Honorary whites is a term that was used by the apartheid regime of South Africa to grant almost all of the rights and privileges of whites to those who would otherwise been treated as non-whites. This was made on a case by case basis to select individuals but also to groups of people, most notably East Asians who were ascribed as honorary whites. Japanese, Koreans and Taiwanese were granted this honorary white status, and later on other Chinese and individually designated figures of various other races were added as well.
The designation was ascribed to all Japanese people (who also once were ascribed as Honorary Aryans by Nazi Germany) in the 1960s. This designation assisted a trade pact formed between South Africa and Japan in the early 1960s when Tokyo's Yawata Iron & Steel Co. offered to purchase 5 million tonnes of South African pig iron, worth more than $250 million, over a 10-year period.
With such a huge deal in the works, Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd determined that it would be tactless and disadvantageous to trade arrangements to subject the Japanese people to the same restrictions as other ethnicities because trade delegations from Japan would regularly visit South Africa for business.
Afterward, Pretoria's Group Areas Board publicly announced that all Japanese people would be considered white. Johannesburg's city officials even decided that, "in view of the trade agreements", the municipal swimming pools would be open to all Japanese guests.
The designation gave Japanese almost all of the same rights and privileges as whites (except for the right to vote; they were also exempt from conscription). Until the early 1970s, opposition party politicians and the press questioned why Japanese were granted special privileges, citing inconsistencies with apartheid.
The new designation granted to the Japanese seemed grossly unfair to South Africa's small Chinese community (roughly 7,000 at that time), who it seemed, would enjoy none of the new benefits given to the Japanese. As Time reported one of Cape Town's leading Chinese businessmen's saying "If anything, we are whiter in appearance than our Japanese friends." Another indignantly demanded: "Does this mean that the Japanese, now that they are [considered] White, cannot associate with us without running afoul of the Immorality Act?"
Inclusion of other East Asians as honorary whites (Japanese, South Korean and especially Taiwanese) complicated matters on how the Chinese were treated, and apartheid regulation on Chinese varied from department to department and province to province as locals could not distinguish these Asians apart from each other.
In 1984, the Group Areas Act was amended to allow Chinese South Africans to live in areas the government had declared white areas and use the facilities within them. Chinese South Africans were required to apply for a permit from the government in order to move into a white area. Permission had to be obtained from all the neighbours in the suburb for the application to be accepted.
Unlike Japan, South Korea was unwilling to establish diplomatic relations with South Africa because of apartheid. South Africa offered honorary white status to South Korean citizens when the two countries negotiated diplomatic relations in 1961. South Korea severed ties with South Africa in 1978 in protest against apartheid, and full diplomatic relations between the two countries were not reestablished until 1992.
The inclusion of Taiwanese was due to the important relations between South Africa and Taiwan. By 1979, Taiwan had become South Africa's fifth largest trading partner. As South Africa continued to support the Chinese Nationalists even after the Chinese Communist Party gained control of the mainland, the relations of the two warmed as both were isolated from the international community.
The "honorary white" status was given to other special visitors belonging to other races, including:
they had to get permission right down to the neighbours
Still, a family that wanted to move into a white suburb had to ask the permission of their neighbours – 10 houses to the front, 10 to the back and 10 on each side of the house they intended to call home.