I must say that I am gobsmacked by the responses in these pages to a couple of observations I made in this column relating to the new Chinatown in Cyrildene, east Johannesburg.
On reflection, I must have been losing it. I was guilty of becoming complacent, and writing as if regular readers were fully aware of my irreverent style. Bad mistake.
Commentator (and Mail & Guardian books editor) Darryl Accone says he is ‘deeply distressed” by what he coyly refers to as the ‘yellow peril treatment” by ‘certain South African media commentators”. I can only assume that he is referring to me, since I am not aware of this being a general trend in the South African media.
Accone, with whom I have been on friendly and respectful terms for many years, seems to find nothing witty or probing about my take on how this new Chinatown works in relation to non-Chinese races. He rather sees my observations as being partially responsible for murder and other violent attacks against members of the Chinese community.
As I say: gobsmacked. How can he imagine that I do not deplore such attacks as much as he does, and as least as much as I would abhor the same on any of our diverse communities (not forgetting that black South Africans, who have suffered their fair share of friendly scorn in my columns over the years, suffer in far greater numbers. Am I to blame for that as well?)
Accone (pretty Italian-sounding name that) sets himself up as spokesperson for the Chinese community in general. It is heartening to have been able to speak to Chinese people who do not share his views, and who have indeed been as entertained and challenged by my observations as many other readers. ‘Chinese people actually are racist,” said one highly literate and open-minded Chinese woman, amused after reading my take on being turned away from a Chinese massage parlour that claimed to cater strictly to Chinese, but in reality would happily service anyone — as long as they were not black.
Accone refuses to consider this point. Instead, he widens his argument to bemoan the Chinese community’s lack of access to the advantages of BEE under the post-apartheid dispensation — an issue that is being presented before the Constitutional Court by anti- apartheid crusader advocate George Bizos as we speak.
Do all Chinese living in South Africa want to take that route? How many of them care? In any case, there seems to be a lot of economic empowerment being exercised by substantial numbers of this diverse community without them having to go through the ignominious process of redefining themselves as ‘black”.
Accone also fails to point out that, while early Chinese immigrants were indeed classified as ‘non-white” under apartheid, Taiwanese, who came to the country much later and served a useful economic and diplomatic purpose for the much shunned and sanctioned apartheid regime, were, like the Japanese and South (though emphatically not North) Koreans, classified as ‘honorary white,” with all the attendant privileges.
Question: are post-apartheid Taiwanese therefore ‘Chinese” (that is ‘ex-non-white”) or not? Only the all-seeing eye of apartheid’s influx police would have been able to make the distinction. And are ‘new Chinese” similarly ‘ex-non-white” or ‘ex-honorary white”?
One must add that this ‘non-white” status was of the kind that was graciously accorded to ‘coloureds” and ‘Indians” in the old days. In other words, less privileged than whites, but, in such crucial areas as the pass laws, for example, more privileged than native blacks.
In addition, as commentator Vuyo Jack has pointed out in Business Report, the thorny issue of BEE is intended to benefit victims of apartheid who actively fought back against their demeaning status. ‘It is an incomprehensible proposition to seek recognition as a beneficiary of BEE,” he writes, ‘and yet remain insular and aloof when it comes to active engagement in the critical spheres of the South African society”. It is this aloofness I refer to in the new Chinatown, whether it relates to the language of street commerce, political discourse, or the massage parlour.
Not prepared to take a stand between Accone’s viewpoint on the issue and mine, the M&G hauled in its ombudsman to come to some sort of conclusion for the benefit of the otherwise unsuspecting public.
The ombudsman agreed with Accone’s view that I was invoking latent, racist fears of a ‘yellow peril.” Contradicting himself later on, he felt that my words fell short of being ‘hate speech”, although they came perilously close to being such, nonetheless — to the point of being offensive. ‘There must be a different way of doing it,” he concluded.
And that’s where, as I say, I am gobsmacked. If there is a ‘different way” of opening up these tortuous and contradictory patterns of behaviour in our post-apartheid world to public scrutiny and debate, then, according to these terms of reference, I am delighted to admit that I am not the one to do it.
The parameters, I suppose, must be laid out in some Thought Police think-tank somewhere and stuck to by some cheery young scribe who is prepared to avoid stepping on anyone’s toes, at all costs.
One looks forward to some pretty dull reading.
John Matshikiza is pissed off and on sabbatical at his own request — the Editor