Apartheid's surprising Asian connections

Uncover apartheid's Asian connection. From how to sort Asians to China and Singapore's surprising deals with South Africa.

Just the Basics

  • Varied plight of South Africans of Asian descent highlights political factors behind where certain Asian ethnicities were ranked in Apartheid’s racial hierarchy

  • China supported all sides in South Africa, hedging its bets between the ANC, Apartheid government and SWAPO in what is now Namibia

  • Singapore played an important role in weapons smuggling for the Apartheid regime

When you think of sanctions-busting apartheid collaborators you probably think of Swiss banks, shady weapons smugglers and secretive juntas. But what about China? Or Singapore? More than a quarter century after the end of apartheid in South Africa, new revelations continue to emerge about how the international community ignored sanctions against South Africa. Of particular note are the surprising roles played by Asian countries: a gripping tale of Cold War espionage, double-dealing and smuggling.

Beginning in 1948, the Apartheid regime in South Africa segregated the nation along racial lines. A dark mark in 20th century history, apartheid captured global attention through the struggles of individuals like Nelson Mandela and others to overthrow the racist regime. Many a movie, book and university class have been dedicated to this struggle, but a lesser known (but just as fascinating) component deserves greater attention: the plight of Asians under apartheid.

During apartheid, South Africans of Asian descent were subject to many of the same restrictions and deprivations which plagued black and ‘coloured’ South Africans. The amalgamation of South Africans of Asian descent into a broad category was just as ethnographically ham fisted as labelling all black African as simply ‘Black’.

South Africa's conundrum: How to sort Asians

While simultaneously claiming to neatly divide society into a handful of categories, the apartheid system contradicted itself from the beginning, making of mockery of its ostensibly rigorous distinctions.

Firstly, the category labelled ‘Asian’ excluded individuals of South Asian descent, who were in turn assigned to the ‘Coloured’ cohort. Any organizational rationale for sub-dividing Asian South Africans between South and East Asians was thrown out the window by also including persons of Indonesian and Malay descent in the ‘Coloured’ group. To make things even more convoluted, Filipinos were tossed into the ‘Black’ category; a reflection of historical Western disdain, resulting in a kind of meta-prejudice.


Annual per capita income by racial group in South Africa relative to white levels


In 1962, a laughably pragmatic distinction was added to South Africa’s racial hierarchy, when persons of Japanese descent were recognized as ‘honorary whites’. This change came about not because of any softening within the Apartheid regime, but rather because Japan had offered to buy five million tons of pig iron from South Africa for $250 million ($2.04 billion in 2017 dollars). Not wanting to anger visiting Japanese delegates by barring them from the hotel swimming pool (among other injustices), the South African government amended its legislation “in view of the trade agreement.”

Honorary white status, while reminiscent of a similar appellation bestowed on the Japanese people by Adolf Hitler, also led to Japanese individuals being tolerated in white-only establishments. This quickly led to an amusing act of civil disobedience, in which Chinese South Africans would sneak into previously off-limits areas by pretending to be Japanese. Unsurprisingly, it proved difficult for bouncers, concierges or lifeguards to winnow out the impostors.

Korean and Taiwanese individuals were also soon given the same status as the Japanese, with the inclusion of the latter highlighting the absurdity of excluding the (read Red) Chinese. The fact that almost all Taiwanese individuals are (like their mainland relatives) ethnic Han was not taken into consideration. Indeed, Chinese South Africans would have to wait until 1984 for their status to be amended.

China backs all sides during apartheid

With such a shaky rubric for racial segregation it is unsurprising that the Apartheid regime maintained an equally ad hoc attitude to foreign affairs. What is of surprise is just how far these connections went, as well as the duplicitous nature of all involved. As Hennie van Vuuren details in his recent book - Apartheid Guns and Money: A tale of profit - all five of permanent members of the UN Security Council engaged in clandestine cooperation with the Apartheid regime. The role of China (a UN P5 member) is of particular interest.

China has long touted its ties to various African liberation movements, portraying itself as a staunch anti-colonialist ally. By and large this is the case, with Beijing supplying a host of liberation movements over the decades, including providing arms to the South West African People's Organization (SWAPO). Operating in what would eventually become Namibia, SWAPO fought the Apartheid regime which ruled the region as South Africa's de facto fifth province. Originally a German colony, South West Africa was transferred to British control after the First World War. Britain in turn delegated administration to South Africa, which extended apartheid measures to the region in 1948.


A tale worthy of a Cold War thriller | opensecrets.org.za


The resulting conflict became known as the South African Border War; an asymmetrical clash lasting from 1966 to 1990, when Namibia finally achieved independence. During this time, China provided military aid to SWAPO and its co-combatants, but also began selling weapons to South Africa after 1980. At the same time, China also developed ties with the African National Congress, which would eventually bring Nelson Mandela to power. China was not alone in playing the field, for during the same time, South Africa was also maintaining an intelligence sharing relationship with Taiwan, thus receiving assistance from two mutual enemies.

Namibia, Norinco and nukes

While no official ties or trade existed between China and South Africa during this period, both governments were in contact with one another. South Africa's vehemently anti-communist stance and recognition of Taiwan did not stop Pretoria working with China. For instance, China's state arms company - Norinco - covertly shipped weapons to South Africa which in turn distributed them to its proxies in Namibia, Angola and Mozambique.

In order to cover their tracks, both countries needed a middle man and found one in the unlikely guise of Mobutu Sese Seko, the dictator of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). Using a front company in Geneva, Zaire-China trade was 'facilitated', with forged documents claiming Zaire as the final destination for the weapons shipments.

China was given the code name 'Hansa' – probably after the local beer brand – in South African communiques and according to apartheid-era spy Craig Williamson, ten Chinese delegates travelled to the country in 1988 to share technology. Most worryingly was Sino-South African cooperation in nuclear weapons proliferation.


Apartheid's friends list. Source: opensecrets.org.za


At the time South Africa was pursuing a nuclear weapons program (eventually stockpiling six warheads before the fall of the Apartheid regime), and China signed a secret deal to provide access to long-range ballistic missile technology. In return, South Africa passed along American missile technology which it had been secretly receiving for years from conservative American groups and Reagan-era acolytes.

Singapore and South Africa in Afghanistan

Alongside China, Singapore also played a significant role in circumventing sanctions, acting as the gateway for covert military intelligence from East Asia and as a transit hub for weapons smuggling. South Africa and Singapore developed military ties in the 1970s, with Armscor using the micro-state as a venue for clandestine weapons purchases and sales. In 1982, P.G Marais, the chairman of Armscor met with Goh Keng Swee, Singapore's senior deputy prime minister and former minister of defence. The following year, Swee was invited to visit South Africa by Prime Minister PW Botha, who wrote to Swee assuring him that “your presence here will be treated with the appropriate discretion.”

Furthermore, Eddie Teo, the head of Singapore's intelligence agency - the Security and Intelligence Division (SID) - made many trips to South Africa to cement bilateral ties. Singapore would also cooperate with South Africa to procure “enemy” weapons systems used by communist states for research and analysis. This adds an entire new layer to South Africa's weapons smuggling deal with China, with the very same kinds of weapons being resold to Singapore. Both countries also worked together to facilitate under the radar sales of South African weapons. Many of these weapons would in turn be provided to anti-communist resistance organizations in Cambodia and Afghanistan.

South African weapons made their way by way of Singapore into the hands of groups like the Mujahideen in Afghanistan. Such a convoluted set of circumstances provides a telling example of just how bizarre Cold War machinations really were, as well as the importance of understanding the (oft hidden) ties between Asia and Africa.

Jeremy Luedi is the editor of True North Far East. His writing has been featured in Business Insider, Courrier International, The Japan Times, The Diplomat, and FACTA Magazine. His insights have also been quoted by TIME, OZY, Radio Free Europe and the Washington Times, among others.