Mdladlana 'has missed the entire community'

While debate still rages about African National Congress Youth League leader Julius Malema’s recent “kill for Zuma” comments, a government minister’s description of Chinese South Africans is making headlines.

Labour Minister Membathisi Mdladlana said on Tuesday that now that they have been classified as coloured, Chinese employers have no excuse to mistreat their workers or pretend to labour inspectors that they cannot speak a South African language.

The Pretoria High Court last week ruled that Chinese South Africans should be included in the definition of “black people” in laws, including black economic empowerment legislation, designed to benefit previously disadvantaged groups.

“They can speak Chinese of course in their homes; I have absolutely no difficulty with that. But when we visit them, they must also remember that they are now coloureds,” Mdladlana told a media briefing in Cape Town. “What I know is that coloureds don’t speak Chinese.”

The minister was the first respondent in the application, brought by the Chinese Association of South Africa, but did not oppose it.

“I hope that they would ...
make sure that they would implement and comply with the Labour Relations Act and the Basic Conditions of Employment Act much, much better now that they have decided to classify themselves as coloureds as in the past,” he said on Tuesday.

The Star on Wednesday quoted Patrick Chong, chairperson of the Chinese Association of South Africa, as saying that he was disappointed by the minister’s comments.

“I don’t think he has missed the point; I think he has missed the entire community. The community that went to court are as South African as the next person and speak English and Afrikaans fluently. We had to learn these languages. Also, the South African Chinese don’t own many factories. I can think of only four, and they are in the Western Cape,” Chong told the newspaper.

The South African Human Rights Commission was not available for comment on Wednesday morning.

‘They might regret it’
Responding to a prompt from a journalist, Mdladlana said on Tuesday: “They [Chinese South Africans] might regret that, having gone to court, at some stage… They might regret having gone to court. Sometimes it’s better that it’s not clarified than it is clarified.”

He said he believed the Chinese who brought the application were targeting the benefits of black economic empowerment.

“That’s why other people are having fears, because the fear is that they are business entrepreneurs. I hear people for instance saying, ‘We are going to be flooded by everything from China.’ We don’t know whether that’s one of their objectives, that they flood us and then we don’t challenge them because they are coloureds. So I suspect that on the BEE front, there could be some serious challenges there.

“On the labour market, I don’t think they have given it careful thought, because there they are going to have some serious difficulties in relation to the way they are treating the workers in the workplaces.

“Because in some workplaces, that we have visited together with some of the inspectors, they even refuse to speak English. They say, ‘We can’t speak English.’ Chinese pretend to be dumb when they are not. We know they are not. Chinese are very clever people.”

He said the same approach applied to black entrepreneurs who had in the past asked him for a different labour regime for black employers. That would be unconstitutional, because there is only one Labour Relations Act for everyone.

“And therefore if they are coloureds, they can’t now say, ‘I can’t speak the South African languages.’ So they have to attempt to learn 11 official languages, or at least a couple of them in order to be able to communicate with us ...”

Mdladlana said 90% of Chinese factories inspected by his department had been found “wanting”.

In the past, one factory owner from Botshabelo had moved his operation to Lesotho rather than comply with South African labour law. There was also the case of a Newcastle factory owner who locked his workers in at night, resulting in the death of the baby of a woman forced to give birth there.

He said he did not know whether the businesspeople in those cases were South African nationals. “To us it’s irrelevant. An employer is an employer. Our job is to inspect whether you are complying.”

Mdladlana said it had been a wise decision of the judge to merely say that the Chinese were coloureds, rather than try to create a special category for them in law, which would have led to complications.

“I suppose if I stand up now and say I want to be classified as pink, so maybe a court will agree that you are pink, even if you are not pink.”

The Democratic Alliance (DA) on Wednesday called on Mdladlana to retract his statement that Chinese employers have no excuse to mistreat their workers now that they have been classified as coloured.

“It is grossly inappropriate for a national minister to make the kinds of claims that entrench the idea that South Africa is a nation of separate and hostile identities,” said DA labour spokesperson Anchen Dreyer. “Labour Minister Membathisi Mdladlana should retract his divisive comments.”

The DA said: “His comments suggest that the African National Congress, despite all its claims to non-racialism, sees South Africans in fundamentally racist terms ... While it would be naive to deny that many South Africans do still see themselves in primarily racial terms, the government has a responsibility to create an environment where ideas of racial exclusivity are not seen as acceptable.”

Added Dreyer: “It is entirely inappropriate for any minister to bandy about stereotypical ideas about the language or any other characteristics of any racial grouping.”

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