The Johannesburg equality court was so packed on Monday 25 March that more than 40 people were standing while others sat on the floor. They had come to hear a hate speech case, which The Chinese Association (TCA) had brought against 12 respondents.
The hate speech stems from reaction to a 2017 report on investigative television show Carte Blanche about animal abuse and the donkey skin trade, which was broadcast the day after the annual Chinese New Year celebrations.
It prompted racist and xenophobic anti-Chinese comments on the Facebook pages of Carte Blanche and animal welfare organisation Karoo Donkey Sanctuary, leading the association to lay crimen injuria charges against some of the people who had made the posts.
The TCA also approached the South African Human Rights Commission to investigate the incident as such statements can fuel xenophobia, according to TCA vice-chairperson Francis Lai Hong.
After a rigorous engagement with the Chinese community, historians, lawyers and other affected and interested parties, TCA decided to go to the equality court.
“If you say those things on social media, you must understand that there will be consequences,” said Lai Hong.
“We went to the Human Rights Commission, who were very supportive of us, but had many cases on backlog. [It would] have taken a long time to investigate our matter,” said Lai Hong, explaining why they had approached the equality court.
Activist lawyer Kayan Leung said that in as much as the Constitution is underpinned by values of “tolerance, social cohesion and inclusion”, there are not “enough state programmes that address dialogues on race” – probably because of the sensitivity around race in the country – and as such, “many people do not know of the historical context of South African Chinese and their role in South African history”.
It took litigation for the South African Chinese community that came to the country before 1994 to be included within the definition of “black” in black economic empowerment legislation, despite being victims of apartheid.
Lai Hong told New Frame that he came to South Africa in 1958, when he was two months old. His name was not always Francis Lai Hong. When his father gave his Chinese name on arrival in South Africa, the customs official said, “No, we cannot write that, give us in English.” The official then assigned them variations on his own name, Francois.
His father became Frank and he became Francis. As for their original surname, Chan, Lai Hong said “the immigration officer asked, ‘What is “to come from” in Chinese?’” It’s lai, responded Lai Hong’s father. “The immigration officer then said, ‘So let’s make a surname for you, Frank Lai Hong Kong. Just chop off the Kong because it’s too long.’ That’s how I became Francis Lai Hong.”
This experience of imposed identity is not particular to the Lai Hong family. Thousands of migrants from different parts of the Global South, who came as traders and later as migrant labour, were stripped of their identities.
Professor Karen Harris, director of the Archives of the University of Pretoria and head of the historical and heritage studies department, said the othering and discrimination of Chinese people is not a new phenomenon. She said “it has, however, escalated as a result of China’s increased presence in Africa and the West’s vitriolic reaction to it.
“The overseas Chinese and those in South Africa have generally preferred to maintain a low profile in reaction to slurs and discrimination. Staying off the radar screen, as it were, was a safer option, so they did not respond publicly to so-called anti-Sinocism,” said Harris.
“However, at the turn of the previous century, they took on the British colonial authorities in the Transvaal colony about the discriminatory legislation that abounded against ‘Asiatics’ under the leadership of Leung Quinn.”
Lai Hong said the equality court case presents an opportunity to educate the public about the Chinese community. The co-author of Colour, Confusion and Concessions: The History of the Chinese in South Africa, Melanie Yap, is expected to give expert evidence on the history of the South African Chinese.
Proudly Chinese SA founder Taryn Lock said that as a third-generation South African Chinese, she “felt deeply offended and hurt by the racist hate speech made against the Chinese community in 2017”. The incident prompted Lock to start Proudly Chinese SA “to promote Chinese history and culture and also to celebrate many Chinese individuals, businesses and organisations in South Africa who are contributing to society and the economy”.
“The misnomer that the South African Chinese community are descendants of the indentured labourers hired at the turn of the previous century [1904-1910] to work on the gold mines is perpetuated in popular consciousness along with a range of uninformed stereotyping of the Chinese,” said Harris. The history of the Chinese community goes beyond the 1900s, beginning in the mid-1600s.
“The current political climate often calls for populist political rhetoric, which scapegoats various categories of certain groups. We need to guard against attaching generalised stereotypes, which can fuel hatred and intolerance and go against what our society and country is trying to build and work towards,” said Kayan Leung.
Preliminary issues were raised on 25 March before the court could hear the matter. The 12th respondent made an admission of hate speech and apologised unreservedly, and therefore wanted to be excluded from the court proceedings.
TCA advocate Faizel Ismail opposed the application, saying it was unfair to the complainants, who had suffered because of the comments made by the respondent.
He said the respondent’s apology would mean little if they did not sit through the court case and listen to the pain they had caused. Ismail hoped that by participating in the process, the respondent would unlearn such behaviour and lose attitudes of cultural superiority by learning about other people’s cultures.
The case is proceeding.