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.
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.” 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.
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
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.  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. 
Then to Now
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.
 “What is a Classic?” J.M. Coetzee. Stranger Shores, Essays 1986-1999 (London: Secker & Warburg, 2001).
 Guita Hourani “The Struggle of the Christian Lebanese for Land Ownership in South Africa” (Beirut: Mari 2000).
 Cedar Leaf news magazine of the Lebanese South African community, Parkhurst, Johannesburg July/August 2001
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
35 responses on “Albinos in the Laager* – Being Lebanese in South Africa”
Most interesting Cecile.
Erstwhile neighbour in Leslie Road!
I remember you well! Thanks for reading, Miranda.
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.
Thanks, Chris. It remains an edgy topic; we need to restore our moral courage.
Are you the Chris Stanton that went to CBC Kimberly?? The level headed one??
HI Jerome of our small group that hung together at breaks you are the only one whom I could remember and with genuine fondness
Thanks, Cecile, for a thoughtful and wise piece, which uncovers a bit more of the past and has lessons for the troubled present.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Thank you, Yvonne. Indeed, our ancestors remain a blessing to us.
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
Thank you, Richard. Many of us feel the need for an open respectful discussion of these issues, more so at this time.
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?
? Are you sure that’s what your grandmother said? “Persian”? Our Lebanese people who predated the arrival of Muslims c.700 were & are indigenous Aramaen – NOT “Persian”. (Though even to say purely Aramaen is inaccurate & politically motivated; since Lebanese & Palestinian & Arab Christians are descended from early Jews & ethnic Arabs & Greeks & Romans as well).
And Phoenicians were only a small subset of Canaanites; as they had only the few city states on the Lebanese/Lebanon (to use the modern term) shore & North African shore.
The word ‘Arab’ in modern times describes a shared language & culture – NOT an ethnicity. So much of that ‘not Arab’ argument has to do w/ people not understanding the contemporary use of the term.
For example my grandfather who was born in Marjeyoun in the 1890s spoke Aramaic. When he came to the States in the early 1910s he was called ‘Syrian’. (And I read recently that Muslims arriving to the States were labeled ‘Turks’ on forms – vs ‘Syrian’). And ‘Syrian’ was written on my dad’s birth certificate in the late 1920s; w/ the ‘White’ box not ticked. Probably because he was later taken for “Black” not only in rural Appalachian Ohio where he had gone for a job in the radio industry; but also by Black Jamaicans in Jamaica. (Non-Arab non-Lebanese Americans who labeled themselves ‘White’ attempted to prevent my blonde green eyed mother from marrying him in Ohio for that reason).
Yet I (born in the 1960s near New York City) refer to myself as ‘Arab’ (or sometimes ‘half-‘ as my mother is a Red Cross refugee DP from post-war Berlin) out of solidarity w/ Muslim Arabs & because we share a culture & history. Despite Arabic not having been our primary language. (And the very sad fact that I only know a few words!).
To describe oneself as ‘Aramaen’ in daily discourse is confusing to non-Arabs on many levels. (Obviously since these terms even confuse our own peoples!).
The truth is tiny Lebanon has been occupied by a MASSIVE number of people; including Egyptians & Mamluks (Mongolians) & Romans & Greeks & Arabs. The latter three had Black African enslaved people which became part of the DNA of Southwest Asia. (Yes we are actually Asian & Black. Put that in the Shisha & smoke it! As proven by DNA). Although Christians were prohibited (by our own beliefs/practises) from enslaving people (‘owning slaves’); we intermarried w/ Christian Ethiopians & Copts who came to Lebanon (& vice versa). In fact Ethiopian monastics & priests came to our Holy Qadiysha Valley.
Lebanon is a short boat ride to Africa. (Or tunnel if you are Gazan & tired of your open air prison at present!). The term to know is ‘genetic drift’. I suggest everyone get a DNA test & surprise themselves. Lol.
The term “white” that so many Lebanese have learned to describe themselves by is a false construct. Firstly there is NO such thing as ‘race’. The concept & terms Caucasian (Caucasoid)/Negro (Negroid)/Mongoloid were invented by an 18th c. German man (i.e. deranged lunatic). It was & is directly tied to European settler colonialism & used only in countries where Europeans colonised Indigenous people to systemically control them. Hence Australians & South Africans & Portuguese & Spaniards & Americans (Spanish & English) using the concept & term to enact laws to subjugate people. The sad results which continue into the present.
Then when Asians & others arrived in these countries they attempted to be seen as “White” – in order to not be subjugated. This was a bad idea btw (if that is still not clear).
As a brown skinned very Asiatic looking Lebanese in America; I could ask people to see me as ‘White’ all day long – but I will NEVER be mistaken for (this fake exclusive club of) ‘White’. Nor do I wish to be. Though ‘race’ is a false construct – racism is VERY real. I prefer to die under injustice than partake in injustice. What Yeshu (Jesus) said.
And the only reason so many of our Lebanese and/or Arab people in diaspora countries (such as South Africa & Australia & the States & Europe etc.) look more pale European (as there are Europeans of colour also) is due to our men choosing to marry & have children w/ the palest most ‘Euro’ looking females they can find. Lol (you know who you are Habibi). If you look at photos from our communities prior to 100+ years ago – MANY of us look very Asiatic. Round wide faces & full lips & round (vs. angular/pointy) noses & almond shaped eyes & very thick hair.
Already in the early 20th c. Prof. Hitti wrote about the ‘problem’ of so many unmarried Syrian girls/women; as Syrian (Lebanese) young men were all marrying Irish & German (etc.) girls/women from outside of the community.
For all of these reasons many of us (Gen X & younger Arab Americans) do not see ourselves as ‘White’. Because we’re not. xx
Fascinating article. Lived in ” Apartheid South Africa ” for 21 years -from 1948 to 1969.
( From age 16 to 37 .)
At the time , I felt it was all so ” un-Christian”-immoral-the apartheid laws . But , not much one could do about it . It must have been “difficult” for Lebanese in SA . ( We had many , good , Lebanese friends ). My sisters and brothers and I and my mother were all born in Egypt, and we , too , felt some discrimination . Terrible ,to think back .
Very best wishes .Eric Ruggier
Dear Lebanese Studies Center,
Speaking from Australia, we have recently found an article on trove (digitised newspapers), that it was mentioned our people served in the Boer War.
At that time we were classified as Syrian or Assyrian, or Turkish subjects in Australia.
I have found some names on the Anglo-Boer war site that look possible,
but was wondering if your research reveals anymore definitive names from Australia, or other places.
HABIB, MELLICK or MELIK
there are other names but again, it is all a guess without some proper sources
Hello Simon, You raise an interesting question. I believe that the Australian Lebanese Historical Society may be able to help you with your search, specifically Dr Anne Monsur in Brisbane. Here is the email address for the historical society and they will redirect your message firstname.lastname@example.org
By chance I ran through this article and as a Lebanese living in Morocco now , I found this very interesting and I loved the texture of elegant words in it ,Bravo
Thank you for your kind words.
How confusing that the one person (myself) who commented as a Lebanese who is not “white” & could never be taken for “white” had her polite erudite scholarly comment not approved. (?!)
WOW O_O how racist…
Did you teach at Clarendon Girls’ High in the 60’s?
I was still at school myself the, at the Sacred Heart Convent.
I am trying to find out as much as possible about the Lebanese coming to south Africa. My grandmother was a Zabora. Sadly, she didn’t really speak about her family and I was very young when she passed away. She lived in East London. I would really appreciate any further information if anyone has.
Hello Heather, I have made some inquiries but all led nowhere. May I suggest you contact Ken Hanna – he’s on Facebook as himself or as ‘People of the Cedars’ – he has compiled directories of Lebanese families in South Africa. Best wishes
Hello Heather. Did you get any more info or responses since you posted this comment last year?
Thank you Cecile…excellent reading and historic and sorrowful of what our Lebanese people had to endure in the 1920’s total embarrassment. I think maybe it’s time to close the can of worms….and brag that in many fields Lebanese have been top achievers throughout the world.
Greetings from Bloemfontein. Just as an aside, my grand father and his eldest son came to South Africa from Daroun-Harissa in Lebanon in 1905, and my father followed in 1924. They were all naturalized as “Syrians”.