The majority of Asian South Africans are of Indian origin, most of whom are descended from indentured workers transported to work in the 19th century on the sugar plantations of the eastern coastal area, then known as Natal. They are largely English speaking, although many also retain the languages of their ancestors. There is also a significant group of Chinese South Africans (approximately 300,000 individuals), of whom the great majority are recent immigrants of the last two decades.
In total the 1.2 million Asians in South Africa represent about two percent of the nation's population. Most are of Indian or South Asian origin, although there is also a rapidly increasing number of people of Chinese, who were sometimes classified as Coloured (mixed race), "Other", or at least partially as "White" under Apartheid). Traditionally, the group does not include the "Cape Malays", who were descended (at least in part) from South East Asians, who were classified as "Coloured" under apartheid.
The term Indian is far more commonly used than Asian in South Africa, although examples of both usages can be found.
There are more than 1 million Indians in South Africa, most of whom are descended from indentured labourers and or as coolie slaves who were brought into the country by the British from India in the mid-19th century. They were hired to work in sugar plantations or mines (especially coal) in the Colony of Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal). Traders, known as Passenger Indians also subsequently immigrated. Indian South Africans form the largest grouping of people of Indian descent born outside India. Since 1994 however, there has been a steady trickle of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent. Most Indian South Africans live in KwaZulu-Natal, particularly in the cities of Durban, Pietermaritzburg and their surrounding areas.
The smaller Chinese community was initially descended from migrant workers who came to work in the gold mines around Johannesburg in the late nineteenth century. Some of those workers were repatriated. Estimates vary, but the Chinese population is reckoned to have increased from 10,000 in the early 1980s to more than 100,000 in the early 2000s.
Chinese immigration caused difficulties for the apartheid regime. Based on the earlier status of Chinese as indentured labourers, the government classified immigrants from Mainland China as "non-white", in particular as coloureds, and therefore subject to numerous restrictions in residence, voting, education, work, free movement, etc. In 1984, South African Chinese, now increased to about 10,000, the South African Chinese received some rights of given to the Japanese who had Honorary white status in South African, that is, to be treated as whites in terms of the Group Areas Act only as they didn't acquire all of the official rights of Honorary White status and thus could not do things such as vote or be eligible for conscription.
In late 2006, the Chinese Association of South Africa filed suit to have Chinese South Africans recognised as having been disadvantaged under apartheid, to benefit from Black Economic Empowerment (BEE). Complicating this attempt was the presence of recent immigrant Chinese who had not been disadvantaged by apartheid. They much outnumber native Chinese South Africans. Because Chinese under apartheid had somewhat less rigid restrictions than indigenous blacks, some people argued against their receiving benefits. In addition, the status of Taiwanese, Japanese and South Koreans as honorary whites under apartheid complicated the case. Nonetheless, in June 2008, Chinese South Africans were fully recognised as having been disadvantaged and entered the BEE ethnic groups if they arrived before 1994.
For separate political reasons, the government had classified Taiwanese, Japanese and South Koreans, as honorary white, and thus was granted the same privileges as whites. There is a small community of Koreans in South Africa, numbering 3,480 people; it began to form mostly in the 1990s, and includes expatriates sent by South Korean companies, students of English, and individual entrepreneurs.
A number of people from Pakistan have also immigrated to South Africa following the end of apartheid. They often, but not always, live in the same areas as the Indian South Africans.
The Cape Malays are Indonesian and Malaysian South Africans who were the largest group of immigrants adapted to the society of South Africa and formed their own ethnic group/community. During the apartheid regime, they were both classified as part of the "Coloured" racial group and thus considered "non-white" and treated as such.
South Africans of Filipino descent were classified as "black" due to historical outlook on Filipinos by White South Africans, and many of them lived in bantustans, which were areas set aside to be inhabited by Black South Africans.