Writing a wrong is a bitter irony

Ming Woo restaurant in Johannesburg serves authentic Chinese food. A book about local English takes a few too many shortcuts, our reviewer finds. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

Ming Woo restaurant in Johannesburg serves authentic Chinese food. A book about local English takes a few too many shortcuts, our reviewer finds. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

Nothing destroys one’s enjoyment of and confidence in a work of nonfiction more than coming across factual howlers. If that’s in a field about which you know something, scepticism (always a useful reading companion) turns to cynicism (never a good helpmate).

Perusing Say Again? The Other Side of South African English by Jean Branford and Malcolm Venter (Pharos), I was dismayed to find misinformation about Chinese and black economic empowerment (BEE). Let me disclose upfront that I am Eurasian, with Chinese ancestors on both sides of my family.

The incorrect material appears on page 133, in a section about the term “honorary white”, and reads: “In a recent twist (our local version of ‘Chinese Checkers’?), the Chinese in South Africa, who were not accorded this advantage, have – as a result of the growing trade between Africa and China – been accorded the advantage of being classified ‘black’ for the purposes of Black Economic Empowerment!”

There are several errors here and, possibly worse, an egregious example of Orientalism at work.
To deal first with the mistakes. One, it is not “Chinese in South Africa” who are deemed to be black for purposes of BEE, but South African-born Chinese. If BEE status were to be extended to all people of Chinese ethnicity currently in the country, then hundreds of thousands would be eligible.

As it stands, about 8 000 are “advantaged”, but the many so-called new Chinese, post-1994 immigrants, are not. And, indeed, how could they be, whether in law or by common-sense reasoning?

Two, South Africa might think of itself as an imperial power in Africa and often behaves as such in its trade and other dealings with the continent, but the South African government would not grant a national “advantage” (BEE status) on the basis of a continental trend (“the growing trade between Africa and China”).

But that is only part of what’s wrong. The high court in Pretoria ruled in 2008 that South African-born Chinese were excluded from the apartheid economy and thus for purposes of BEE and broad-based BEE they should be deemed to be “black”. Where was the editor at Pharos, the reader’s friend and protector, the last gatekeeper against error?

What I find even more unsettling is that oh-so-unwitty “(our local version of ‘Chinese Checkers’?)”. This really is the other side, as in othering a race group. To me it smacks of Orientalism (whites and the West normative; non-whites and the non-West aberrant).

Worse still, it’s a false analogue and a lazy stereotype. Chinese chequers (surely in South African English it should be “chequers” rather than the American English “checkers”?) did not originate in China.

This simplistic draughts-like board game for two, four or six players developed from a game called halma and became popular in the United States in the 1930s (hence “checkers”). It has none of the subtlety and complexity of ancient Chinese board games such as weichi or weiqui (“the surrounding game”, better known by its Japanese name Go) or the simpler xiangqi, Chinese chess, which is akin to a mashup of draughts and chess.

Say again?

Darryl Accone

Darryl Accone

Darryl Accone is writer, teacher and independent scholar based in Johannesburg. He is formerly the books editor of the Mail & Guardian and director of the M&G Literary Festival. All Under Heaven, the memoir of his (mainly) Chinese family in South Africa (David Philip, 2004), was shortlisted for the 2005 Alan Paton Award. Accone is a Fellow of the Salzburg Seminar and the International Writers Workshop of Hong Kong Baptist University. Read more from Darryl Accone

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