By Barry van Wyk, Research Associate, The Africa-China Reporting Project. First Published in The African Governance Papers, Volume 1 | Issue 3 | June 2023 by Good Governance Africa
This article explores Chinese media in South Africa, both in terms of the media content of Chinese state media and the media content of South African Chinese media operations, which is privately produced locally by Chinese residents. Chinese state media has a relatively small footprint in South Africa, comprising a couple of channels on satellite television, a small number of mainland Chinese journalists working mainly in Johannesburg, and content produced by the Chinese embassy and consular staff and usually published in English on Independent Media outlets (a South African news agency partly owned by Chinese state media). South Africa currently has one active homegrown Chinese media agency, African Times, which produces content in Chinese for and about the local Chinese community. The content in African Times is subject to the kind of content constraints prevalent in Chinese state media, but African Times provides an invaluable perspective on the local Chinese community. This article concludes with a comparative analysis of the content produced by Chinese state and local Chinese media in South Africa and an assessment of the unique contribution of South African Chinese media.
China is of enormous significance to South Africa in political and economic terms. South Africa cut diplomatic ties with the Republic of China (Taiwan) and established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1998. South Africa joined the Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) community in 2010 and China’s Belt and Road Initiative in 2015. In 2010, bilateral relations were upgraded to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, which included mutual support for each other’s geopolitical position and interests, and the signing of 38 bilateral cooperation agreements. China became South Africa’s largest trading partner in 2009, and in early 2023 accounted for 14.1% of South Africa’s imports (compared to the US, with 8.4%) and 22.6% of its exports (compared to Germany with 8.2%) (South African Revenue Service, 2023). South Africa became the largest destination of Chinese investment in Africa in 2010; in 2020, South Africa accounted for 13% of China’s cumulative investment in Africa (compared to the Democratic Republic of Congo in second place with 9%) (Ministry of Commerce China, 2021, as cited in Yu, 2022, paras. 4-6).
With increased economic and political ties have come increased cooperation in media and communication. Chinese state-owned media organisations are now active around the continent, presenting a Chinese perspective to the world in the context of the country’s rise as a global power. This article is an exploratory exposition of Chinese media in South Africa, home to the largest Chinese community in Africa. The article sets out the origins, recent history, and development of Chinese media in South Africa, considered in the context of overseas Chinese communities and the presence of Chinese state media organisations in Africa. The article differentiates between two types of Chinese media: the content produced by Chinese state-owned media organisations and the content produced by media organisations operated by Chinese residents in South Africa.
The content produced by Chinese state-owned media that have a presence in South Africa is published mainly in English and aimed at the majority non-Chinese population of South Africa. It includes content published by the staff of the Chinese Embassy in Pretoria and the three Chinese consulates in Johannesburg, Durban, and Cape Town; this is referred to as state media content. The content produced for the local Chinese community by locally operated media organisations — mainly African Times in Johannesburg, which is nominally a private enterprise — is produced mainly in Chinese; the latter is referred to as South African Chinese media content.
The article employs a qualitative approach and reviews selected material produced by the two types of Chinese media outlined above. The aim is to present an overview of the content of Chinese media outlets with a footprint in South Africa and to draw parallels between the topics of interest that are prevalent in the two types of content.
This article is divided into the following sections. Section 1 presents a short overview of the South African media landscape, briefly outlining the major media outlets and publications and data on the readership of online and offline publications. Section 2 reviews the presence and development of Chinese state media outlets in Africa and South Africa. Section 3 considers the publication of Chinese state media content in the outlets of Independent Media, one of South Africa’s most prominent media houses. Section 4 considers the development of overseas Chinese communities in Africa and South Africa and the connection of these communities to political organisations in mainland China. Section 5 provides a short history of South African Chinese media outlets and the current media environment of African Times, which is currently the only active South African Chinese media agency. Section 6 analyses the close convergence in coverage between Chinese state media and South African Chinese media, followed by a conclusion that outlines the unique nature of South African Chinese media and avenues for further research. This article continues the author’s previous work (Van Wyk, 2020; Van Wyk, 2021) on homegrown South African Chinese media and what such media reveals about the local Chinese community.
1. South Africa’s media landscape
As of January 2022, South Africa had a total population of 60.40 million, with an internet penetration rate of 68.2%; some 41.19 million are internet users. Of the latter, 28 million are social media users, constituting 46.4% of the population. South Africa has 25.30 million YouTube users, 24.20 million Facebook users, 9.50 million LinkedIn users, 6.44 million TikTok users, 6.20 million Instagram users, and 2.85 million Twitter users (Digital 2022: South Africa, 2022, pp. 16, 61, 65, 67-68, 70, 72).
Public media by the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) in the form of radio and television generate the most widely accessed media content in South Africa, especially channels broadcasting in indigenous languages. According to the Marketing Research Foundation’s Marketing All Product Survey (MAPS), the leading platforms for media consumption in 2021 were television, with a penetration rate of 76%, and radio (75%), followed by the internet (58%), social media (54%), and newspapers (42%). The most watched television channels were SABC1 (17.19 million), SABC2 (12.39 million), and eNCA (9.35 million). The leading radio stations were uKhozi FM (5.60 million), Metro FM (3.92 million), and Umhlobo Wenene FM (3.82 million) (Marketing Research Foundation, 2021, pp. 25-26, 31, 36).
The media organisation landscape in South Africa is highly concentrated and represented by a small number of conglomerates, the largest of which is Naspers (which holds a 28.9% investment in the Chinese tech giant Tencent) and its news company, Media24. The latter controls a range of magazines, online platforms (including News24), and newspapers, including Daily Sun, City Press, and all the major Afrikaans newspapers, notably the weekend newspaper Rapport. Multichoice, Naspers’s digital subscription service, dominates the paid television market.
Other smaller players in the local media landscape are Caxton Publishers, which is particularly active in community newspapers and also publishes the daily newspaper The Citizen; Arena Holdings, publishers of the weekend newspaper Sunday Times, the most-read newspaper in South Africa (see below), and the dailies Business Day and Sowetan; and Independent Media, publishers of around 20 newspapers and the online news platform IOL.co.za. In addition, several still smaller players exist, including the digital news and journalism platforms Daily Maverick, GroundUp, amaBhungane, and the broadcast channel eTV (Wasserman, 2020, pp. 453-455). Newspaper distribution in South Africa has decreased steadily over recent years. Based on numbers submitted by the news agencies to the Audit Bureau of Circulation of South Africa, in the second quarter of 2022, Sunday Times (Arena Holdings) reported a total circulation of 112,488, and the Afrikaans weekend newspaper Rapport (Media24) reported a circulation of 65,395. The daily newspaper Daily Sun (Media24) reported a circulation of 32,661, and the daily Die Burger (Media24) reported a circulation of 27,757 (Breitenbach, 2022). As an indication of how newspaper distribution has declined in South Africa, the corresponding total circulation numbers for the second quarter of 2012 were as follows: Sunday Times: 253,121, Rapport: 242,000, Daily Sun: 348,265, and Die Burger: 60,354 (Moodie,
2012a; Manson, 2012). Thus, over a decade, the circulation of these newspapers declined by 55%, 72%, 90%, and 54%, respectively. Independent Media newspapers include the dailies Cape Argus and Cape Times (Cape Town), The Mercury and Isolezwe (Durban), The Star (Johannesburg), and Pretoria News (Pretoria). The following is a list of these newspapers’ circulation numbers in the second quarters of 2022 and 2012 (Breitenbach, 2022; Manson, 2012):
According to a ranking of all websites (local and foreign) based on total traffic volume in November 2021, the most popular news website in South Africa was News24 (Media24/Naspers), with 17.9 million monthly visits (the sixth most popular website in South Africa overall), while IOL.co.za (Independent Media) was ranked second (and seventh overall) with 17.1 million total monthly visits (Digital 2022: South Africa, 2022, p. 34).
When considering only South African websites, in April 2022, according to a different set of data by the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) of South Africa, News24 (Media24/Naspers) was South Africa’s most popular online publication with a readership of 10.75 million unique monthly browsers. TimesLive (Arena Holdings) was the second most popular, with 5.12 million unique browsers, followed by BusinessTech (Broad Media) with 4.96 million unique browsers, and (in fifth place) citizen.co.za (Caxton Publishers) with 2.91 million unique browsers. As of May 2022, when the report was published, IOL.co.za (Independent Media) last appeared on the list of the top 10 most popular websites in October 2021, with 5.69 million unique browsers (IAB SA Narrative Report, 2022).
2. Chinese state media in Africa and South Africa
The year 2006 marked a significant shift in the presence and activity of Chinese state media in Africa. During this year, Chinese state-owned news agency Xinhua (新华) moved its regional editorial office from Paris to Kenya; China Radio International (CRI) (中 国 国 际 广 播 电 台), China’s state-owned international radio broadcaster, made its first broadcasts from Africa (Nairobi) in English, Swahili, and Mandarin; and the third Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), an official conference of Chinese and African leaders that meets every three years, for the first time incorporated aspects of media and communications. In 2011, state-owned broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) (中国中央电视台) established a regional hub in Nairobi. In 2012, the China Daily Africa edition newspaper was first published in Nairobi (Wekesa, 2017, pp. 12-13).
In 2010, People’s Daily Online (人民网), the official media outlet of the Communist Party of China, established an office in Johannesburg. This small office, staffed by two to four people, remains the most substantial physical presence of Chinese state media in South Africa. Over several years, this office has published paid content in local outlets, notably Business Day newspaper and the TimesLive news portal, owned by Arena Holdings,3 and (to a more significant extent) in Independent Media publications (see the section below). This content focuses on close economic relations between South Africa and China and “winwin cooperation”. Aside from content published in Independent Media outlets, the number of sponsored articles by Chinese state media in other South African publications has decreased since 2018.
Notably, in November 2019, Business Day ran a 12-page paid supplementcelebrating China’s 1949 Communist Revolution along with an article by the Chinese ambassador. This supplement drew critical responses from newspaper readers, including that the content was wrongly labelled. As per one letter published by the newspaper: “To describe this propaganda as ‘advertorial’ is to mislead your
readers. Advertorial implies editorial input; while extolling a product or service, it also offers a certain amount of objectivity. By no stretch of the imagination do these Chinese efforts to expand the reach and influence of China in vulnerable parts of the world such as Africa, meet these standards. In future, please boldly label them what they are: advertisements” (Business Day, 2019).
Aside from People’s Daily Online, other Chinese state media outlets, including Global Times (全球时报), Xinhua, and China News Service (中国新闻社) have in recent years also maintained a small number of journalists (or even only individual journalists) in South Africa, who file reports for publication in mainland China. The weekly English-language newspaper China Daily is published in Kenya and distributed in South Africa. ChinAfrica magazine, published by state media outlet Beijing Review (北京周报), China’s only globally disseminated weekly current affairs English-language magazine, is also distributed in South Africa. In 2012, ChinAfrica established an office in Johannesburg. The English-language Chinese state media television channel China Global Television Network (CGTN) is available as part of the satellite bouquet of Multichoice, the dominant paid TV provider in South Africa, as is CCTV-4, a Chinese-language news channel (Freedom House, 2022b, Beijing’s Media Influence Efforts section).
3. Independent Media as a platform for Chinese state media in South Africa
In 2013, South African media firm Sekunjalo Independent Media Consortium (SIM) purchased Independent Media from the Ireland-based parent company Independent News & Media (INM). The shareholders of Independent Media were reported to be SIM (75%) and the Government Employees’ Pension Fund acting through the Public Investment Corporation (PIC) (25%) (Mail & Guardian, 2013). In August 2013, an entity incorporated in Mauritius called Interacom Investment Holdings, whose shareholders are China International Television Corporation (CITVC) (中国国际电视总公司) and the China Africa Development Fund (CADFund), acquired a 20% interest in Independent Media, leaving SIM with a stake of 55% and the PIC with 25% (Khuzwayo, 2013). CITVC is a company controlled by China Central Television (CCTV), the Chinese state television network. At the time of the deal, it was reported that South African executives had approached Beijing for financial support on behalf of Independent Media. Leading government officials were involved in completing the deal due to SIM’s apparent close alignment with the ruling South African political party, the African National Congress (ANC) (Wonacott, 2013).
Dr Iqbal Survé, the executive chairperson of SIM and chairperson of Independent Media, has outlined at length his conception of Independent Media’s role as “telling the story of China’s rise” (Maromo, 2021). From the time he took up his post in August 2020 to the end of 2021, Chinese ambassador Chen Xiaodong, for example, published at least 15 articles, interviews, and speeches in Independent Media newspapers and online outlets, including, for example, “Unity is a blessing; secession only leads to disaster” (Chen, 2021a), “Leading the tide of unity and progress, uniting the forces of global development” (Chen, 2021b), and “Building on an extraordinary 50 years, creating great glories” (Chen, 2021c). Independent Media publishes a large amount of Chinese state media content and pro-China opinion pieces, for example, in October 2021: “Amid global turbulence, China continues to calmly lead” (Seale, 2021). Independent Media outlets regularly publish content by the People’s Daily Online South African office, the Chinese embassy, and consular staff. It is unclear how much of this (if any) is sponsored content or republished.
In 2014, Survé signed a deal with CCTV to create a new Africa-wide news platform, African News Agency (ANA). ANA commenced operations as a news syndication
service in March 2015 (Mkhwanazi, 2014), when Sekunjalo Investment Holdings acquired the assets of the South African Press Association (Sapa) news agency, including its brand name and news and picture archives. ANA has signed a contentsharing agreement with Xinhua, and Independent Media (via ANA) is the only South African news agency that syndicates content from Xinhua (Mkhwanazi, 2014).
Independent Media journalists have undertaken training in China. In 2019, an Independent Media journalist, Wendyl Martin, undertook a 10-month scholarship to the China Africa Press Centre at Renmin University in Beijing organised by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. During this time, he published at least seven articles on Independent Media. In his last article (2019), Martin noted that he was the fourth Independent Media journalist to participate in the China Africa Press Centre scholarship.
4. The South African Chinese community as an overseas Chinese community
The Chinese community in South Africa dates back to at least the 1870-1880s, when the first wave of migration from China occurred after diamonds and gold were discovered in South Africa. A second wave of Chinese migrants from Taiwan arrived in the second half of the 20th century. From the 1990s onwards, a third wave of migrants from mainland China arrived in significant numbers. Members of this third wave now account for the vast majority of the South African Chinese community (Park & Chen, 2021, pp. 237-242).
China’s Nationality Law, promulgated in 1980, made a clear distinction between Chinese citizens living overseas (华侨 huáqiáo) and foreign citizens of Chinese descent (华人huárén). Huárén living abroad who take up citizenship of another country will automatically forfeit their Chinese citizenship. In the decades after 1980, with the modernisation of China and the growth of Chinese overseas communities, the Nationality Law has remained in place. However, since 2001, the Chinese government has increased its engagement with overseas Chinese communities using state agencies such as the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office (OCAO) (国务院侨务办公室) and the United Front Work Department (统一战线工作部), which absorbed the OCAO in 2018 (Suryadinata, 2017, pp. 101-103).
Data on the numbers of overseas Chinese communities, especially in African countries, is scarce. However, one source that has compiled some statistics on this for many years is the Statistical Yearbook of the Overseas Community Affairs Council, Republic of China (Taiwan). The 2019 edition reports about 49.21 million Chinese residents overseas, an increase of 520,000 from 2018, and a total of approximately 2.05 million overseas Taiwanese, an increase of 69,000 from 2018 (Overseas Community Affairs Council, 2019, pp. 12-14).4 The vast majority of overseas Chinese reside in Asia (34.45 million, 70%), followed by the Americas (9.68 million, 19.7%), Europe (2.3 million, 4.7%), Oceania (1.66 million, 3.4%), and lastly Africa, with 1.11 million, accounting for just 2.3% of the total. Of the latter, according to the Yearbook, most are residents in South Africa (500,000) and Nigeria (300,000).5 South African Chinese media commonly cite a figure of 300,000 Chinese people resident in South Africa. However, researchers usually cite a figure of at least 350,000 (see, for example, Park & Chen, 2021, p. 238).
China’s closer embrace of overseas Chinese communities was most clearly expressed in the launch of the Conference for Friendship of Overseas Chinese Associations (CFOCA) (届世界华侨华人社团联谊大会) in Beijing in 2001. At the seventh meeting of the conference in 2014, President Xi Jinping delivered a speech in which he referred to overseas Chinese as members of the “big Chinese family” (中华大家庭) and addressed the over-500 delegates from 119 countries as “overseas compatriots” (海外侨胞) rather than huárén (Suryadinata, 2017, p. 103). The last conference was held in Beijing in 2019. Delegates from Africa are a small minority in the CFOCA. However, Chinese organisations from South Africa have attended the conference at least since 2012, when a delegate from African Times (see the section below) was present (China News Service, 2012).
One South African organisation, in particular, has received official recognition from CFOCA. At the 2014 conference, the Chinese Community and Police Cooperation Centre (南非华人警民中心), also known as the Chinese Community Policing Forum (CPF), a remarkable South African Chinese organisation founded in 2004 (for more details, see Van Wyk, 2020, and Van Wyk, 2021) that works to support and protect Chinese people and their property in South Africa, was one of 10 organisations around the world awarded with the title “Light of the Chinese Society” (华社之光)6 (People’s Daily Online, 2022).
South African Chinese media is broadly defined as Chinese-language news reporting produced in South Africa by privately-funded organisations and consists of printed newspapers, news portals and websites, and one extant news agency. In previous work on the South African Chinese community, this author investigated the wide variety of associations, business chambers, and other community organisations, as well as the networks that tie these units together (Van Wyk, 2020) and the structures and systems put in place in the community to deal with safety and security (Van Wyk, 2021). Below is a short overview of South African Chinese media and a brief history of the reporting platforms and outlets.
5. South African Chinese media
Although several Chinese web portals in South Africa publish and republish news (see below), the South African Chinese media landscape currently consists of only one active news agency, African Times (非洲时报), which publishes the vast majority of its content on its two major news websites. Coverage of local and international news is published at Africantimes2005.com, and a dedicated news website along with a free mobile news app is published at 52hrtt.com (华人头条). African Times’ news offering extends to social media platforms and WeChat (the Chinese social networking platform) channels and a lingering newspaper with a small print run in Johannesburg. On its home website, African Times claims to be “the largest Chinese newspaper in Africa”. The main sections on its website are focused on news about South Africa, the South African Chinese community, mainland China, the rest of Africa, and international issues. Most of the reports in these sections are produced by African Times. Various other websites and news portals have appeared and disappeared over the years. However, since 2005, African Times has remained extant and is still very active in reporting and documenting South Africa’s Chinese community.
As a news agency, website, newspaper, and online portal, African Times occupies a unique position in relation to South African Chinese media. It was founded by some of the leading members of the South African Chinese community (Van Wyk, 2020, pp. 191-192) on 1 May 2005 to tell the story of the local Chinese community (Tencent News, 2021). Its head office is in Cyrildene, Johannesburg’s second or “new”
Chinatown, where most recent Chinese immigrants from China’s Fujian Province reside. The “old” Chinatown on Commissioner Street in Newtown, Johannesburg, is tied to older Chinese communities and is now much smaller than Cyrildene.
Cyrildene emerged in the mid-1990s, driven by a rapid increase in the number of immigrants from mainland China. The Chinese influx to Cyrildene replaced a mainly Jewish population that was gradually emigrating from South Africa, and hence the new arrivals could purchase property at affordable prices. At first, Cyrildene’s development as a Chinese enclave, comprising mainly shops and restaurants, was somewhat chaotic. During the late 1990s, crime levels rose, as in the rest of South Africa. Reports appeared in the local media of gangs, racketeering, violence, and other issues in the area, but Cyrildene is not necessarily more crimeridden than other parts of Johannesburg (Harrison et al., 2014, pp. 515-520).
In 2003, a local business association was formed to address Chinese residents’ safety and security concerns, formalised in 2005 as the Cyrildene Chinatown Community Association. The Association promoted a new vision for Cyrildene, including annual Chinese New Year festivities, a traditional arch demarcating the area as a Chinatown, and improvements in the management of the area (Huynh et al., 2010, pp. 301-303; Harrison et al., 2014, pp. 518-520). Therefore, the founding of African Times in May 2005 came at a propitious time, and the extensive coverage published in African Times has documented a more confident and vibrant community. Two arches were eventually completed in 2012 to demarcate the entrances of the Cyrildene shopping precinct (Ho, 2013). They were officially opened in October 2013 in a ceremony attended by then-president Jacob Zuma (EWN, 2013).
As regards the South African Chinese community, African Times’ reporting includes extensive coverage of community events, association meetings, delegation visits from mainland China, and crime and networking updates for the community. In addition, the site also contains sections with useful information for Chinese residents in South Africa; these include information from the Chinese Embassy and consulates, updates on the rand-yuan currency exchange rate, travel and immigration, and sections on South African wines and jewellery. All the reports published on the main African Times website are republished on the 52hrtt.com site and syndicated in a weekly update on WeChat. African Times claims to operate with complete press freedom as per the general practice in South Africa.
South Africa used to have three Chinese newspapers, all produced in Johannesburg. China Chronicles (华侨新闻报) was established in 1994 – when South Africa’s government still maintained official relations with the Taiwan and not with the PRC10 – by Feng Rongsheng, a man who was born in Taiwan. In 1998, when a 20-month-old Chinese baby was shot and killed by robbers in his father’s store, then-president Nelson Mandela visited the family of the deceased and the offices of China Chronicles. A second newspaper, South African Chinese (南非华人报), was founded in 1999, and African Times followed in 2005. At the time, China Chronicles was printed in South Africa and distributed as far as Mozambique
and Angola. From 2007, however, China Chronicles gradually declined when Feng
was killed during a robbery at his home, and the publication’s editor role faltered
(China News Service, 2010).
In August 2014, a ceremony was held in Johannesburg to mark the 20th anniversary of the founding of China Chronicles, which was reportedly attended by 400 people (People’s Daily Online, 2014). By 2017, however, China Chronicles was suffering from a decline in advertising revenue and far removed from its former glory (China News Service, 2017). It is not clear when China Chronicles and South African Chinese ceased publication, but by 2022, African Times was the only Chinese newspaper left standing in South Africa.
Currently, several other Chinese web portals in South Africa publish news, notably the site South African Chinese Network (南非华人网), published at Nanfei8.com. Nanfei8.com is a news and information portal in the mould of large mainland Chinese news portals such as Sohu.com and Sina.com. In addition to local, regional, and international news sections, Nanfei8.com also has sections for classifieds, jobs, a discussion board, and more. Nanfei8.com’s coverage of the Chinese community includes extensive reporting on crime and security warnings, but the site sources most of its content from various other sources. Because portals such as these almost exclusively republish content produced elsewhere, they are not considered part of South African Chinese media in this article.
6. Full alignment: Chinese state and local media in South Africa
Chinese state media content published in South Africa, such as the articles regularly published by People’s Daily Online South Africa office on the IOL.co.za platform12 and all the articles produced by the Chinese embassy and consular staff, share a few key aspects. The abiding friendship between South Africa and China is emphasised as being a win-win relationship, and projected in this way. The content underscores China’s positions on sensitive issues such as the protests in Hong Kong, the Covid-19 pandemic, repressive policies in Xinjiang, and the trade war with the US. It exonerates China of all blame for all these issues. Chinese state media content transmits the views of the Chinese government; hence it does not include views that are critical of the Chinese government and never departs from these viewpoints.
The content seeks to illustrate and showcase the Chinese development model, presenting China as an alternative to the West and the US. A consistently repeated theme aims to refute claims of so-called Chinese debt traps in Africa. The content also seeks to transmit the development model and experiences of the Chinese Communist Party and the teachings of President Xi Jinping. In November 2020, for example, ambassador Chen Xiaodong described Xi’s book, Xi Jinping: The Governance of China Volume Three, as the “golden key” to better understanding and interpreting China’s development story. He stated that China’s success lay in the leadership commitment of the Chinese Communist Party (Chen, 2020).
The Chinese ambassador in South Africa and leading consular officials often use Independent Media outlets as publication outlets; these diplomats frequently publish articles in newspapers such as The Star and Pretoria News. These outlets are also the preferred publishing platform for other Chinese interests in South Africa. For example, a mysterious advertisement appeared in The Star newspaper on 7 January 2017 with the byline “All South Africa Chinese” (sic). It claimed to speak on behalf of the “300,000 overseas Chinese population in South Africa”, who it was said had expressed their firm opposition to then-City of Tshwane mayor Solly Msimanga’s trip to Taiwan in December 2016 (The Star, 2017). A similar notice in Chinese was published a few days earlier in African Times (African Times, 2017) and accredited to the Johannesburg chapter of the All-Africa Association for Peaceful Reunification of China (which has links to the United Work Front Department), an organisation that was likely also responsible for the advert in The Star (Van Wyk, 2020, pp. 197-198).
A review of the China-related content published on IOL.co.za reveals a solid tendency to publish pro-China and anti-US viewpoints, giving full play to strident remarks in this regard by the Chinese embassy and consular officials in South Africa. For example, in June 2019, IOL.co.za published a report that included the following remarks by the then-Chinese ambassador, Lin Songtian: “We are calling on the United States to come out of the jungle and learn to live in harmony with the world. They must learn how to respect each other and equally (sic). Their fallacy of racial superiority will repeat the tragedy in human history” (Maromo, 2019). Independent Media outlets uncritically reproduce Chinese viewpoints and statements expressing the mutual benefit of South Africa-China relations. For example, a January 2021 article by ambassador Chen Xiaodong included the following passage: “China and Africa are marching on the road to modernisation – Partners, brothers and friends forge a new path into the future” (Chen, 2021d). In this article, the ambassador drew a direct parallel between the African ubuntu philosophy and China’s vision of building a community with a shared future for humanity.
Considering that most Chinese people residing in South Africa are recent immigrants from mainland China, it is not surprising that there is general convergence on political issues between Chinese state media and local Chinese media. South African Chinese media, notably African Times, do not depart from the positions of Chinese state media as outlined above. A review of its content can illustrate this. For example, the African Times news portal 52hrtt.com contains many Xinjiang-related articles, all drawn from mainland state media and none covering any foreign or dissenting perspectives on China’s policies in the region. The portal’s coverage of Taiwan is mainly drawn from the mainland news portal Taiwan.cn, which is critical of Taiwan’s self-elected political leaders and supportive of all mainland Chinese government viewpoints. A case in point is an article republished from Taiwan.cn in early September 2022 about the irregular spending and large debts accumulated by the administration of the then-Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen (African Times, 2022).
There is, thus, complete convergence between Chinese state media and South African Chinese media regarding reporting on political or sensitive issues. The extent of this convergence in Africa and other regions of the world has been framed within the context of attempts by the Chinese government to expand its global media footprint and to exert influence in the media to shape narratives and suppress reporting critical of China and the Communist Party of China. For example, a 2022 report by the US advocacy group Freedom House examined China’s media influence efforts across 30 democratic countries, including South Africa, from January 2019 to December 2021, and the resilience and responses
of these countries to these efforts (Freedom House, 2022a).
This report found that the Chinese government had expanded its global media footprint in 18 of these countries over this period. The intensity of Beijing’s media influence efforts was designated as “high” or “very high” in 16 countries. The report concluded that the Chinese Communist Party and its proxies used sophisticated and coercive tactics to shape media narratives and suppress critical reporting. However, the success of these efforts was often curtailed by independent media, civil society, and local laws protecting press freedom.
In the case of South Africa, the report found that the Chinese government’s efforts at influencing media have slowed since 2019. Chinese state media in South Africa generally strive to promote positive narratives and build ties with elites instead of using more covert or coercive tactics. Chinese-language media aimed at the Chinese community in South Africa was found to be dominated by pro-Beijing content. The report concluded that South Africa’s pluralistic media offered substantial resilience against Chinese state influence and that South Africa had a relatively solid and well defined legal infrastructure governing press freedom (Freedom House, 2022b).
Conclusion: A unique and untold story
For academics and others interested in studying the South African Chinese community, the value of African Times, in particular, lies in its unmatched coverage of the South African Chinese community. This content is almost entirely unstudied by academics due to the language barrier. It is also helpful to study the reporting of African Times because of crucial differences in content compared to mainland Chinese state media. Although they are aligned with the geopolitical goals of the Chinese government, the content of South Africa’s local Chinese media is expressive of a vibrant and confident South African Chinese community; it tells a story of a unique overseas Chinese community in Africa that also forms part of the South African landscape. At the same time, they express the community’s close linkages with a rising and more assertive China on the global stage.
In previous publications, the author has examined South African Chinese media content in some detail and unearthed a wealth of information on South Africa’s Chinese community. The language barrier has generally placed this content outside the purview of the general South African media and the populations at large. As a result, the Chinese content that South Africans do absorb is entirely constructed and defined by Chinese state media, which, because of its focus on events on the Chinese mainland or issues relating to China’s global positioning, lacks details regarding the day-to-day experiences and development of the South African Chinese community. South African Chinese media tell a unique story, yet it is almost entirely unheard of outside the small South African Chinese community. This fact suggests avenues for further research, particularly about the Chinese community in South Africa. However, this is moderated by the requirements for more South Africans to develop competency in Mandarin Chinese.
(please see original paper for footnotes and full references)
Barry van Wyk is research associate at the Africa-China Reporting Project (ACRP) at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, and business editor at The China Project, where he writes about China’s economy. He was project coordinator of the ACRP from 2015 to 2022, where he supported activities providing facilitation and capacity-building for journalists. He spent eight years in China, from 2006 to 2014, studying Chinese in Tianjin and then working as a business analyst and media industry project manager in Beijing. His academic research interests include the networking and media of overseas Chinese communities in Africa, and South African media of the 1950s. His recent publications include The Chinese community and the search for security in South Africa-China: A Partnership of Paradoxes (Palgrave, 2021), and Networking a quiet community: South African Chinese news reporting and networking, in Journal of African Media Studies (2020). Van Wyk holds a Master of Arts in Economic History from the London School of Economics and a Master of Arts in African History from the University of Pretoria.
More research supported by the Africa-China Reporting Project, published in the TAGP research journal: