The Black Chinese of South Africa

In the early days of South Africa ... well, not the really early days, but some time in the 19th century or early 20th century, a fairly large number of Chines people were imported as workers/slaves. One of the reasons to do this was to break the indigenous workers' efforts for reform. It failed, and the Chinese became of no special use to the Apartheid government or the mining corporations, so they were sent back. All of them.

Nonetheless, there are some 200,000 or so "ethnic Chinese" living today in South Africa. Now, I do not really know for sure who these people are or how they got there, and I'm not totally trusting that they are really "Chinese" ... in South African English, the word "Chinese" means "Asian." But whatever, there they are.

The reason I'm even mentioning this is because of this fascinating news story that has come out today from the BBC:

The High Court in South Africa has ruled that Chinese South Africans are to be reclassified as black people.

It made the order so that ethnic Chinese can benefit from government policies aimed at ending white domination in the private sector.

The Chinese Association of South Africa took the government to court, saying its members had been discriminated against.

The association said their members often failed to qualify for business contracts and job promotions because they were regarded as whites.

The association said Chinese South Africans had faced widespread discrimination during the years of apartheid when they had been classified as people of mixed race.

The BBC's Mpho Lakaje in Johannesburg says the Broad-Based Economic Empowerment and the Employment Equity Acts were designed to eradicate the legacy of apartheid which left many black people impoverished.

The laws give people classed as blacks, Indians and coloureds (mixed-race) employment and other economic benefits over other racial groups.


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I thought this sort of thing had gone out with apartheid.

Then, every year the government would reclassify people. Whites would become "coloured" (ie mixed race), coloured would become white, blacks would become coloured, etc. One comedian made a living by reading out extracts from government decrees on these matters, showing the absurdity of it all, although it often had real practical effects for the people involved. Japanese businessmen were classified as "honorary whites".

One Asian grouping was the Cape Malay, descendants of Southeast Asians (not necessarily all of them "Malay") brought out as workers. Maybe this group overlaps with the "Chinese" described here.

The above from general knowledge - any South Africans out there to provide corrections or the real background?

By John Monfries (not verified) on 18 Jun 2008 #permalink

Here is some background from the London Times today:

"The controversial BEE policy, under which large companies have to surrender a percentage of their equity to black-run entities, is aimed at reversing decades of apartheid bias. It covers Africans, Coloureds (mixed-race people) and Indians but has been criticised widely as a politically correct form of theft by ruling party cronies.

Under white minority rule the Chinese were classified as Coloureds. In a decision that illustrated the difficulty of applying racial segregation Japanese people were given honorary white status partly because they were wealthier and fewer in number than the Chinese.

When the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Act and the Employment Equity Act, the two BEE legislative pillars, were adopted, the Chinese were left out and claimed that they had been discriminated against twice first by the whites, now by the blacks.

The ruling yesterday is the culmination of an eight-year struggle by the Chinese Association of South Africa (Casa) to obtain clarity from the Government as to the status of Chinese people since the end of white rule in 1994. Patric Chong, the chairman of Casa, said: As Chinese South Africans we were officially classified as Coloured and suffered under the same discriminatory laws prior to 1994. The logical inference was thus that Chinese South Africans would automatically qualify for the same benefits as the Coloured group, post1994. This was not the case and Chinese South Africans suffered a second round of unfair discrimination. "

By John Monfries (not verified) on 18 Jun 2008 #permalink

I'm a South African. South African English is similar to British English and in schools and universities we continue to teach the Queen's English. I have always understood "Chinese" to mean "someone from China", so I would say that "Chinese" does not mean "Asian" here, any more than it does in the UK, although Chinese people are considered Asians, obviously.

Cape Malay people do not qualify as Chinese people, yet.

For South African Chinese people to be classified as black is a positive thing, since the BEE system makes being black the best thing to be if you're looking for a job in South Africa.

Prazzie. Technically, you are certainly correct. I have spent a total of more than a few years in South Africa and I interact with South Africans all the time and I typically do not hear a South African use the word "Japanese" to refer to a Japanese person or "Korean" to refer to a Korean person ... it is almost always Chinese. With the exception of highly educated individual who have spent considerable time abroad and understand that they are speaking to a person who uses a different terminology. Perhaps our experience is from different parts of South Africa.

Also, what is taught in University is I'm sure exactly as you say. That does not have a lot to do with how people actually communicate, especially in a country where a tiny percentage of the people go to University.

I kinda figured that these people were really Chinese as in from China (ancestrally?), but having had the experience of "china = asian" and not knowing the source, I wanted to be cautious.

Thanks for your comments regarding the BEE system. I was hoping an actual South African would make a comment. There is only the most superficial of similarities between the Apartheid system of racial classification and the current reform practices.

Greg, perhaps the South Africans you encountered were unable to distinguish between Chinese, Japanese and Korean people, and guessed that people with almond shaped eyes are most likely Chinese? My experience has been that if people aren't sure, they'll use the broad term "Asian" instead.

I kinda figured the Chinese people are from China ancestrally, as well. The racial classification system is pretty lax here, I guess if you claim to be Chinese and look kind of Chinese-y, you are now black. That's why I didn't bother trying to address who they are or how they got here.

As a South African who bases her career and education on languages and the written word, I felt compelled to correct you on the semantics issue. Now I am embarrassed at the fact that enough South Africans refer to any and all Asian people as "Chinese" that foreigners think we equate the two. *sigh*

The way this issue has been handled is rather unfortunate, as the Chinese people aren't really being reclassified as black, but as previously (and up until the ruling, currently) disadvantaged. Attaching a "black" label to them makes the whole thing seem rather absurd, which it really isn't.


I think this is just the way language is. My experience is to notice that "chinese" equals asian. It started with a storty told to me by a white Africaner bus driver about how in Cape Town, robbers were focusing on busses of "chinese" rather than "whites" because the "chinese" would always be unarmed but have great cameras, while the "whites" would often be from "Transvaal" and thus be well armed tough Afrikaner tourists. This was during a period of extensive Korean and to some extent Japanese tourism in the region.

I continued to notice this trend, and at least a couple of South Africans who live and work in South Africa and I have talked about this.

You may have had similar experiences. Also, since you know that "chinese" does not equal "Asian" but I have learened from experience, one of us has an emic view, the other an etic view. I can never remember which one is which, though.

Does this mean that South Africans are somehow linguistically stupid? I can see how people might misinterpret this, and I thank you for the chance to clarify.

I personally know dozens of South Africans. At least two or three of my best friends are South Africans. My daughter's best friend is South African. I have yet to meet a South African who knows fewer than two languages perfectly well. Most know more than two at least in passing.

I know very few Americans who know more than one language. Relatively few Brits know more than one language as well. There is no question whatsoever that South Africans are NOT linguistically impaired!

But, there are cultural things that happen. Americans can't, by and large, name more than three African countries, and are quite surprised to hear that there are 50 or 60 of them! The understanding of geography of Africa among Americans is probably as bad as the understanding of geography of Asia is for South Africans. Or worse. It just happens that South Africans (may have, according to Greg) this quirk. Everybody has their quirks. (Linguistically speaking)

I'll just mention two other South African quirks for fun:

1) the word "coffee" refers to instant coffee most of the time, and the word "nescafe" can be used interchangeably with "coffee." Shame, really.

2) "just now" means "don't hold your breath"

Greg, I'm also South African, and I've never had the experience of "Asians" being called "Chinese", but certainly that Chinese are called Asian when in doubt, quite accurately. I'm afraid you come off a little bit offensive, although I realise that isn't your intention.

The Chinese South Africans came for various reasons, as long ago as the 1650's, and originated from Hong Kong, Taiwan and China. Saying they are classified as "black" makes for interesting headlines, but Prazzie is right: they are actually just entitled to Black Economic Empowerment and this mainly only applies to Chinese South Africans who where citizens of SA before 1994 AND classified as non-white.

Sheez, bra, next time come visit me. That one or two people make this assumption doesn't mean we all do. Also: there are in fact a fair amount of Chinese tourists in SA too, since SA is one of the few countries Chinese residents can visit in small groups. There's fair chance the "Afrikaner" (with a k, btw) was being absolutely accurate.

In America, apparently "hoover" means vacuum cleaner. Happens everywhere.

I'll check your reply just now. :)

I will visit you.

No, I spent a few days with this kid (he was a kid, very young for a bus driver) and I know he was making the generalization..

This is very interesting. I can't throw away my experience. It has really happened. We can explore this, ask "what part of South Africa, among whom?" and so on and there is probably an answer there. As I think about it, all of my experiences ... each reinforcing my bleif that "chinese = asian", has happened in Jberg and/or Pretoria, but mainly among people who are from Pretoria, always white, but not always Afrikaner strictly in heritage, and mostly of an older generation, generally college educated. But maybe Afrikaner as first language and English as second language.

Yes, indeed, "Chinese" maybe to Asians for Pretorians what "Kleenex" is to tissues for Americans.

I don't see any South Africans jumping in to argue that Just Now means, say "Right now" !?!?!? :)

I do want to add, though, that in the years I've been working in South Africa, I've seen the nation grow from a place where coffee really was mostly instant, and if not, usually chickory laced, to a place with excellent coffee shops in lots of places.

And, the South African "Cappuccino with Cream" is not to my knowledge available in the US. I would love to be proven wrong on that!!! (Well, not in the Upper Midwest, anyway)

Okay, okay, I'll get off my high horse... :) I've lived in Pretville, but way long ago, and I have to admit in some neighbourhoods you'll find a lot of that kind of race/nationality-based generalisations. It's our stupid heritage we have to deal with. So, yeah, in general everyday usage a small minority of people, whom I have never met, might say these kinds of things. God, blood really is thicker than water.

SA has all kinds of linguistic peculiarities. So in fact "just now" does mean "in a little while" and not "right now", but then again, we all know that's what it means, so it's cool.

I'm happy about this "black" Chinese ruling, by the way. Another nail in Apartheid's coffin, and believe me we should keep on banging in the nails as often as possible. The kind of talk about "Asians" you describe, shows, however, that we might still have a long road ahead.

And the States have nothing that compares to Mugg & Bean. Lemon merangue pie as big as Texas and bottomless mugs.