What color are Chinese South Africans?

According to the country's High Court, they are now considered "black"

Published June 19, 2008 7:44PM (EDT)

In South Africa, ethnic Chinese have just been declared "black" by the High Court, making them eligible for various affirmative action benefits, reports the BBC. A friend of mine who sent me the BBC article declared the news a "travesty" in light of "how dominant the Chinese have become in Africa."

And if you had to judge by the BBC article alone, you might think so. But the real story is considerably more complex. Recent Chinese immigrants are rapidly gaining a high profile in Africa now, but historically, they too suffered significant discrimination in apartheid South Africa. Chinese weren't even allowed to vote in South Africa until 1994.

Sky Canaves, writing in the Wall Street Journal's "China Journal," provides the best background detail I was able to find.

The first significant group of Chinese came to South Africa in the early 20th century, before a formal system of 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 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. 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.

More recently, Chinese immigration to South Africa has boomed, reaching an estimated total of 200-300,000. But the new arrivals will not benefit from the new classification, writes Canaves. The court decision "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."

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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