Ben Winks | Farewell to a Chinese icon who stood up against hate speech

109-year-old Pon Ng Shue Chee, a beloved matriarch of Johannesburg’s close-knit community of Chinese South Africans recently died but not before seeing the end of the five-year-long legal fight against online hate speech, writesBen Winks.

On 28 July 2022, I sat at the front of the large Courtroom GC in the Johannesburg High Court, anxiously awaiting Judge Motsamai Makume’s arrival to deliver judgment in the South African Chinese community’s five-year-long legal fight against online hate speech.

The courtroom benches and aisles were packed with well over 100 members of the Chinese community, spanning several generations, chatting eagerly.

A silence suddenly fell, but the Judge had not entered, and when I turned around, I saw all eyes directed to one aisle, where a 109-year-old woman was being carried down the stairs in her wheelchair.

Such was the reverence generated by Mrs Pon Ng Shue Chee, the beloved matriarch of Johannesburg’s close-knit community of Chinese South Africans. Sadly, Mrs Pon passed on last week. Her extraordinary life deserves to be known and celebrated by all South Africans, not only those of her race and culture.

Making a life in apartheid South Africa

Ng Shue Chee was born into a wealthy family in Guangdong, China, in February 1914, not long before the First World War. After Japan invaded in the early 1930s, she and her husband, Pon Pak Kwong, fled to Hong Kong, forced to leave their wealth behind. In 1939, destitute and desperate to leave China, which faced another Japanese invasion in the imminent Second World War, the Pons sailed to South Africa (where Pak Kwong’s father was already working).

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Mrs Pon promptly became a teacher at the Kuo Ting Chinese School in End Street, downtown Johannesburg, while her husband became the principal of the Pretoria Chinese School. Many African cities and towns already had small Chinese communities established since indentured labourers were recruited in the late 1800s.

The Pons initially lived in Sophiatown, but later, owing to the apartheid government’s forced removals to make way for the white settlement Triomf, moved to the “Malay Camp” section of Ferreirasdorp in central Johannesburg.

At 17 Commissioner Street, the Pons established a general dealer store named Sui Hing Hong, which gradually became a hub of Chinese social and cultural life in what would become known as Johannesburg’s “First Chinatown”.

Despite the passage of discriminatory laws calculated to make Chinese and Indian merchants less competitive against white-owned stores and relentless official and unofficial harassment by apartheid authorities, Sui Hing Hong was a success. The Pons were able to provide a good education and gainful employment to their children and grandchildren, as well as to help uplift countless other Chinese South Africans, especially in the sphere of education.

Discrimination under democracy 

Mrs and Mr Pon both lived to celebrate the demise of political apartheid in 1994, and Mr Pon passed away in 1998. Over the next two decades, Mrs Pon continued to serve the community as a business leader, a philanthropist and, increasingly, a cultural treasure.

But the Chinese communities in South Africa are relatively insular. This is no surprise – despite their deep roots in this country, even fourth- and fifth-generation South Africans of Chinese race still face daily discrimination from compatriots of all races. Their South African nationality is overlooked, doubted or denied, and they continue to be the target of cruel insults and crude stereotypes.

READ | Chinese hate speech case: ‘They made me feel deeply hurt and helpless,’ says SA man

While some Chinese South Africans joined anti-apartheid liberation movements, most elected to take discrimination on the chin and raised their children to do the same. Academics have detected a similar response to white supremacy among Chinese communities throughout the “Western” world. This remained the case in the face of persisting discrimination in post-1994 South Africa.

Facebook hate speech

In February 2017, that changed. After Carte Blanche aired an episode about the poaching of donkeys for their hides, apparently for use in traditional medicines in East Asia, thousands of outraged South Africans took to Facebook to express hatred towards people of Chinese race (somehow overlooking the fact that the only poachers implicated in the episode were white Afrikaans men).

The comments were unspeakable. They ranged from propagating ignorant stereotypes to advocating for the killing of Chinese children. The common themes were that Chinese people are subhuman, that “they” are economic and ecological parasites, and that “we” (the white supremacist “we”) should “get rid of them”.

Chinese South Africans – who, by the way, are as outraged by animal cruelty and poaching as anyone else – were horrified and terrified by the torrent of comments. They had heard all of these insults before, but never so publicly and from so many aggressors all at once. This time, they refused to take it on the chin. A summit was convened, where organisations collectively representing over 100,000 Chinese people in South Africa mandated The Chinese Association (TCA), founded in Johannesburg in 1903, to take legal action against as many of the Facebook bigots as could be traced.

The Equality Court

Joyce Nam-Ford, one of the first South Africans of Chinese race to establish an attorneys’ firm, took up the matter pro bono. This would prove to be an incredible sacrifice, as the case would draw deeply on her firm’s resources over the next five years.

A complaint of racist hate speech, harassment and unfair discrimination was instituted against twelve Facebook users in the Equality Court in April 2017. Court officials mishandled the case file for over a year, a judge was only assigned in late 2018, and the trial began in March 2019. While most of the twelve respondents either confessed or failed to participate, two opposed the complaint fiercely and took up valuable trial time with unsuccessful technical objections, making it impossible to conclude the trial until December 2019.

Mrs Pon, then aged 106 but sharp-witted as ever, took a keen interest in the trial, attending each day and taking notes. TCA’s evidence traversed the centuries of systemic discrimination against Chinese people by colonial and apartheid administrations in South Africa (exhaustively researched by Melanie Yap), as well as the personal experiences (during and after apartheid) of Henry Wing, who was born in Vrededorp (Fietas) in 1945.

Mrs Pon’s grandson and TCA chairman, Erwin Pon, also recounted painful experiences from the witness stand and bravely withstood a week of abusive and sometimes even racist cross-examination. Erwin visibly drew strength and inspiration from his grandmother’s presence, as did the legal team and the whole community. Though she did not testify, the case would somehow have been weaker without her there.

A landmark judgment

Although the trial ended in 2019, the closing argument could only be delivered at the end of 2021, after the Constitutional Court had settled the constitutionality of the hate speech prohibition in the unduly prolonged Qwelane case.

Mrs Pon and the South African Chinese community waited patiently and optimistically for the judgment. Mrs Pon was eager to know the outcome, and thankfully she lived to see it.

Judge Makume ultimately delivered a long-overdue vindication of Chinese South Africans’ rights to dignity, equality, and national belonging.

READ | SA Chinese community wins hate speech case

The Court ordered ten respondents to apologise publicly, attend racial tolerance training, pay damages to the Hong Ning Chinese Aged Home and perform community service cleaning hate speech off the internet.

It is now, at last, illegal to tell Chinese people that they do not belong in South Africa.

The South African Chinese community is an integral and beautiful part of this society. I hope this judgment does something to help more South Africans appreciate that, and to appreciate the remarkable contributions of people like Mrs Pon – truly a South African treasure.

– Ben Winks is an advocate, who acted for The Chinese Association in this matter