Internet Governance: Chinese South Africans take 12 to Equality Court over Facebook comments

In the wake of a Carte Blanche insert on animal abuse and the trade in donkey skins in 2017, Facebook was awash with comments that made Chinese South Africans feel unwanted and less than human.

This is according to Erwin Pon, chairperson of The Chinese Association (TCA), when he took the stand during a hate-speech case at the Equality Court.

TCA in brought an application against a dozen people who posted comments on Facebook after the insert was broadcast in January 2017. The comments appeared on the Carte Blanche page, as well as that of the Karoo Donkey Sanctuary.

The commenters are accused of hate speech, harassment and unfair discrimination.

In its application, TCA seeks an unconditional apology, an interdict preventing similar future speech, damages, community service and that the 12 people who posted the comments attend an anger management course.

Although the case was first heard in March this year, the personal accounts of the hurt caused by the comments have played out since Monday, when Pon took to the stand.

One commenter described Chinese people as “the most despicable things on this planet”‚ while another suggested they should start killing their children for a hangover cure – an apparent reference to Chinese medicine. Another suggested Chinese should be banned from the country.

TCA said the hate-speech comments were violent and genocidal, particularly those which said Chinese people were “vile and barbaric” and should be wiped out.

Evidence led by TCA so far aimed to show the hurtful and harmful effects of the comments and how the comments violated the dignity and equality of Chinese people.

Pon, starting on Monday, shared painful memories of childhood taunting and teasing, including having been “made to eat chalk” by other children because he “looked different”.

His testimony included responses to each of the comments, in which he shared his experience of the hurt they caused.

In response to the statement that “we need to get rid of the Chinese in SA”, Pon said he took this to mean they were like vermin, and that they need to be exterminated like pests. It left him feeling dehumanised – “as if we were subhuman”.

“It takes me back to the past, when I grew up … separating ‘us’ from ‘them’ … [the idea] that me, my family, my children, my kids are not welcome here. And that hurt me. My kids have grown up here, they are fifth-generation [South African],” said Pon.

TCA said other witnesses who presented written evidence to the court included Prof Yoon Juan Park, who gave evidence on the harassment and racial profiling that migrant communities experience, based on her research on Chinese migration to South Africa in the post-apartheid period.

Henry Wing, a second-generation Chinese South African, presented evidence of the daily racism he faced during apartheid while living in the Johannesburg suburb of Vrededorp, an area designated for Indian, Malay, Coloured and Chinese people.

Francis Lai Hong, vice-chairperson of TCA, said the association was pleased to finally have the opportunity to present the community’s stories of discrimination to the court.

“These lived realities, both past and present, are important for the court to consider in understanding how such hateful, vicious comments have impacted on our long-maligned Chinese community,” he said.

The case, which is set down for this week and next week, will continue on Thursday with the cross-examination of Pon