– I’m sorry, but when I read Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography, I thought this was a problem he was describing in South Africa in 1915. At that time, the whites had decided that East Indians were black and had to go to the back of the proverbial bus.
– It’s pretty amazing to see that here and now in South Africa, the local Chinese have just been declared to be black. Amazing. Even more amazing? This is what they wanted.
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JOHANNESBURG // It has to be one of the more surreal court decisions. In South Africa’s high court, Justice Pretorius recently ruled: “It is declared that South African Chinese people fall within the ambit of the definition of ‘black people’.”
In terms of human skin tones, east Asians are about as far removed from Africans as it is possible to be without being Caucasian. But in modern South Africa “black” is a relative concept.
South Africa’s naturalised Chinese community – as opposed to more recent arrivals as part of the Asian global diaspora – are largely the descendants of traders and small businessmen who immigrated in the first 40 years of the 20th century, in the wake of the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand.
Most of the indentured labourers who were brought in to work in mining and construction were sent home at the end of their contracts, but a few stayed on, and their children and grandchildren are Chinese South Africans too.
Some Taiwanese investors, who arrived in the 1980s after trade agreements were signed between Taipei and Johannesburg, were effectively treated as “honorary whites”, but under apartheid, Chinese South Africans were included within the “coloured” designation, along with those of mixed race and all who did not fit into the convenient categories of “white” or “black”. As such, they were subject to discrimination, educated in “coloured” schools, not allowed to live in “white” districts under the Group Areas Act, and barred from marrying whites, with sexual relations between the races illegal under the Immorality Act.
After the advent of democracy in 1994, when South Africa’s new ANC-led government instituted a series of measures designed to redress historical wrongs, known as Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (BBBEE), South African Chinese thought that they too would benefit.
Instead, the legislation defined “black” as Africans, coloured people, Indians, disabled people and women. Chinese, who now number between 6,000 and 10,000 people, were reclassified as “white”.