JOHANNESBURG (AFP) — A court on Wednesday issued a landmark ruling classifying Chinese South Africans as black, making them eligible for benefits for those discriminated against under the former apartheid regime.
The ruling from the Pretoria high court came after the Chinese Association of South Africa (CASA) challenged their exclusion from laws aimed at redressing economic imbalances under white-minority rule, which ended in 1994.
CASA argued that Chinese citizens continue to be marginalised under the country's black economic empowerment and affirmative action legislation. Both laws benefit the country's black, Indian and mixed-race communities.
Patrick Chong, CASA leader, described the ruling as a victory.
"Under the apartheid rule we were classified as coloured -- a term used to describe a mixture of black and white race," he said.
"After the democratic government came into power, our status was no longer recognised as coloured, so we were in between."
The organisation has pressed the government on the matter since 2000 in order to seek clarity on their racial classification.
The dawn of the new democratic government in South Africa saw the passing of legislation such as the black economic empowerment and employment equity act, which seeks to redress the economic and social imbalances under apartheid.
The measures have afforded blacks access to discounted share schemes offered by large companies listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. The schemes excluded the participation of the Chinese.
Under affirmative action policy, blacks are also given preference for top business positions.
"We have unjustly suffered a second round of unfair discrimination by not being sure of our status under the two acts," added Chong.
According to CASA, South African citizens of Chinese descent make up less than 10,000 of the country's 47 million population.
Like their racial classification, the early arrival of Chinese in the country has been unclear.
Karen Harris, a historian based at the University of Pretoria, said the history of South Africa's Chinese population was scantly recorded.
She has pinned down their first arrival in the 1650s, as labourers for Dutch settlers in the Cape area.
Other groups arrived later to work in the mines of Johannesburg after the discovery of gold in 1886.
The South African War between 1899-1902 forced many Chinese to move away from what is now Johannesburg to coastal towns such as Port Elizabeth and East London.
But the largest concentration of Chinese remains in the Johannesburg region.
"The Chinese have suffered discrimination long before the introduction of the country's discriminatory laws. They have always been kept on the periphery of the country's social landscape," said Harris.
In his book "All Under Heaven", Darryl Accone described fellow South Africans of Chinese descent as classified non-white in the old South Africa but not deemed previously disadvantaged in the new.
Sipho Seepe, an academic who specialises in African issues, said the Chinese's low profile was in part to blame for the predicament.
"The Chinese have always existed in their own small close-knit communities, but that does not justify denial for recognition," said Seepe.
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