For decades they were the non-people: ethnic Chinese South Africans who were excluded from the privileges of white society under apartheid, but for whom democracy meant they were now too white to win compensation for years of discrimination. A recent landmark court ruling has changed all that. Chinese citizens who lived under apartheid will be legally recognised as black, a decision that will potentially give the tiny community access to billions of dollars in state contracts and a place in front of the queue for jobs. The Pretoria High Court ruled on June 18 that the 10,000 Chinese South Africans had suffered discrimination under white rule, which ended in 1994, and were therefore entitled to the same affirmative-action policies designed to fast-track blacks into the higher ranks of the economy. 'I wanted to right the wrongs of the past,' says Patrick Chong, chairman of the Chinese Association of South Africa, the organisation that sought the legal action. 'It's important to me that people realise that Chinese people were very much part of the oppressed during the apartheid years. We were not part of the oppressors.' The ruling will not affect the estimated 100,000 Chinese who have moved to the country since 1994. Today, South Africa has laws that stipulate blacks must be given preferential access to jobs and state tenders, and it sets targets for businesses to have black shareholders and board members. The laws were introduced after apartheid ended, as a way to change the racial makeup of corporate South Africa, which is overwhelmingly dominated by white men. Ironically, South Africa's legislation draws heavily on Malaysia's affirmative action laws, which were set up in the 1960s to transfer some of that country's wealth from the economically dominant ethnic Chinese minority to the Malay majority. The resultant Black Economic Empowerment laws, South Africa's version of Malaysia's New Economic Policy, classified people who suffered discrimination under apartheid as black. 'Black' includes Indians and people of mixed racial descent. Even white women, when it comes to government tender requirements, are regarded as legally black since under apartheid's stern patriarchal vision they were expected to stay at home and raise children and were largely excluded from economic life. Yet Chinese South Africans were omitted from the legislation, most likely because they were overlooked rather than because of active discrimination. As one of the country's smallest minorities, they had learned during the decades of white rule to keep their heads down, leaving it to larger groups to confront the authorities. 'Under apartheid we were not considered white,' Mr Chong says. 'We could not vote, we could not go to certain places, we needed permits. We were marginalised like all the other non-white people.' The history of the Chinese in South Africa is sketchy, but the indications are that they first arrived soon after the Dutch colonised the area in the 17th century. The majority of today's community are, however, descended from the 60,000 indentured labourers who were brought to the country between 1904 and 1910. Most of the workers eventually returned home, but a number stayed on. It was during the apartheid years, which began in 1948 when the National Party won the all-white franchise, and ended with Nelson Mandela's election as president in 1994, that Chinese South Africans found themselves in the social wilderness. Under white rule, people were classified according to race, and an individual's classification would affect the rest of his life. Access to education, housing, health care and jobs were laid out in rigidly enforced criteria. Whites were the privileged class, and below them, Indians, followed by coloureds and then blacks. The darker you were, the more burdensome life would be. For the authorities, the Chinese were a dilemma. They were too small a group to warrant their own classification, but were clearly not white. They were labelled 'Coloured', then branded 'Malay' and even at one point 'Indian'. Once classified, a Chinese person would be obliged to live and work within the community to which he had been designated; it is not unusual today to meet a Chinese South African with a distinctive Cape Coloured accent and another with a deep Indian lilt. By the time the system ended, most Chinese carried the amorphous label 'Other Asian' in their identity documents. Conditions improved somewhat during the late 1970s, when the apartheid government began building a relationship with Taiwan. South Africa was one of the few countries to recognise the island; as a result, a steady influx of Taiwanese settled in Johannesburg. By 1984, Chinese were no longer obliged to live in ethnic ghettos; they could move into the white suburbs, but only with their neighbours' permission. A Chinese doctor or banker would have to go from door to door, asking startled white homeowners if they would allow him to live in their street. If anyone objected, he would have to look elsewhere. With the death of apartheid in the country's first democratic election, which swept the African National Congress to power, all that changed. For the first time, it did not matter whether an individual was black, white or Chinese. 'I was at last a South African,' Mr Chong says, recalling his first vote. 'A South African who was proud of his Chinese heritage, but a South African.' It quickly became clear that the humiliations the Chinese had suffered in the past would be brushed aside as the authorities came to grips with the bigger picture - how to materially change the lives of 47 million people, most of whom were poor and black. Economic affirmative action is the method that has been adopted, and most large corporations now have black partners and shareholders. Although companies can choose to ignore the laws - there are no penalties for those that do - they cannot bid for lucrative state contracts and risk losing business to 'empowered' competitors. For this reason, most large corporations have pursued empowerment arrangements. A case in point is Standard Bank, Africa's largest bank. In 2004, it offered black employees 4 per cent of its share capital as part of its black empowerment plan. Chinese South Africans were excluded from the deal. One of the bank's Chinese employees, Vernon Whyte, lodged a separate legal action to contest his exclusion. The case was pending when Mr Chong won his own victory and Standard has now agreed to allocate shares to its Chinese South African employees, too. Not everyone is happy with the court ruling, though. 'The defenders of the ruling have said this is not about [Black Economic Empowerment] deals,' says Buhle Mthethwa, president of the National African Federated Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which represents black business. 'This cannot possibly be true when you look at the number of Chinese-owned enterprises that we have in the country already. They show a people who, given half a chance, would want to strengthen their foothold in the South African economy.' Whites have also objected. 'A rich person from China will enjoy more privileges than a poor Afrikaner whose forefathers arrived here 300 years ago,' complains Cornelius Jansen van Rensburg, a youth leader for the Freedom Front, a political party that represents Dutch-descended whites. However, Mr Chong insists the victory is not for financial gain. 'The economic benefits are secondary,' he says. 'We are highly skilled, hard-working people who do not need handouts from the government. What we want is recognition that we are also South Africans who suffered from injustice in the past.'