the Chinese president was a good sign.
“The president is coming here tomorrow. That is going to be good. It signifies the strong co-operation between the two countries.”
He expressed concern about crime and that the rand kept losing value.
“When I first arrived here the economy was strong, but now it’s down. It’s getting more and more expensive to send money home. Most Chinese business people are happy here, but the crime is a problem. I was held up twice. Many Chinese business people get killed. It’s very painful when I read that a Chinese business person has been killed. They leave children and families.”