OPINION: Racist and violent speech aimed at Chinese South Africans a threat to democracy

We all need to take a stand against hate speech to ensure that we don’t blindly fuel our anger and attack others that are different to us.

It was February 2017 and I had just come back after hosting another successful Chinese New Year’s event at Johannesburg’s first Chinatown in Commissioner Street. 

Yet again we had a few thousand people in attendance, the majority being non-Chinese, which was wonderful. This is what I had pictured in 1994 when our Chinese community was finally allowed to vote alongside people of all different colours and races. In that historic election, I remember whilst we stood there for hours chatting to absolute strangers, that we all had something amazing in common – positiveness and hope.

So, after coming back from the 2017 Chinese New Year event, I was feeling that excitement and positiveness again, full of optimism for the coming year. But that feeling was to be short lived when I started to read some of the comments on The Chinese Association’s (TCA) Facebook page.

“Wishing you death and destruction for your new year!” it read. This was not the first time we as the Chinese community had experienced such verbal attacks, so, trying not to let this get me down, I ignored it, but that proved hard.

I then started getting a flood of WhatsApp messages from community members asking if I’d seen the comments on Facebook. I went back to the Facebook page and there they were. Not just one or two messages degrading and demeaning the Chinese people, but a full-on attack of racist, demeaning and violent speech all aimed at Chinese people.

Comments like “despicable things on the planet! Hate the Chings”; “I say wipe them out”; “there are no more disgusting humans than Chinese people. I wish they all just die!”; “can we not stop these slant eyed freaks from coming into the country”; and one that especially shocked me, “we should start killing their children for a cure of the common babalaas”.

Discrimination goes back 300 years 

Taking a step back in history, not many know that Chinese people first came to South Africa over 300 years ago. At that time the Chinese were already experiencing discrimination, and as early as 1727 when there were some Chinese selling baked goods in Cape Town, the Cape Colony government issued a special edict to prevent the Chinese from trading.

This discrimination continued into the 1800s with countless newspapers referring to Chinese people as “heathens, thieves, human rubbish and moral plagues”. Race discrimination was a part of everyday life for the Chinese in those times. 

In 1904 the Cape Colony promulgated the Chinese Exclusion Act that ensured the 1380 Chinese residents in the Cape were strictly registered and controlled. All of them had to carry a document to show that they were permitted to be in the Cape – a piece of paper the Chinese called a “dog license”.  At the same time the Chinese in the Transvaal participated in Mahatma Gandhi’s passive resistance campaign to oppose the Asiatic Registration Act, and because of this hundreds of Chinese were jailed or deported back to China.

The Chinese that remained in South Africa continued to be treated as second-class citizens. Despite these challenges, they tried their best to make a better life for themselves and their loved ones. Under the Population Registration Act of 1950, Chinese people were classified as ‘Coloured’. They had no civil rights, could not choose where to work or live, and the majority faced the same day-to-day restrictions placed on others classified as ‘non-white’. They were also excluded from participating, interacting or visiting various public places in terms of the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act of 1953. 

‘Kept their heads down’

Nonetheless, this small Chinese community, which at its peak was around 30 000, continued to strive despite adversity. Chinese parents would encourage their children to study hard, to keep their heads down, and to obey the laws of the apartheid regime.

Many of the Chinese born in South Africa are 3rd, 4th and 5th generation South Africans and have only known South Africa as their home. Whilst many are South African, they still recognise that they are of Chinese descent and will not forget the ancestry, history, heritage and culture of their ancestral land, China.

Along with being proudly South African, many Chinese born in South Africa love this country and have done much to uplift and be a part of it – but this has not been easy.

Post the 1994 elections I was full of hope, and as the chairperson of one of the oldest Chinese associations in South Africa, I made it my goal to unite our community and to create a sense of harmony between us and other communities. I had experienced apartheid, albeit not as severely as some other South Africans, and I hated it. Because of this, I was not going to allow my children and future generations to endure the same experiences I had gone through.

And so I lived with hope and with the continual belief that things had changed for the better – until I read the shocking comments on Facebook. Reading this hate speech took me back to my childhood when I was bullied, and on many occasions beaten up and told to go back to China. Perhaps things have not changed after all?

In response to this most recent anti-Chinese hate speech, TCA called a special general meeting with all the main Chinese community leaders and representatives nationally. It was unanimously agreed that the harshness of the language and the hatred it expressed was a shocking verbal assault on all Chinese people.

Further, with an increasing number of people fueling and continuing these kinds of posts, the community decided that firm but measured action must be taken to sanction and discourage such hate speech. As such, TCA was mandated by the wider Chinese community to take the matter to the South African Human Rights Commission and, subsequently, to the Equality Court. 

Serious enough to take a stand

The Chinese community – whilst being passive in the past – have now deemed this current issue serious enough to take a stand. Racist speech is a violation of a person’s self-worth and of a group’s social value as a community. It conveys a message that Chinese people don’t belong in South Africa; that Chinese identity and culture are inferior and inhumane; and it humiliates, degrades and violates the dignity of all Chinese people.

Our community has decided to take a stand. A stand for our dignity. A stand against this assault on the cultural and identity differences that are part of the lifeblood of our diverse democracy. Hate speech against the Chinese community is wrong. But even more important than that, hate speech against races, cultures and ethnicities that are different to our own cannot and should not be tolerated. 

The case, which will be heard in the South Gauteng Equality Court on 25 March, is ultimately about speech that violates the core principles of our democracy and Constitution, and for which there must be legal consequences. 

We all need to take a stand against hate speech to ensure that we don’t blindly fuel our anger and attack others that are different to us. We need to strive for the acceptance of a diverse, inclusive and non-discriminatory society – not only for ourselves but also for future generations to come.

Erwin Pon

Erwin Pon is the Chainperson of the TCA.