Black, White, and the Limbo in Between: The Precarious Position of the South African Chinese Under Apartheid


The South African Chinese have long labored to manipulate their racial position to advance their individual and collective economic and political interests. Their negotiation reached its peak under apartheid, the oppressive system of segregation instituted by the National Party in 1948. Under various concurrent tenets of apartheid law, the Chinese were classified as non-white, Coloured, Asian, and Chinese. Like other non-white groups, the Chinese were subject to discrimination because of their race. Yet over the course of apartheid, the Chinese slowly gained more rights. By the late 1970s, they were still Chinese but had won many of the privileges reserved for Whites. The Chinese population managed this success through their small size and specific political strategies intended to portray their community as diligent, law-abiding citizens. Instead of protesting the existing social order, they sought to manipulate the apartheid apparatus to their advantage. Ultimately, the South African Chinese managed to manipulate racial policies to their advantage because of the apartheid state’s overarching concerns about its political and economic relations with the Republic of China’s government. Chinese South Africans represent a miniscule fraction of South Africa’s population and have received a commensurately small amount of historiographic attention. However, their experiences offer a privileged vantage point into the connections between South Africa’s domestic racial policies and international relations during the apartheid years. Ultimately, this study demonstrates that the international context deeply shaped the construction and reconstruction of racial and ethnic categories in apartheid South Africa—a regime too often dismissed as exceptional and divorced from a changing international order. This work not only engages the literature on the experiences of the South African Chinese, but also provides a critical case study for the larger literature on the functional utility of race in the policy formation of apartheid.


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