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Grappling with ‘Chineseness’ in SA

“It is a community which has shared the indignities heaped on all those in South Africa who were not categorised as ‘white’, a community which, because of its small size and its own insistence on human dignity, helped expose the twisted logic of apartheid.” — Nelson Mandela, addressing Chinese businesspeople in 1998

Queuing at the post office is nothing new, but the lines that formed at branches around the country in the middle of last year were particularly lengthy. Most people showed the calm typical of South Africans waiting to vote. But there was another factor encouraging patience: most were waiting to apply for a share-offer from one of the country’s mega-companies.

Here and there, however, flashpoints erupted, the common denominator of which was the presence in the line of Chinese.

Just a few weeks earlier, the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria had ruled that for purposes of Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment and employment equity, Chinese should be deemed “coloured” and hence effectively “black”.

That court ruling was the culmination of years of struggle in which the Chinese Association of South Africa had sought government acknowledgement of the discrimination propagated by the laws of the land and practised daily against Chinese South Africans since they first arrived here, in 1658.

The South African-born Chinese community greeted this historical redress with relief as much as celebration. Newspaper headline-writers revelled mischievously in notions of yellow-skinned South Africans being transmogrified into black citizens.

Elsewhere, there was a backlash born of prejudice and ignorance. Superficial commentary and populist presumptions damned Chinese South Africans — of whom there are no more than about 10 000 to 12 000 — as greedy coveters of jobs and grabbers of shares.

The reality was and remains very different. For self-styled SABCs (derived from South African-born Chinese), fitting in has been a constant challenge eagerly embraced. Obvious areas are colour and race, but there is the linguistic level too, with its agonising accommodations: learning the country’s traditional languages of commerce and power — English and Afrikaans — while trying to keep faith with mother tongue.

Nonetheless, language and race are inextricably entwined in Chinese identity. What is the status of younger generations of SABCs who have forged alliances of heart, mind, soul and language to the country of their birth — and chosen not to learn, or to forget, their mother tongue? In the eyes — or more correctly, the ears — of traditionalist Chinese everywhere, these SABCs are simply “not Chinese”.

Notionally excluded from and by their own race, these South Africans of Chinese descent grapple with “Chineseness” in South Africa and fulfilling their roles and destinies as South Africans. It would be a sorrow compounded if they were denied their place in any of the queues that mark this country’s road to maturity and to the future.

Darryl Accone is the author of All Under Heaven: The Story of a Chinese family in South Africa.

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Darryl Accone
Darryl Accone
Darryl Accone has been in journalism for the best part of four decades. He is also a Fellow of the Salzburg Seminar and the International Writers Workshop of Hong Kong Baptist University and the author of ‘All Under Heaven: The Story of a Chinese Family in South Africa’ and ‘Euripides Must Die’.

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