Recognition of Apartheid Travails Behind Chinese Race-rights Case

 South Africa


 Sunday Times ( South Africa)

January 27, 2008


By Darryl Accone  

The court case is about a community that has contributed to South Africa since the very first Chinese set foot here in 1658’Perhaps they were not the most oppressed, but they too have their stories of exclusion, discrimination and humiliation’  

WHY would a minority community classified "non-white" before and during apartheid feel it necessary to take the government to court over affirmative action and employment equity rights?

Because that community is deliberately omitted from the Employment Equity Act of 1998 and, despite a presentation to Parliament’s labour portfolio committee in 2004, continues to be denied status as a previously disadvantaged group.  

The South African-born Chinese community will have its day in the Pretoria High Court later this year. It is not merely sad, but wholly unnecessary, that it should have come to this. In that, I speak as a third-generation SA-born Chinese and as a South African who had hoped for a more equitable society after 1994.

Among the many myths of the old and new South Africa are those surrounding the SA-born Chinese. Chinese in South Africa have most often been defined and categorised by what they are not. Non-European, non-white, coloured (in terms of the Group Areas Act).  

Under the pernicious refinements of the Population Registration Act, by the early ’60s the Chinese were one of seven groups of so-called non-whites: Cape Coloured, Malay, Griqua, Chinese, Indian, Other Asiatic group and Other Coloured group. "Other Asiatics" included anyone from any territory in Asia other than China, India or Pakistan, while "Other Coloured" referred to persons "whose race cannot be defined under the other six non-European groups and who are not White or African".

Surreal, absurd and tragic.  

Nonetheless, all these fellow travellers, with the exception of SA-born Chinese, have been granted previously disadvantaged status. All of them benefit from affirmative action and broad-based black economic empowerment.  

Arguably, the position of the Chinese has been complicated by a totally different historical status for Japanese in South Africa. A quintupling of trade between Japan and South Africa between 1958 and 1961 led to a thaw in Pretoria’s attitude to Tokyo, and full ambassadorial relations being set up.

As a result, Japanese were accorded "Honorary White" status. They were allowed to buy houses and own land; use all "white" amenities, including public transport; and drink at as well as stay in "white" hotels. None of those applied to the Chinese community.  

Whatever the disgruntlement within the Chinese community, the effect of Japanese being declared Honorary White – a monstrous slight borne by Japanese in South Africa for practical reasons – was considerable.

South Africans who were not Chinese or Japanese found it almost impossible to distinguish between the two, and so the Chinese became, in the South African consciousness and popular imagination, Honorary Whites as well. Because of this, there were – and continue to be – assumptions that Chinese lived privileged lives under apartheid.  

While it is understandable that many South African citizens harbour this misconception, those in government have no excuse for such ignorance.

As a quick refresher, it is well to remember that, under the National Party – and the race-obsessed governments preceding it – Chinese were never classified white. The Immorality Act and Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act ensured that under the National Party, Chinese could not legally have sex with their chosen partners, or marry freely. The Group Areas Act meant they could not live or trade where they wished.  

Further misconceptions are imposed on the position of the SA-born Chinese by the existence of not one but three Chinas within South Africa.

First is the SA-born Chinese community descended from the initial Cantonese settlers of the late 19th century. Now in their third, fourth or fifth generation, they have diversified beyond small family-run businesses into the professions, notably medicine, accounting, IT, media, fashion, conservation and academia.  

Next is the Taiwanese community, some still involved as entrepreneurs and industrialists, with others in various professions.

Last is the burgeoning presence of the "New Chinese", arriving mostly in the last decade and a half from the People’s Republic of China, whose effect on trade and industry and on South Africans’ perceptions of Chinese is considerable.  

These Chinese communities are divided by time, geography, national and regional cultural affiliations, senses of Chineseness and self, perceptions of the motherland and its history and culture, and, perhaps most poignantly, by a putative common language, "Chinese".

The Taiwanese Chinese community was drawn to South Africa from the ’70s, when the apartheid government sought alliances with countries with similar marginal status, and forged ties with Israel and what was then the Republic of China/Taiwan.  

Initially, Taiwanese investors were attracted by an industrial development policy that encouraged foreign investment near or in what were euphemistically called independent homelands. The apartheid government aimed to kick-start economic growth in these underdeveloped and jobless areas, to which it had forcibly removed many people.

A number of shocking cases of bad labour practice and physical abuse of workers in factories owned by Taiwanese meant that the reputation of Chinese as a whole in South Africa suffered.  

In the eyes, ears and minds of ordinary South Africans, these three Chinese communities are no doubt one. In reality, the
y are separated as much as united by race, language and culture.

Their numbers vary greatly too. Yoon Jung Park, whose book on Chinese South African identity in apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa is due out in mid-2008, says: "Current estimates of the New Chinese population in South Africa range between 200000 and over 300000, but no one really knows. We do know that there are between 10000 and 12000 Chinese South Africans and about 8000 to 10000 Taiwanese, but even these numbers are difficult to nail down for a variety of reasons."  

One might understand government reluctance to extend BBBEE and other benefits to 300000 relatively recent arrivals from China. But the case due to come before the Pretoria High Court has been brought by the Chinese Association of South Africa (Casa) on behalf of SA-born Chinese. It does not include or represent the interests of citizens of China or Taiwan; it is about a community that has contributed to SA since the very first Chinese set foot here in 1658.

Casa is seeking a declaratory order for SA-born Chinese to be treated as coloured, and benefit from the Employment Equity Act and the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Act. If that avenue is closed, Casa will ask the court to declare unconstitutional the definition of "black" in those two laws because it excludes local Chinese.  

Patrick Chong of Casa says: "The latest on the BBBEE case is that the government has decided to oppose our application. This means that we could be delayed until April or May for a new court date.

"It is strange that for eight years our correspondence has not been able to get any clarity as to where the government classifies Chinese, yet within days of lodging our papers, the government is prepared to oppose our application. We wait in anticipation to see what argument the government will raise in opposition to our application."  

Park says: "There are some clear practical financial and professional potential gains to being classified as ‘previously disadvantaged’ under existing legislation, but Chinese South African concern over their exclusion from these affirmative action policies is also about their place and position in a democratic South Africa. I would argue that these emotional, ideological, and philosophical issues outweigh the potential practical gains. It is about gaining public acknowledgement of their history as "non-whites" during apartheid; perhaps they were not the most oppressed, but they too have their stories of exclusion, discrimination and humiliation."  

The Chinese lunar new year, the Year of the Brown Earth Rat, 4705 in the Chinese calendar, begins on February 7. Pending the outcome of the case, sometime in this auspicious year the SA-born Chinese community might have something to celebrate – recognition and acknowledgement that they, too, are citizens of South Africa, with all the rights and status that implies.


Accone is author of All Under Heaven: The Story of a Chinese Family in South Africa. He is a research associate in the Chinese in Africa/Africans in China project run by the Centre for Sociological Research at the University of Johannesburg.




%d bloggers like this: