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Albinos in the Laager* – Being Lebanese in South Africa

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This article is written by Cecile Yazbek who was born into a Lebanese family in East London, South Africa. She is the author of three books all related to the Lebanese diaspora. This is the first in a three-part series for the Center. All photos courtesy of author.

* laager, a defensive circle of Boer wagons from which attacks were repelled and launched.

Haddad Family. 1918. Queenstown

Haddad Family. 1918. Queenstown

How does the past impact the present? J.M. Coetzee says, “Historical understanding is understanding of the past as a shaping force upon the present. Insofar as that shaping force is tangibly felt upon our lives, historical understanding is part of the present.”[1] The shaping force, in this case classification of Lebanese Asians as white in South Africa, could not be more tangible. In examining the 1913 court battle for citizenship and its entitlements, I try to understand how we were during apartheid and what we have become.

I was born in 1953 into a Lebanese family in apartheid South Africa. In 1986, I left there and came to live in Australia. It would be six years before Nelson Mandela was released from prison and apartheid ended.

My unease

When the 1996 Truth and Reconciliation Commission began hearings into human rights violations committed during the apartheid era, I felt increasingly uneasy. Whether or not we knew about atrocities, we were all contaminated by the air of violence and cruelty. We white South Africans who live abroad were surely not absolved of the sins of one of the great crimes of the twentieth century simply because we had emigrated. I wanted to uncover those dark patches in my own heart.

Wealth in South Africa

Diamonds, gold and ostrich feathers were the country’s wealth in the late 19th century. Immigrants, among them Lebanese, Jews and Greeks, entered the country under British colonial rules that classified people by race and colour. As part of that stream, my grandparents left Lebanon and settled in South Africa at a time when antagonism towards successful foreigners began to grow. Exclusion on racial grounds was one way of reducing their economic prominence

Court case made us white

Haddads and Yazbeks. 1967.

Haddads and Yazbeks in East London, South Africa. 1967.

In a 1913 reversal of permission given in 1907, Lebanese/Syrian Moses Gandur was denied the right to purchase land in Johannesburg because he was a member of a race forbidden from owning property in South Africa. Helped by his Maronite Church, Gandur took his case to the High Court. His lawyers successfully argued that Syrians came from the place where Christianity originated and that the law in South Africa was intended to prejudice non-Christians and other unbelievers and was not meant to impose restrictions on Christians. Thus the Lebanese, my ancestors included, won the right to remain in South Africa with all the privileges of Europeans because of their Christian adherence. Their view of themselves as special – Christians in the Arab world – was reinforced in their new country: they were special as Christian whites in Africa.

Whiteness threatened by politics

When the National Party came to power in 1948, the second generation of Lebanese was well-established but the story of the court cases was buried – a secret underpinning our business and personal lives. The cornerstone of the Apartheid plan was the Population Registration Act under which we Lebanese faced the possibility of losing our white status. [2] The new regime’s zealous compilation of an index of racial categories based on skin colour posed a threat to Lebanese whose variations in skin tone made it harder for a uniform racial classification to be applied. New Lebanese migrants were no longer welcome in South Africa. All groups carried an identity document indicating race. As whites, we were elites, marking us, whether racist or not. In public, we felt constrained to be perfect in our self-presentation and to eschew anything that smacked of a second-class life.

Africans, Asians (Indians and Chinese) and ‘Coloureds’ would not have had a chance of winning a case for whiteness. We Lebanese were inside the Boer laager. For almost fifty years from 1948, no one in or outside the community mentioned the legal battles that won our whiteness. Generations grew up privileged without any knowledge of our ancestors’ battles. Only in 2001 did Cedar Leaf magazine of the Lebanese in South Africa publish the story, including judgements from the High Court. [3]

Then to Now

Lebanese women attend a wedding in East London.1940s.

Lebanese women attend a wedding in East London, South Africa. 1940s.

In the bad old days, I looked for anti-apartheid activism in the Lebanese community. But both our Christian social justice beliefs and our culture of hospitality were silenced by overwhelming fear. We were politically timid. I’d seen police detentions and shootings. Not everyone could be on the front line against that ruthless and brutal regime. This fight to remain white, and therefore acceptable, had a deep impact on our psyches. With secrecy and fear around our hard-won racial status, we were in the margins of the society, unable to question the status quo.

I myself, as a young, politically outspoken mother, had attracted some minor but nerve-wracking attention from the authorities. I held concerns for my children’s moral and physical safety. As fear won, Australia looked like a safe place.

One hundred years after that court case, I see my face wearing layers of time peopled by my Lebanese ancestors. My post-colonial white South African identity is bitterly burdened. I moved from a place of unreal privilege into the ordinary world and found my expectations tainted by my entitled life. And yet, it was my growing up in South Africa that taught me how to adjust my moral compass and remain engaged in a troubled world.

Sources

[1] “What is a Classic?” J.M. Coetzee. Stranger Shores, Essays 1986-1999 (London: Secker & Warburg, 2001).

[2] Guita Hourani “The Struggle of the Christian Lebanese for Land Ownership in South Africa” (Beirut: Mari 2000).

[3] Cedar Leaf news magazine of the Lebanese South African community, Parkhurst, Johannesburg July/August 2001

Further reading

Ghassan Hage, “White Self-racialization as Identity Fetishism: Capitalism and the Experience of Colonial Whiteness” in Racialization: Studies in Theory and Practice, ed. John Solomos and Karim Murji (Oxford: OUP, 2004) pp 185-205

Hanna, Ken and Fr Charbel Habchi, “People of the Cedars” A twentieth century insight into the Lebanese South African community. South Africa, 2011

 

18 responses on “Albinos in the Laager* – Being Lebanese in South Africa

  1. Miranda Forshaw says:

    Most interesting Cecile.
    Best wishes.
    Erstwhile neighbour in Leslie Road!

    1. Cecile Yazbek says:

      I remember you well! Thanks for reading, Miranda.

  2. Chris Stanton says:

    And I thought growing up as a white, albeit of British ancestry, in South Africa had been difficult due to the moral non-sequiturs of the Apartheid era! There were a few Lebanese boys at the Catholic boarding school I attended, and it’s only on reading this essay that I now understand the meekness of these quiet achievers. I left South Africa in 1973, having not made much of a stand against the injustices of Apartheid, so I figured that merely staying on would render me part of the problem…
    Very interesting, Cecile.

    1. Cecile Yazbek says:

      Thanks, Chris. It remains an edgy topic; we need to restore our moral courage.

      1. Jerome JOSEPH says:

        Are you the Chris Stanton that went to CBC Kimberly?? The level headed one??

  3. Natalie Conyer says:

    Thanks, Cecile, for a thoughtful and wise piece, which uncovers a bit more of the past and has lessons for the troubled present.

  4. Mathew Todres says:

    Hi Cecile…you may find Gideon Shimoni’s “Community and Conscience” of interest in which he explores Jewish South African responses to Apartheid. Through analysis of archival records Shimoni’s overall finding is this: Yes there were famous Jewish individuals like Ruth First, Joe Slovo, Helen Suzman and Albie Sachs who challenged the Apartheid regime …but the official community response was one of a minority group protecting itself and its precarious position in a violent and racist society…much like the Lebanese. In this sense I imagine the community huddled in their laager to seek protection not from Zulu impis, but rather from physical (house arrest, detention, torture, death) and ideological (anti-Semitism) threat from the regime.

    1. Cecile Yazbek says:

      Thanks, Mathew. The point is that the racial status of Lebanese under the apartheid regime was fragile; the racial status of the Jews was secure.

  5. Susan Beinart says:

    Hi there, Cecile,
    I want to tell you how much I enjoyed reading your piece, which flowed and enlightened. Your very readable style should enable this piece to be imbibed by many, as it deserves to be.

  6. Sara Dowse says:

    It does seem incredible that still racist attitudes operate in a country like America. African-Americans lead a very precarious existence as we have recently seen. I don’t know enough about South Africa but I do know very well the responses of the American Jewish community to the very strong antisemitism of the time when I was growing up, and the pressure to ‘prove’ that we were as American as apple pie. The judge that sentenced the Rosenbergs was a Jew himself. Now that Jews are ‘secure’ in the US, Muslims are the target. Minority groups always seem to have a ‘fragile’ existence. So much to learn about this. Thanks for a fascinating article.

  7. Leila Yusaf Chung says:

    Thank you Cecile for this thought provoking article. Race, religion and class are endemic social dividers and continue to be tools for controlling Us- the masses. Even in the literary world, the white supremacist colonial patriarchal language is used with acceptance and normality. Keep on beautifying the world with your writing.

  8. Jerome says:

    Apologies Cecile for not introducing myself. I’m Paul’s brother living in So California. Got quite a surprise to see Stanton’s name..its been 53 years since I saw it! By the way my maternal grandparents were involved in the issue. My grandma Victoria, great friends with your family in EL, happened to be fair and blue eyes and she was taken down to Cape Town during the interviews! Good wishes. Catch up when next in beautiful SYD. May be sooner than we think…may be Trumped into having to

    1. cecile yazbek says:

      Thanks, Jerome. The personal impact of racist laws was never more keenly felt than at that time and down the generations in South Africa. I look forward to meeting you in Sydney.

  9. Yvonne Matta says:

    Thank you Cecile for an excellent article. I also read your book, “Olive Trees Around My Table” with great pleasure. You said many of the same things there. Of course I knew many Lebanese had gone to Africa, but what you wrote was a revelation. My maternal grandfather came to Australia in the early 1890s and we have been going back and forth ever since. The Civil War of 1975 brought us back to Australia. I bless the courage of my ancestors on both sides who gave me the opportunity to be part of two cultures.

    1. cecile yazbek says:

      Thank you, Yvonne. Indeed, our ancestors remain a blessing to us.

  10. Richard White says:

    This is a thought provoking article, Cecile, as others have noted; its implications reverberate in ‘the present’ for us, white Australians, Christians, Catholics or whoever we are constantly challenged by a fragile individual conscience in the overlapping orthodoxies of our communal existence. In other words, how to be faithful to the truth or Truth that suffering and injustice both reveal and conceal; our relationship with Indigenous peoples and refugees for a start. Thank you, Richard

    1. cecile yazbek says:

      Thank you, Richard. Many of us feel the need for an open respectful discussion of these issues, more so at this time.

  11. Joy de Beyer says:

    Fascinating – I knew nothing of the law suit over racial designation. Born in South Africa in 1958 in the proudly Lebanese Sanan family, I didn’t know that people hid their Lebanese origins. Mind you, my “Tete” (granny) who was born in Damascus, bristled if we called her an Arab. “I am Persian princess. I am descended from the Phoenicians” she declaimed, to our (rather derisive) laughter. Racial and tribal divides run deep and wide, alas.
    by the way – that looks like my Auntie Rosie, seamstress in the middle of the photo of women at a wedding in East London, SA, and my mom, Lilian Sanan, on her right?

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