Bill Maxwell

Only in South Africa: Chinese are classified as black

Race and matters related to race are so complex it often confounds logic and mocks common sense.

If you think the United States is uniquely obsessed with race and does strange things because of it, you have not read much about South Africa. You certainly have not been there, where skin color governs people's lives and often causes them to act in peculiar ways.

Take the June 18 decision by the Pretoria High Court. In the landmark ruling, the court declared that Chinese South Africans, at their urging, are to be included in the definition of "black people."

Yes, you read it correctly: Chinese South Africans want to be defined as black people.

The reasons for the ruling are what make South Africa — proudly referring to itself as the "Rainbow Nation" because of its racial and ethnic diversity — a living laboratory of race.

Since 2000, eight years after apartheid was dismantled, the Chinese Association of South Africa, or CASA, has fought for the Chinese to be declared legally black so that they will be eligible under the nation's black economic empowerment, or BEE, and affirmative action legislation to receive the same benefits as blacks, Indians and colored citizens.

BEE and affirmative action seek to redress the economic and social inequities under apartheid. Under BEE, for example, blacks enjoy access to discounted share programs offered by big companies listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. Until now, the programs excluded the Chinese. Likewise, the affirmative action legislation gives preference to blacks and coloreds for top business positions.

The history: Under apartheid, the race bar was codified. People were classified primarily as black African, white and colored. Blacks included the native Zulu and Xhosa tribes. Whites were descendants of Dutch, British, German, French and other white colonizers. Coloreds, the most complex group, were mixed-race descendants of slave owners and slaves brought to South Africa. Broadly, Indians, Asians and Cape Malay were sometimes labeled as colored. (Interestingly, Japanese South Africans were classified as "honorary whites" because of their prowess in trade.)

Often, Indians and Asians, especially the Chinese, chose to be classified separately, Patrick Chong, CASA's chairman, told the Cape Times newspaper.

"As Chinese South Africans, we were officially classified as 'colored' during the apartheid era and suffered under the same discriminatory laws prior to 1994," he said. "The logical inference was thus that Chinese South Africans would automatically qualify for the same benefits afforded the 'colored' group post 1994."

Ironically, when Nelson Mandela was elected as president of South Africa and the nation's racial classifications were reworked, the Chinese were not specifically mentioned like other groups.

"Chinese South Africans have suffered a second round of unfair discrimination by not being sure of their status under the two (economic and affirmative action) acts," George Van Niekerk, CASA's lawyer, told the Cape Times. "Although the two acts did not specifically exclude Chinese South Africans, the fact that they are not mentioned by name led to a lot of confusion in the marketplace.

"For example, one commercial bank would, given the historical considerations, classify Chinese South Africans as 'black' for the purposes of the Employment Equity Act and the Broad-Based Economic Empowerment Act, whereas another commercial bank declined to do so. The result was that Chinese South Africans were never sure of their status."

The Chinese always have been marginalized in South Africa, and their history has been barely recorded, writes Karen Harris, a historian at the University of Pretoria: "The Chinese have suffered discrimination long before the introduction of the country's discriminatory laws. They have always been kept on the periphery of the country's social landscape."

Many other South African scholars, such as Sipho Seepe, argue that the Chinese should accept part of the blame for their predicament. "The Chinese have always existed in their own small, close-knit communities," Seepe said, "but that does not justify denial for recognition."

For better for worse, the new reality is that Chinese South Africans, who account for less than 10,000 of the nation's 47-million population, now officially belong to the majority black race in the Rainbow Nation.

Race can make individuals and nations do funny things.

Only in South Africa: Chinese are classified as black 06/21/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 25, 2008 7:47pm]

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