South Africans of Chinese Descent Fight to be Treated as Coloured, if they Can’t Get that, they will Settle for Black

The U.S. is not the only country with its host of affirmative action struggles as this article explains. Back in 2000, in Brazil, when the state of Rio de Janiero implemented racial quotas for Black University students and others ‘of African Descent,’ many White students claimed African heritage to improve their chances for admission. Now in South Africa, Chinese citizens are fighting for the right to be treated as Coloured or Black so that they can benefit from economic empowerment affirmative action policies .

After years of waging a low-key campaign to be recognised as black under South Africa’s laws of redress, local Chinese are squaring up to the government in the High Court.

The Chinese Association of South Africa (Casa) wants to seek a declaratory order for South African Chinese to be treated as coloured and benefit from the Employment Equity Act and the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Act.

Failing that, they will ask the court to declare the definition of “black” in the two laws unconstitutional because it excludes local Chinese.read more

Apparently, ‘[t]he government has been deeply reluctant to clarify whether the Chinese are included in the definition of “black” — African, coloured and Indian — under the legislation.’ Is the South African government entitled to such reluctance? Did the architects of Black Economic Empowerment overlook the discrimination Chinese endured under apartheid or was there an oppression Olympics/litmus test that South African Chinese did not fair well under? Part of the controversy over Chinese inclusion in BEE initiatives is the assumption (?) of growing global Chinese power as well as the fact that many South African Chinese are well-off. This controversy is also linked to the perceptions of the Chinese as ‘honorary Whites’ rather than an oppressed community. Despite these concerns, numerous narratives illustrate that the Chinese unable to vote before 1994 and barred from certain facilities, also suffered discrimination.  But, I am wondering…if perceived economic benefits were not attached to treatment as Coloured (and by default Black), would there be a fight? Has blackness in South Africa (and even globally) become an identity assumed solely in order to receive perceived economic benefits?  In South Africa where racial categorization is just as fluid as it is assumed to be fixed, these questions are tough. Since it was Steve Biko’s birthday on the 18th, I thought I’d look to his writings for some insight. In ‘The Meaning of Black Consciousness’ Biko argues that ‘Black’ is not a matter of pigmentation, but a mental attitude. Thus, he defines black ‘as those who are by law or tradition politically, economically and socially discriminated against as a group in the South African society and identifying themselves as a unit in the struggle towards the realization of their aspirations.’ Interesting…but I do not think the South African government is using Biko lit to shape policy.  If race is proving to be poor way to designate eligibility for economic empowerment programs, should these programs be class-based?
Beyond this Chinese struggle to be included in the ‘club of the oppressed,’ there is a deeper issue of the BEE as a program that has done more the empower and uplift/re-ify the black elite, more so than the millions of urban+rural Black South Africans who still live in squalor. Accusations of crony capitalism, where many of the beneficiaries of BEE are close to ANC party members instigates skepticism. A Black business class is supposed to develop, and hopefully, these gains will ‘trickle down.’ I guess before we start deciding who can join the ‘club of the oppressed,’ maybe we need to think and act critically to figure out who exactly is benefiting from BEE and if it is a sustainable model for broad empowerment (versus myopic empowerment). With that said, is the fight to be eligible for Economic Empowerment initiatives a struggle for equality, a struggle to be fast-tracked into the elite who rule (and by extension exploit South Africa), or some ambiguous terrain in between? or maybe none of the above?

One book that a recommend is Neville Alexander’s ‘An Ordinary Country: Issues in the Transition from Apartheid to Democracy in South Africa.’ It takes on a nuanced analysis of South Africa as a ‘negotiated revolution’ still operating under apartheid structures (albeit more class-based) and a promoter of ‘free market fundamentalism’…with the Black elite at its head. Interesting stuff.

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Published on December 23, 2006 at 3:35 am. 3 Comments.
Filed under affirmative action,inter-minority relations.