In a landmark ruling, the Pretoria High Court ruled yesterday that South Africa's 10000 strong Chinese community be included in the definition of "black people" for purposes of black economic empowerment status.
This follows a 2007 application brought against the minister of labour, the minister of trade and industry and the minister of justice by the Chinese Association of South Africa, a private organisation representing the interests of South Africans of Chinese descent. The government originally opposed the motion, but in April this year withdrew its intention to fight the case.
The court ruling is the culmination of an eight-year battle by the association to get South African Chinese included as a racial category disadvantaged by apartheid - and eligible to benefit from legislation such as the Employment Equity Act and the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Act.
Both the Employment Equity Act and BBBEE Act specify that black people is a generic term which means Africans, coloureds and Indians.
Under apartheid, Chinese were classified as coloured in terms of the Population Registration Act. In the court papers, the applicants presented extensive evidence detailing the ways in which discriminatory legislation operated against the Chinese under apartheid.
The association's lawyers, including renowned human rights advocate George Bizos SC, argued that like other designated coloureds, Chinese people were discriminated against in several areas, such as education, employment, ownership of property and voting rights.
But since the legislation was enacted after 1994, there has been no clarity from government on whether South African Chinese people fell within the definition of coloured people.
Private bodies assigned to give effect to the legislation, such as empowerment rating agencies, have not regarded South African Chinese as black for purposes of the legislation.
But today Judge Cynthia Pretorius ordered that South African Chinese people did in fact fall within the ambit of black people in both the Employment Equity Act and the BBBEE Act. The government was ordered to pay the applicants' costs.
Chairman of the Chinese Association of South Africa, Patrick Chong, lauded the court ruling, saying it was a "relief" after a nearly 10-year wrangle. "The Chinese community in South Africa would like to make use of this newfound freedom to create even more jobs for the unemployed," he said.