London, June 19 : Chinese were reclassified as "black" in a landmark South African ruling allowing them access to economic benefits.
The country's estimated 20,000 ethnic Chinese were classed as "coloured" during the apartheid era but campaigners argued that since 1994 they had been seen largely as "white".
This had excluded them from South Africa's economic empowerment schemes, which give preference for job applications and contract tenders to black, Indian and mixed-race groups.
In a landmark ruling the Pretoria High Court accepted the Chinese as a "previously disadvantaged" group. This means that - at least in legal terms - Chinese South Africans will now be included in the definition of black people in legislation covering lucrative black economic empowerment (BEE) deals.
The controversial BEE policy, under which large companies have to surrender a percentage of their equity to black-run entities, is aimed at reversing decades of apartheid bias.
It covers Africans, Coloureds (mixed-race people) and Indians but has been criticised widely as a politically correct form of theft by ruling party cronies, The Times reported.
The ruling is the culmination of an eight-year struggle by the Chinese Association of South Africa (CASA) to obtain clarity from the Government as to the status of Chinese people since the end of white rule in 1994.
Patric Chong, the chairman of CASA, said: "As Chinese South Africans we were officially classified as 'Coloured' and suffered under the same discriminatory laws prior to 1994."
"The logical inference was thus that Chinese South Africans would automatically qualify for the same benefits as the 'Coloured' group, post1994. This was not the case and Chinese South Africans suffered a second round of unfair discrimination," he added.
None of the government departments, cited as respondents in the case brought by CASA, opposed the application.
The first Chinese came to South Africa in the 1870s after gold was discovered. They remain one of the most politically marginalised and separate communities in South Africa today.