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To BEE or not to BEE?

The brouhaha surrounding the Pretoria High Court’s ruling to reclassify South African-born Chinese (pre-1994) as coloured is turning into a “broken telephone” message — ironically, also known as a “Chinese whisper”.

When viewed from outside the country, the issue would seem quite farcical, if only it were not so tragic.

The nitpicking and mud-slinging that has emerged in the wake of this ruling boggles the mind. Even the honorable Labour Minister, Membathisi Mdladlana (of all people), displayed an eyebrow-raising grasp of the ruling and context of the Chinese community’s court application. As Patrick Chong — chairman of Casa — responded, the minister not only missed the point, but also missed this community completely.

The high court ruling applies to a tiny community of about 10 000 people. Recent immigrants, who have created areas like the Chinatown in Cyrildene, Johannesburg, are excluded from this ruling, but this fact just doesn’t seem to sink in.

Of those 10 000 born-and-bred South African citizens, a small percentage will now be appraised — along with other historically disadvantaged groups — when applying for jobs. In terms of affirmative action, South African Chinese are now allowed to join the queue, but know in their heart of hearts that such a tiny minority group will never really find themselves anywhere near the front of the queue.

So what’s the fuss all about?

The main objections are two-pronged, but converge in a rather chilling and ominous path.

Firstly, there’s the consortium of black business groups that has vowed to fight this ruling. They somehow assume that lucrative BEE deals are now going to be snapped up by this small community. This is rather telling.

It’s a knee-jerk reaction to guard jealously the right of admission on to the BEE bullet train on which they have been riding. The posturing and finger wagging has taken the Chinese community by surprise, as this was not the reason they embarked on this eight-year journey in the first place. Then one reads Dupree Vilakazi (president of the Black Business Caucus) ranting that: “If Chinese are now part of the BEE deal, then Jews, who were also victimised during the apartheid era, should automatically qualify for these benefits.”

Did I mention a broken telephone? The static on the line must be dreadful.

But besides another eye-raising interpretation of this ruling, the fact that religious or cultural groups are being dragged into this debate indicates that we have started skating on thin ice.

Hold that thought.

The other voice of dissent, and one that has received the message on a particularly bad line, is the man in the street. There is an even broader misconception that Chinese people are now going to “take our jobs away” — a phrase that sounds horribly familiar. With the repercussions of xenophobic stereotyping still fresh in the memory, that belief is cause for grave concern.

In this week’s Mail & Guardian, a spaza shop owner was quoted as saying that “allowing them access to BEE deals and all that is unfair to blacks. As it stands, it is hard for us to access these deals.” And therein lies the problem.

The golden goose that is black economic empowerment has yet to reach and empower the people it was designed to help. There are already suggestions from certain quarters — notably from people like Mamphela Ramphele — that empowerment procedures need to be reassessed, as the benefits are not filtering down to the masses. So we have the new elite outraged that they (might) need to be a bit more welcoming, and the yet-to-be-empowered masses outraged that the Chinese are now going to cut the queue and add to their frustrations.

In both cases, the simmering racism and xenophobia are gift-wrapped in the argument that this Chinese community did not fight against apartheid or was not affected by it.

On a personal note, I have a great-grandfather buried in Brixton cemetery. My father grew up in Sophiatown, from which his family was forcibly removed in 1955. They were relocated to the “coloured” township of Lady Selbourne in Pretoria. So the Chinese community was subject to apartheid laws such as the Immorality Act and Group Areas Act.

When we found ourselves in the twilight zone of “honorary white” status (a label bestowed on the Japanese, not Chinese — but we all look alike anyway), we were still subjected to exquisite forms of humiliation.

Imagine trying to rent a flat. You find one, but there’s a condition. The flat’s yours … as long as no one in the building minds. So, to get the flat, you’d have to knock on every door in the building to ask if anyone minded Chinese people moving into the building. If one person objected to “the Chinks”, the application would be rejected.

What has not been brought to light is the fact that the Chinese community’s involvement in the political landscape in this country stretches as far back as 1906. Indian and Chinese communities joined forces to oppose the Asiatic Amendment Act. The Transvaal Chinese Association worked together with none other than Mahatma Gandhi to fight against an unjust system.

One hundred years later, the same Chinese community finds itself in the very same position. History does indeed repeat itself.

As for direct involvement with the ANC, in 1952 when the organisation launched its defiance campaign — a national civil disobedience drive defying apartheid laws — the ANC approached the Chinese community for support, and received it. A community elder, Stanley Man, even met the then ANC Youth League president, Nelson Mandela, and made donations to the organisation. As we’ve seen with the recent xenophobic attacks, historical support for the liberation movement is reciprocated in the strangest ways.

How is it that 14 years into democracy, we find ourselves bickering and splitting hairs about racial classification yet again? It is exactly what made apartheid such a despised system. This ruling and the venom that is being spewed show our true colours as a society.

What does this say about our levels of tolerance and, more importantly, our acceptance and respect for difference in South Africa?

That is the question.