Chinese South Africans still fight racism


In 1962, Norman Yenson was a third-year medical student at the University of the Witwatersrand. Being Chinese, he and his fellow students who were classified as “nonwhite” — one black and two Indian South Africans — had to wait outside the hospital mortuary while a white cadaver was cut up by their colleagues. Only when the internal organs had been removed and the body covered were they permitted to enter and participate in the pathology class.

The reason? In apartheid South Africa, “nonwhites” could not attend to white patients in public hospitals — not as therapists, dentists, radiographers, nurses or doctors — nor were they permitted even to view an autopsy on a white body.

Yenson, who graduated in 1966 and opened his own medical practice in Jeppe, Johannesburg, still recalls the blatant injustice of the system.

“Once we became interns, Chinese and Indian junior doctors were paid 60% and black doctors 50% of white wages. We had the same degrees and did the same work. My brother Sidney worked at Baragwanath Hospital and resented that, as a senior registrar, he was paid a fraction of what his peers earned.”

During their internship, South African Chinese, Indian and black doctors in Johannesburg were only permitted to work in the part of the Johannesburg General Hospital designated for “non-Europeans” and at Coronation and Baragwanath hospitals.

Incidents of racial discrimination against South Africans of Chinese descent were rife in the 1970s and the so-called colour bar served to ensure the strict separation of races. My research shows the following examples of this: a 13-year-old Chinese girl in Aliwal North was barred from playing in a tennis match against white competitors; Chinese boy scouts and girl guides were not permitted to hold their processions on municipal grounds; a Chinese motor mechanic had to work in a separate part of the workshop from his white colleagues and use a toilet exclusively reserved for him; and a Zimbabwean club rugby tour to South Africa was called off when it was discovered they had a Chinese scrumhalf. Moreover, Wits University withdrew from an intervarsity weight-lifting championship to be held in Bloemfontein because the then rector of the Orange Free State University said he could not allow the participation of two Chinese, adding that they were not permitted to stay in the province for more than 24 hours.

Humiliating as all these incidents were, they marked a continuation of the 300 years of discrimination thatwas the Chinese experience of life in South Africa. From the time the first Chinese set foot in the Cape in the 1660s when the Dutch established their trading post, they have had to endure being branded as foreigners in a country that was to become their own.

The first Chinese were convicts sent from the former Batavia, Java. After serving their sentences, they became part of the “free blacks” in the Cape. Although only numbering between 50 to 100 men at any one time, the Dutch saw them as unwelcome competitors and special laws were passed to limit their economic activities.

The forebears of the present-day South African Chinese community were independent traders who arrived from the 1870s and settled in Natal, the Cape and the Transvaal. Prohibited from digging for either diamonds or gold, the Chinese made a living as traders, laundry workers and market gardeners. They arrived in a country where stringent control was exercised over their rights to live and work where they wished. In the British colonies of Natal and the Cape, Chinese could buy fixed property, but this right was withheld in the Transvaal. No Chinese settled in the Orange Free State until the 1990s because all people of Asiatic, Chinese and Indian descent were barred from the territory.

When Chinese contract labourers were imported to work on colonial projects in the 1880s, such as a railway line and racecourse near Cradock and the Durban harbour, racist diatribes appeared in newspapers, including The Friend of the Free State, the Diamond Fields Advertiser and the Graaf f Reinet Advertiser. Chinese were described as “filthy, dirty, terrible thieves”, “human rubbish, moral plagues and heathens”, and it was argued that a protective immigration policy should shut the country off from “Chinese coolies”.

Some voices of reason, such as the Cape Argus, questioned whether “the landing of any inoffensive man on these shores should be prevented on account of his race”.

The largest historical influx of Chinese into South Africa was the mass importation of more than 63 000 Chinese labourers to work on the Witwatersrand gold mines after the South African War. Their stay lasted from 1904 to 1910 but marked an episode in the country’s history that had lasting consequences for the tiny Chinese community that remained after the labourers were repatriated. These Chinese labourers had a positive effect on the economy and its position as the world’s largest single producer of gold. But, their stay exacerbated anti-Chinese racism and led to the introduction of the Chinese Exclusion Act in the Cape Colony, a piece of legislation specifically directed at curbing the freedom of the Chinese.

Throughout the 20th century, race discrimination remained part and parcel of life for the Chinese in South Africa. The racist legislation of apartheid affected almost every aspect of life for all those against whom it was directed. For the Chinese, this included where one could live and work, which schools children could attend and what public facilities were open to Chinese.

Immigration into the country was restricted and a total ban on entry was enforced from 1953. There was also a prohibition on the rights of the Chinese to buy alcohol, and permits were required to travel on trains, to live in certain areas and to attend universities. South African Chinese were also subject to forced removals under the apartheid Group Areas Act.

By the 1980s, the majority of the 11 000 locally born Chinese were third- and fourth-generation South Africans. They had grown up speaking English, Afrikaans and isiZulu and were equally at home at a braai as eating with chopsticks around a dinner table. Nonetheless, many South Africans still thought of them as foreigners and asked: “Where do you come from?”

In 1994, the Chinese, along with black South Africans who were discriminated against on the basis of race, were finally granted the right to vote. Since then, great strides have been made towards building an inclusive society. Yet discrimination against Chinese people is still evident, in particular in frequent anti-Chinese hate speech.

It is for this reason that the Chinese Association’s hate speech challenge in the equality court, which will be heard on March 25, is to be supported. The case, pursued on behalf of numerous individuals and organisations from across the Chinese community nationally, centres on comments made by 11 individuals in early 2017 on the Facebook pages of Carte Blanche and the Karoo Donkey Sanctuary.

The harshness of the language used, and the hatred it expressed, was a shocking verbal assault on the Chinese. The case will focus on the harmful, hurtful and discriminatory effects of hate speech that denies the dignity and equality of Chinese people. It should be welcomed by all South Africans who wish to celebrate — rather than denigrate — our country’s rich cultural, racial and ethic diversity.

Melanie Yap is the co-author, with Dianne Leong Man, of Colour, Confusion and Concessions: The History of the Chinese in South Africa (Hong Kong University Press, 1996)

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Melanie Yap
Melanie Yap
Melanie Yap is the co-author, with Dianne Leong Man, of Colour, Confusion and Concessions: The History of the Chinese in South Africa.

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