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Court Rules Chinese in South Africa Should Benefit from Affirmative Action Programs


Chinese residents in South Africa have won a landmark court case that will allow them to benefit from affirmative action programs intended to help disadvantaged blacks. The court has ruled, in effect, that Chinese are black people, too. For VOA, Terry FitzPatrick explains in this report from Cape Town.

The owners of Zonnebloem Bakeries are of Chinese descent, but they are South African citizens, born and raised here. Alice and Patrick Chong are proud of the business they have built. They provide a variety of baked goods to hotels and restaurants.

"We have a croissant table, a Danish table, a bread table, a muffin table," explains Alice Chong.

"All of the bread products over here are made from scratch," adds Patrick Chong. "We don't use pre-mixes. This is the bread that was baked from days gone by. We still use the original recipes of bread."

But the Chongs are angry about a certificate tucked away on a shelf in their office.

"This is my classification," Alice says.

The certificate is the bakery's BEE rating. That stands for Black Economic Empowerment, it is South Africa's program to give black-owned companies a helping hand to correct inequality created during apartheid. Businesses are currently being audited, and those with good BEE ratings get preferential treatment. "One" is the best score a business can get. "Eight" is the worst. Alice Chong is not happy with the score on her certificate.

"I'm supposed to be faxing this to my customers to show them I'm a "four"," she says.

The Chongs did not get a better score because South Africa's black empowerment rules classified them as whites. The Chongs say that is unfair and, along with other members of the Chinese Association of South Africa, they sued the government. The argument in their lawsuit was simple: Chinese were regarded as people of color during apartheid. Like blacks, they endured discrimination. So, the Chongs say it is wrong to now classify Chinese as white.

"To me it's a slap in the face. It is apartheid in reverse," Alice Chong says.

"Yes, we weren't white enough in the old days, and we definitely aren't black enough now," adds Patrick Chong.

"Apartheid in reverse," quips Alice.

The rules regarding ethnic Chinese made work difficult for the man whose company conducted the black empowerment audit of the Chongs' bakery.

"All right, what we have is a file of a client in terms of all the information that we would review when we go through the whole rating," says Pieter Carstens.

Carstens' firm, Empowerdex, evaluates if a company has enough black owners, managers, employees and suppliers to get a good BEE score.

"Moving on, skills development, on-the job-training," he says.

Carstens says the government's new race-classification rule for Chinese was based on historical patterns of international trade.

"They look at what type of access those individuals would have had to South Africa during the apartheid years," he says. "They would say Chinese individuals were having free access, certainly with the fishing trawlers coming around the coast and coming into the harbor, and as such they were not disadvantaged."

The South African government declined to comment on its BEE policy or the lawsuit. But others expressed support for the Chinese.

"Anybody who was historically disadvantaged, and that person couldn't vote because of race, that person is entitled to BEE," explains Mbulelo Bikwani, an influential member of South Africa's Black Management Forum. "So, if those Chinese, they were not allowed to vote, they are entitled."

This week, the South African government switched course, and decided not to oppose the lawsuit. Wednesday, a court ruled that ethnic Chinese are previously disadvantaged persons who deserve the same benefits as blacks under the nation's affirmative action rules. The Chongs say the case closes a difficult chapter in South Africa's painful history of racism. The Chongs say that all victims of apartheid deserve equal treatment today.


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