In the apartheid years Chinese South African Jeff Hein and his family were not allowed to vote or ride in the same buses as whites because they were classified coloured.
And until the Chinese Association of South Africa went to the high court two weeks ago Hein could not demand preferential job promotion or government assistance to start a business because he was considered white.
He is one of the born-and-bred South Africans of Chinese extraction who, in theory, stand to gain from the court’s confirmation that Chinese were coloured in terms of the apartheid-era Population Registration Act.
The court’s ruling, on an unopposed application by the Chinese association, means Hein is entitled to redress under black empowerment and employment equity legislation.
A second-generation South African, Hein insists that more than a decade after the fall of apartheid the local Chinese community still has no place in a country where racial thinking and categories still hold sway.
Hein was born in Nancefield, south of Johannesburg, of a South African mother and a father who came to South Africa when he was 16 years old. Under apartheid the Hein family lived a twilight existence in Doornfontein and other white suburbs — the Chinese were prohibited from living in white areas without official permission.
‘People I knew used white guys’ names to apply for residence in white areas. But we always had to move because they would come and claim the houses as theirs,â€ he said.
Similar restrictions applied to Chinese businesses and Chinese children’s attendance at white schools.
Hein concedes that Chinese people were less profoundly affected by discriminatory laws than Africans, coloureds and Indians, but said: ‘We also felt the pain that everybody who cared felt.
‘Sometimes we wanted to join in protest rallies but we could not, because we were too much a minority and we feared victimisation.â€
Hein said black South Africans had always treated the Chinese fairly. The same could not be said of coloured people and Indians. ‘They had a tendency to use names like ‘Ching Chongs’ and it hurt.
‘As far as we’re concerned ‘Ching Chong’ is the equivalent of the ‘K’ word and it hurt most when it came from the people we lived with. The whites used it too,â€ Hein said.
Today Hein lives and runs his own electronics company in Florida on the West Rand.
He believes that the high court ruling will not have much effect on the lives of South African Chinese.
‘According to the ruling I am on the same level as a black person if I apply for a job. But I know the black person will probably get it. I’m happy running my own thing.â€
George Hai Thom: high-profile activist
George Hai Thom is living proof that some South African Chinese did indeed take part in the anti-apartheid struggle.
But he argues that this is irrelevant in deciding whether the community is entitled to redress under South African law.
The alleged political passivity of the Chinese community is frequently cited as an argument for excluding them from the benefits of BEE and affirmative action.
Thom was an ANC member who served the movement in exile in Canada and spent three years in Morogoro in Tanzania as a lecturer at the Solomon Mahlangu College after 1974.
But Thom does not use his political history to make a point. ‘I don’t see that having participated in the struggle against apartheid has anything to do with being granted what is due to you by law,â€ he told the Mail & Guardian this week.
‘I find it ridiculous and frustrating that Chinese born in this country have to go to court and wait for nine years to prove and explain who they are,â€ he said.
He pointed out that many African, coloured and Indian people who did not take part in the anti-apartheid struggle nevertheless qualify for BEE.
However, he argued, despite its size — estimated at less than 10Â 000 people in the early 1980s — the Chinese community did make a mark on resistance politics.
Professor Yoon Jung Park, of the centre for sociological research at the University of Johannesburg, said the local Chinese community made a conscious effort not to be seen as making waves or having loud political opinions.
‘Our culture is to keep a low profile; also, the Chinese community was very small.
‘The Chinese were a target of police raids in the 1960s and that made them very fearful,â€ said Park.
However, the community resisted the Group Areas Act and refused to join the National Party’s Tricameral Parliament in the 1980s.
Professor Karen Harris of the University of Pretoria said Chinese communities worldwide tended to keep a low profile.
‘The Chinese resistance to apartheid was passive, but if you go back to history you will find out that they were greatly affected by apartheid,â€ Harris said.
‘This whole BEE thing is a disaster. It did exactly what the Chinese don’t want — it puts them in the public eye.â€
Harris said the court ruling would help the Chinese roll back nearly 60 years of discrimination in the country of their birth.