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April 12, 2018

REPORT: First South Africa-China Dialogue at Wits University, 22 February 2018

Official South Africa-China diplomatic relations commenced on 1 January 1998, thus in 2018 the two countries are celebrating 20 years of diplomatic relations. This anniversary offers an opportunity to reflect on engagements over the past two decades and for envisioning the future. The Africa-China Reporting Project & China Daily Africa hosted the first South Africa-China Dialogue of 2018: 20 Years of South Africa-China Engagements: Past, Present and Future, on 22 February at Wits University's Senate Room.

The inaugural dialogue featured speakers engaged on diplomacy, international relations and politics, historical perspectives of South Africa-China relations, economics and trade, culture and people-to-people engagements, and was chaired by Dr. Bob Wekesa, Research Fellow at the Africa-China Reporting Project and Wits Journalism Department.



Welcoming remarks: Professor Zeblon Vilakazi

Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, Wits Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Postgraduate Affairs, opened the event. He reflected on the history of South Africa-China relations, and the relevance it has for Wits University management and outlook.

"It’s been twenty years since there was the official SA-Middle Kingdom diplomatic ties, but these ties of course extend beyond those years, in the history prior to the democratic dispensation," he stated.


According to Professor Vilakazi, many African liberation movements have had a very close relationship with the People’s Republic of China, dating from the 1960s onward. "So it’s a relationship that has its seedlings much earlier prior to the actual formal diplomatic relations, and forged in the fairness of jointly working together as part of the non-aligned movements... in ensuring that the world is a much better place, and an equitable world, that is multi-polar, that takes into account all countries, irrespective of their diplomatic, and military and political and economic muscle. So I think China has indeed been a great partner for the African continent".

From the context of South Africa and within the location of Wits University, Professor Vilakazi also emphasised the pivotal role Wits University fulfils as an interlocutor of dialogues for people-to-people, cultural and intellectual exchanges. "I do believe," he stated, "that the exchange of intellectual information provides the mortar that glues all these bricks together. So these bricks could not be glued together if there is no intellectual-cultural exchange, and that can only be facilitated through the intellectual, cultural and social and academic exchange".

Historical engagements: Melanie Yap

Melanie Yap, co-author of Colour, Confusion & Concessions: The History of the Chinese in South Africa, spoke of the history of the South African Chinese community, from the time when the first Chinese who arrived became exiles and convicts, and some were political prisoners exiled from Batavia to serve out their sentences in the Cape.  The Chinese numbered at most 100 men by 1795 and were part of the free blacks in the Cape Colony, working as basket makers, fishermen, traders, and craftsmen, marrying local women and becoming part of a cosmopolitan community.

From the 1870s the forefathers of the Chinese who were now fourth and fifth generation South Africans arrived from Guangzhou as independent immigrants. But the most significant and well-researched influx of Chinese in South Africa took place between 1904 and 1910 when the British government brought more than 63,000 indentured Chinese labourers to the Witwatersrand to revive the gold mines after the Anglo-Boer War.

By 1910, however, almost everyone had been sent back to China; the Cape colony enacted the first legislation specifically to prohibit Chinese entry into the Cape Colony. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1904 remained in force for 32 years, ensuring that the numbers of Chinese in the Cape Colony remained as low as possible. By 1913 adult male immigration of all Asiatic people was banned in South Africa.

By the 1950s, Chinese were among the non-whites permitted into the open universities of Wits and Cape Town. However, the threatened closure of these institutions to people of colour influenced the Chinese to join in on local protests. Apartheid laws in South Africa throughout the 1950s and 1960s caused much unrest in the Chinese community.

"Life under apartheid," Melanie stated, "essentially offered the Chinese three quarters of action: to resist, to adjust or to escape. The resisters were few, but they participated in the Defiance Campaign in 1952 and some aligned themselves to the African National Congress (ANC) and the Communist Party".

During South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, Chinese people were finally permitted to participate alongside their fellow citizens of colour. Race continued to be a determining factor in the lives of the Chinese for 14 years into the new South Africa, however, as they remained suspended in the racial limbo separating whites and blacks.

"Chinese found themselves not black enough to qualify for the many black economic empowerment opportunities, in the same way, as under apartheid – they were not white enough".

After negotiations with government, the Chinese Association of South Africa asked the High Court in Pretoria to rule on the Chinese position under the Broad Based Economic Empowerment Act (BBEE) and the Employment Equity Act. On 18 June 2008, the judge granted an order to include Chinese South Africans in the definition of black people. This ruling confirmed that Chinese people had, in common with other groups, suffered and were previously disadvantaged.

From the 1990s Cyrildene in Johannesburg became one of the new Chinatowns that gradually formed in South Africa, accommodating the latest influx of Chinese from Hong Kong, Singapore and Mainland China, who started arriving in the wake of the establishment of diplomatic relations between South Africa and China in 1998. Since then the numbers of Chinese people in South Africa have grown, and is currently estimated at 250,000-300,000 people.

Trends and perspectives: Wu Yu-Shan

Yu-Shan Wu, Doctoral candidate in International Relations at the Department of Political Sciences at the University of Pretoria, and Research Associate at the South African Institute for International Affairs (SAIIA) and the Africa-China Reporting Project, discussed the trends, perspectives and unique attributes of South Africa-China relations.

South Africa is unique to China because it is home to the largest Chinese community in Africa, offers the most destinations to host Chinese cultural activities, has ample student and tourist exchanges and programmes such as Confucius Institutes that promote Chinese language and culture, and boasts strong institutional structures such as banking and infrastructure.

The relationship between the two countries is constantly evolving, and there is no one perspective that can be understood of the relationship which is "divine and static". To indicate the evolution of relations, Yu-Shan outlined the different presidencies of democratic South Africa and their progression in relation to diplomatic and economic ties with China. From Nelson Mandela and the change of recognition from Taiwan to the People's Republic of China and the return of Hong Kong to China; to Thabo Mbeki and the cordial relationship with the formation of FOCAC in 2000; to Jacob Zuma in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis - The relationship with China helped South Africa, and in 2010 strategic partnerships were signed, along with the formation of BRICS and South Africa hosting FOCAC in 2015. Throughout all this both sides recognised the need to engage and not to isolate.

A crucial question in relations now is whether South Africa and China can reconcile a disjuncture between official policy based on common interest while public perception seems to emphasize differences.

Diplomacy, international relations and politics: H.E. Ambassador Dr. Manelisi Genge

H.E. Ambassador Dr Manelisi Genge, Chief Director of East Asia and Oceania at the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) spoke on the diplomatic engagements that have characterised South Africa-China relations.

Ambassador Genge highlighted the significance of the 20-year anniversary coinciding with the centenary of former president Nelson Mandela's birth. Mandela, together with his counterparts, laid a solid foundation for the establishment of South Africa-China diplomatic relations.

Reflecting on the success and growth seen in the bilateral relationship, Dr Genge pointed to gradual progress in trade, as "the volume of bilateral trade between the two countries has increased year on year from R294 billion in 2015 to R300 billion in 2016," adding that "since August 2017 South Africa became the first African country to export beef to China." This, according to the Ambassador, is a positive development that indicates progress in opening of markets for each other’s products.

Ambassador Genge referred to the various bilateral and multilateral mechanisms and structures that were strengthened relations between the two countries. South Africa and China structural bilateral mechanisms include the Binational Commission, chaired at deputy president level in South Africa and at vice president level in China; the Joint Working Group, a ministerial mechanism convened by ministers of both countries; and the Strategic Dialogue and people-to-people exchange mechanisms that serve as an opportunity to exchange ideas and to adopt best practices and deepen cooperation in research.

He said South Africa and China agreed on the establishment of the Oceans Economic Sectoral Committee during the 6th Binational Commission in November 2016. The South African government has in the last few years identified ocean economy (otherwise known as the 'blue economy') as another frontier for exploring economic opportunities. South Africa and China signed two agreements namely an MOU regarding cooperation on special economic zones and industrial parks, signed between the Department of Trade and Industry and the Ministry of Commerce of China; and the Framework Agreement between the National Development and Reform Commission of China and the Department of Trade and Industry of SA for developing cooperation and production capacity. Through the Binational Commission, South Africa managed to advance its key national priorities that are informed by the National Development Plan.

The High Level People-to-People Exchange Mechanism that was launched in April 2017 led to the signing of six agreements and MOUs that sustained and promoted government-to-government engagements, and facilitated non-government entities across academia, business and civil society to interact more frequently through organised structures.

Additional to the mechanisms which Ambassador Genge outlined above is the Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) that was established in Beijing in 2000. According to Ambassador Genge, "Those who are in diplomacy will realize that the Africa of our modern times resent being dictated to. That’s why we even engage our partners under the Africa-China cooperation – we agreed with the Chinese that it must be an equal consultation process and indeed so far it is working ."

"FOCAC is anchored in solidarity and friendship and encompasses a win-win formula," said Ambassador Genge; it incorporates the African Union’s (AU) Agenda 2063, its first ten year implementation plan, and South Africa’s National Development Plan in addressing the scourges of poverty, inequality, underdevelopment as well as infrastructure deficit.

Pertaining to multilateral mechanisms, South Africa assumed the Chair of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) grouping on 1 January this year. "Since South Africa joined the BRICS formation in 2010, the developmental needs and aspirations of the global south have been appreciatively incorporated into the BRICS agenda," said Ambassador Genge.

South Africa will be hosting the 10th BRICS Summit on 25-27 July this year, that will be preceded by several foreign ministry meetings in June. According to Ambassador Genge, President Xi Jinping will be attending and participating in the Summit, which will entail a bilateral segment. This will represent an opportunity to reflect on the 20th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Economics and trade: Kobus van der Wath

Kobus van der Wath, Managing Director of The Beijing Axis, a professional service firm headquartered in Beijing,  emphasised the many opportunities available for South Africa and China to expand economic relations that were not being adequately utilised.

"So we’ve heard His Excellency talk about some numbers; trade has grown, investment has grown, so these numbers you could say are big. But they’re actually still very small", Kobus stated. "Given the amount of money that China invests annually in the international market, South Africa attracts a very small share".

The seasoned businessman stated there is a great opportunity ahead of South Africa to attract more investment that relied on the nature of goods and services the country trades on. "On the trade side, we have a gaping deficit that we need to address somehow; we have to restructure what we sell and what we import so that we have more value added in the basket that goes into China," he said.

Kobus has been living in Asia over many years. He established his business The Beijing Axis in 2002, and has offices in Beijing and other parts of the world including India, Thailand, Singapore, Europe and Africa. He has learned that South Africa was still doing very little - "despite the history of 20 years, that opportunity is not fully appreciated here in South Africa.

"To give you an idea, where I live in Beijing, I can walk in any direction for less than five minutes and be in a very large shopping mall and I can buy blueberries from Chile, from Canada, from Australia, from almost anywhere, but not from South Africa," he said.

"If we have a China strategy as a nation that breaks down into business, academia, and of course government and so on, we can work better towards policy coordination with the Chinese. I think many countries have shown that that is possible, I think we have in a way also shown that it can be achieved, and it's a journey. This year I think it’s very important to work together – 20 years is a wonderful milestone," he said.

According to Kobus, China is currently at a very interesting point in their history where South Africa can leverage advantages. He explained that China is at a place where its factories are putting up plants overseas, where Chinese companies are looking at serving customers closer to the point of sale or to the point of business,  where manufacturing is moving out into the rest of the world in an exceeding rate. "We have many things to offer; we are in one of the largest markets of the world, dynamic markets of the world, and in Africa."

Looking at the future, Kobus said that South Africa should consider creating a China-literate community, to be more aware of China's transformation and communication, to become a society of businesses and governments that are very aware of their best products and services to export, and to leverage investments.

"Chinese now are saying we want to change the way we work; we want to be efficient; we want to be safe; we want to have a clean environment. When I am here I just look at the sky all day – we have something they don’t have at the moment. We can help. So the opportunity is out there in many places. These are various kinds of disciplines that the Chinese are hungrily importing from our competitors because we are not there yet, we have not partnered yet, we don’t speak the language. A thoughtful approach with good implementation can make a huge difference," he said.

Culture and people-to-people engagements: Erwin Pon

Erwin Pon is a fourth generation Chinese South African and Chairman of the Chinese Association of Gauteng. Erwin spoke on the social and cultural engagements of the Chinese and South African people, noting the role of the Chinese associations.

Established in 1903, the Chinese Association (TCA), previously called the Transvaal Chinese Association, is one of the oldest Chinese associations in South Africa and indeed Africa. The primary objective of the TCA is to support and help the Chinese that are new residents in the country with visa or working permits, writing and sending letters to and from China, and assimilating and progressing in the community. Over time, the mission and objectives of the Association have remained the same, particularly assimilating new groups of Chinese people coming into the country with the rest of the Chinese and South African community.

"We used to be one of few Chinese associations, and now there is up to about sixty or seventy active Chinese associations in South Africa, representing different parts of the community," said Erwin.

"Internally we also have our own challenges and issues as well, and the other part of the Chinese Association's objectives is to also unite our Chinese community and enhance a common understanding within our community," explained the chairman.

Eliminating misunderstandings and negative perceptions of Chinese communities is part of the engagement and exposure of Chinese culture and traditions to the broader Chinese and South African communities. "Because we do believe that real misunderstandings can be dealt with through better understandings of each other’s culture, of who we are as a people, of who we are as different colours and different traditions," said Erwin.


The full programme:

LISTEN: 20 Years of South Africa-China Engagements: Past, Present and Future

WATCH: 20 Years of South Africa-China Engagements: Past, Present and Future


Photos: Gypseenia Lion

Video and audio: Wits Central Audio Visual Services (CAVS)

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