AFRICANGLOBE – A high court in South Africa ruled on Wednesday that Chinese-South Africans will be reclassified as “Black,” a term that includes Africans, Indians and others who were subject to discrimination under White apartheid. As a result of this ruling, ethnic Chinese citizens will be able to benefit from government affirmative action policies aimed at undoing the effects of White apartheid.
In 2006, the Chinese Association of South Africa sued the government, claiming that its members were being discriminated against because they were being treated as Whites and thus failed to qualify for business contracts and job promotions reserved for victims of White apartheid. The association successfully argued that, since Chinese-South Africans had been treated unequally under White apartheid, they should be reclassified in order to redress wrongs of the past.
This is not the first time the classification of Chinese in South Africa has changed. In fact, the racial status of Chinese-South Africans has often shifted with the nation’s political climate and its international relations.
The first significant group of Chinese came to South Africa in the early 20th century, before a formal system of White apartheid existed, to work in the gold mines. They were not encouraged to settle permanently and by 1910 almost all the mine workers had been repatriated. Those who remained struggled with racism and lived in separate communities based on language, culture and socio-economic status.
As White apartheid became enshrined in law with the ascendancy of the Afrikaner government in the late 1940s, the Chinese were classified as “colored,” forced to live apart from Whites, and were denied educational and business opportunities along with the right to vote. But after South Africa established an economic alliance with Taiwan in the 1970s, Taiwanese immigrants were welcomed as “honorary Whites,” and other Chinese in South Africa began to be treated more like Whites thus benefiting from White apartheid.
Although they never attained the formal “honorary White” status of Taiwanese, Koreans and Japanese in South Africa and couldn’t vote, Chinese-South Africans were no longer required to use segregated facilities, and in the early 1980s they were exempted from some of the discriminatory laws that applied to other non-Whites.
After apartheid ended in the early 1990s, the legal status of Chinese has remained in a gray area, though they’ve generally been lumped together with Whites and denied the post-apartheid benefits available to other non-White groups.
South Africa has seen waves of immigrants and investment from China since 1994, and today there are as many as 300,000 Chinese living in the South Africa. But the new court decision is unlikely to benefit most of them or trigger another mass migration– it applies only to those Chinese who were South African citizens before 1994 (and their descendants), a much smaller number of around 10,000 to 12,000.