Twelve individuals are before the Equality Court for hateful and discriminatory speech directed at the Chinese community. Not only was the speech harmful and degrading, it also deepened old wounds. The effects of such discrimination is deeply hurtful. Yet, much of this suffering has been rendered almost invisible.
The case, which was brought by The Chinese Association (TCA) and began in the high court (sitting as an equality court) in March, concerns comments posted on the Facebook pages of Carte Blanche and the Karoo Donkey Sanctuary in early 2017. The 12 are accused of hate speech, harassment and unfair discrimination.
The hate speech includes statements that Chinese are “not human”, are “vile and barbaric” and that South Africa should “get rid” of them. Further statements are that they should be “wipe[d] out” and that “we should start killing their children”.
When the case resumes on November 25, the TCA will present evidence on the harmful, hurtful and discriminatory effects of these comments on the local Chinese community, both South African born Chinese people and immigrants.
“Many South Africans don’t know the history of Chinese in this country — the contributions we have made and the pain we have suffered,” says Francis Lai Hong, deputy chairperson of the TCA.
The association brought the case on behalf of about 40 organisations and people including the All Africa China Association, the South African Chinese Enterprises Association, the China-Africa Women’s Association, the South African Guangzhou Association of Trade and Cultural Exchange and the Sino South African Chamber of Commerce.
The TCA seeks an unconditional apology, an interdict preventing similar future speech, damages, the rendering of community service to monitor and remove anti-Chinese hate speech on social media, and that the respondents attend sensitisation training offered by the South African Human Rights Commission.
To paint a clearer picture, one needs to look at the history of the Chinese population, which dates back to the 1660s. At that time there were laws against the Chinese to limit their economic activities. When Chinese labourers were brought into the country as indentured labour in the 19th century, attacks on their race and culture began in earnest.
In their book Colour, Confusion and Concessions: The History of the Chinese in South Africa, Melanie Yap and Dianne Leong Man show that, at the time, newspaper headlines used words such as “heathens”, “moral plagues” and “human rubbish” to label all Chinese people.
Unsurprisingly, the Chinese, as second class citizens, faced similar restrictions as other “non-whites” during apartheid when racial discrimination was at its peak.
We are now well into the 21st century and without any racist legislation, yet mindsets remain. Much of the hate speech that is the focus of the present court case mirrors that used in the headlines of the 1880s. These words are used to dehumanise us. The negative stereotypes and misconceptions about our race and culture are still being propagated so that we continue to have to endure mockery in all areas of our lives, whether at school, at work or just trying to get our shopping done.
The effect of this prolonged discrimination has been deep and lasting, but we have suffered mostly in silence because of our status as a minority among minorities, which makes it more difficult for our voices and narratives to be heard.
Furthermore, many of us were taught to “keep our heads down” such that if we focus our energy on working hard we will thrive. But the reality is that our efforts are wasted when we are alienated and made out to be inferior.
As a result of discrimination, many Chinese people may have distanced themselves from their own culture as a survival mechanism to feel more accepted. Future generations may then be conditioned to favour the dominant culture and see their own as inferior. This is not to say that all deviations from our culture are wrong, as long as it is done out of free will. And we are denied the dynamic identity of being both Chinese and South African. Discrimination implies that as long as our culture differs, we are not welcome and we will not be considered South African.
Distancing oneself from one’s culture may seem passive, but it can also lead to an internalisation of racism. Chinese people may then take part in the alienation of individuals who choose to embrace their culture, and this may further invalidate those individuals’ experiences of racism. These dynamics cause rifts and internal conflict in the community where individuals are preoccupied with differentiating themselves instead of trying to find common ground and embracing a shared ancestry. The result is a loss of collective identity and a sense of belonging.
Growing up, many of us have struggled to find others with similar backgrounds to allow us to form real connections and feel accepted. Some of us found ourselves feeling disconnected to our culture and our people, while simultaneously struggling to be seen as South African. Despite having come here more than 300 years ago, many of the Chinese population are still seen as foreigners, and some people are even surprised that we can speak English.
Aside from social harm, discrimination also causes mental and emotional damage because it affects one’s self-esteem. Additionally, loss of identity and a lack of belonging lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness. Sometimes, what’s worse than the discrimination itself is the lack of validation that it is happening.
What puts the Chinese minority at a higher risk of feeling isolated is the fact that the culture is a highly collective one. Often we tend to have a higher regard for others and depend more on one another for self-regulation and feelings of safety. Also, the mental well-being of the community is worrying because many of us are reluctant to admit when we are struggling.
This may stem from the fear of being criticised by others and so we are taught to keep pushing ourselves. Although it may be done with good intentions, this can worsen the condition of those who are already feeling alone and pushed to the edge. It is likely that many of us have concealed our anxiety and depression.
The case against hate speech is about fighting for the dignity of the Chinese, holding people who have behaved in a hateful way to account for their actions, and creating understanding about the social and psychological effect of such behaviour and speech. Words of hate are rooted in racial discrimination that should no longer be a part of South African society.
We need to embrace true tolerance — which is not to deny the existence of differences but to celebrate these and realise that with differences, we are all human.
Mellisa Fan, a psychology honours graduate, is a Chinese South African