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South African Chinese Caught in Racial Limbo – Again

(An SA Blog post in honor of the Chinese New Year.)

The concept of “race” in South Africa involves more acrobatics than the Moscow Circus. Nowadays, it’s generally accepted that race is an inherently-plastic, culturally-manufactured idea, always changing with the times. But for a half-century previous, this rather enlightened notion struggled to germinate, being ground, as it was, into the good South African soil under the heavy boot of apartheid. During apartheid, race was biological and legal fact, not cultural opinion.

For South Africa’s Chinese, however, the rules of race have not been as rigid as for other population groups. The Chinese have enjoyed a particularly convoluted legal status since 1950, when the notorious Population Registration Act was introduced. This Act saw South Africans in three colours: black, white and brown (“Coloured”). The Chinese were relegated to the last category, being neither “white” nor “native”, to use the Act’s wording.

Cut to 1959, when another Act reaffirmed Chinese persons’ status as “Coloured”. Between 1959 and 1984, a host of other racist legislation was introduced, defining such things as where Coloureds could live and work. The legal scrimshaw explaining race and curtailing rights and freedoms grew to such volume as to fill many tomes (some still poured over grinningly in places like Orania), and with each new law non-white South Africans suffered further constriction.

In 1984, South Africa gained a new race, known by the term, “Indians, Chinese and Other Asiatics”. The people inhabiting this race, however, had different sets of rights, according to their sub-race. The Chinese, for instance, were suddenly exempt from the restrictions imposed on Coloureds by the Group Areas Act (a particularly foul piece of scrimshaw). In other words, Chinese could live and work in white areas: for all legal intents and purposes, they were no different from whites. Culturally and socially, however, they remained in racial limbo – not black, not Coloured, not Indian, and, indeed, not white.

The post-1984 legal status of the Chinese has had a direct consequence on their place in South African society today. Since 1994, one of the main objectives of our democratically-elected government has been to redress the economic wrongs endured by black and brown people during apartheid, and, before that, during colonial rule. One of the chief mechanisms for achieving this is known as “BEE” – Black Economic Empowerment. BEE is system of mandates and incentives that encourages companies to hire black and brown people ahead of whites, and to ensure black ownership in South African business. It’s a kind of South African affirmative action.

In many sectors of today’s job market, BEE applicants (known as “previously disadvantaged”) have better prospects of employment than non-BEE applicants. Bizzarely, Chinese fall into the latter category, despite their having suffered grave discrimination during most of the apartheid era, alongside blacks, Indians and Coloureds – and not to mention their second-class status in SA before 1950.

As might be imagined, South African Chinese are up in arms over this situation, and one activist group has commissioned several legal and historical studies to support the contention that anyone classified black or Coloured, at any time during apartheid, deserves special status now. For the time being, however, they remain in South Africa’s most unique racial category, one deeply familiar to them: limbo.

See Chinese Forum SA for more on Chinese and BEE.