Chinese South Africans

Racial colors change with the wind

By William Wetherall

First posted 5 February 2007
Last updated 5 February 2007

The following "Behind the News" report by Mark O'Neill appeared on the website of South China Morning Post on Monday, 29 January 2007.

Ethnic Chinese fight for right to be black, not white

The ethnic Chinese citizens of South Africa today have the same rights as everyone else, but it was not always so.

The first Chinese, from Meixian in Guangdong province, arrived in 1904, to work in the gold mines of the Witwatersrand, where Johannesburg now stands, and on sugar cane plantations.

But opposition among the whites, who wanted the mining jobs for themselves, was so intense that most of the Chinese were repatriated by 1910. Some remained, around Johannesburg, and in Port Elizabeth, where they set up the country's first Chinatown.

During the apartheid era (1948-1994) they were classified as "coloured" and "non-white", could not vote, had to live in areas designated for "coloureds" and were subject to job and educational restrictions and forced removals.

Now they number about 50,000.

Due to the strong ties between the fiercely anti-communist white government and Taipei, Taiwanese began to migrate there from the late 1970s. Most were entrepreneurs who set up businesses, mainly in textiles, to get around quotas in the US market. The government treated them, like the Japanese, as "honorary whites", gave them preferential investment incentives and allowed them to live in the most comfortable "white" neighbourhoods. In 1994, the new government abolished such classifications.

But now, in an ironic twist of history, the original Chinese are fighting a legal battle to be "black" - and, as such, benefit from the Employment Equity Act and Broad-based Black Economic Empowerment Act.

The Chinese Association of South Africa is seeking a court order to have the Chinese declared "black" because the government has refused to make such a ruling.

"The history of legislative and opportunistic discrimination against people of Chinese origin in this country is extensive and it intruded on all facets of their lives," said the association's lawyer George van Niekerk.

"It seems extraordinary that their suffering over decades should be ignored."

The case has arisen because employers have refused to classify Chinese as "black" - African, coloured and Indian - and therefore entitled to affirmative promotion. The department of labour has been unwilling to make such a classification.

Government officials say the question is difficult because, under apartheid, Chinese were not subject to the same degree of discrimination as coloureds and blacks. Complicating the issue further is the fact that companies interpret the law in a different way, some classifying Chinese as "black" and some not.

Vernon Whyte, a Chinese South African employee of Standard Bank, has launched a case against the bank in the Labour Court for refusing his application to participate in the bank's empowerment share offer to previously disadvantaged managers. Classified as "coloured" under apartheid, Mr Whyte started working for the bank 25 years ago in its IT division.

The bank said it was waiting for a court decision on the issue.