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November 10, 2017

South Africa-China relations at 20 years, Part I: Retracing the footsteps over two decades

South Africa-China diplomatic relations commenced in January 1998. Thus on 1 January 2018 the two countries will be celebrating 20 years of relations. The anniversary offers an opportunity for the review of engagements over the past two decades. In this first piece of a series of four articles on the topic, Bob Wekesa summarises the long arc of contact between South Africa and China, concluding with the current close ties.

Historically, Africa-China engagements were most pronounced in the fifteenth century when Admiral Zheng He led voyages from China to the East African coast. These voyages were terminated during the Ming Dynasty and a hiatus in contact between Africa and China ensued. It’s often assumed that contact resumed only after 1949 when the People’s Republic of China was established. Among African countries, South Africa is unique in this respect because the first wave of Chinese immigration into the country began in the nineteenth century through to the early twentieth century, intensifying to the present. Probably the first wave of “small” Chinese migrations into South Africa was in the seventeenth century with the establishment of the Dutch East India Company and in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the era of the Boer Republic and British colonies. These Chinese immigrants were seekers of gold and diamond fortunes as well as slaves and convicts.

The second wave constituted 63,695 indentured contract labourers who were brought into South Africa between 1904 and 1907 to work in the newly discovered diamond (1876) and gold (1886) mines. They lived in what is described as dire circumstances, most of them being repatriated back to China by 1910 when the era of the Union of South Africa commenced. The indentured labourers of the second migration wave were mainly from northern China but at the same time there was a concurrent arrival estimated at about 3,000 free Chinese, mainly from the southern Guangdong province of China, seeking to make some business out of the minerals. The descendants of the Chinese who settled in South Africa from these two migration waves are now third and fourth generation South Africans and have come to be referred to as South African Born Chinese (SABC).

The third wave, consisting mostly of Taiwanese (and some Hong Kong) Chinese immigrants started arriving in the 1970s and 1980s. This was essentially a result of apartheid South Africa’s economically-driven relaxation on stringent regulations for Chinese immigrants due to an entente with Taiwan (Republic of China, ROC), but not with the Chinese Mainland.

The fourth and ongoing wave of Chinese immigrants arrived after the winding down of apartheid from the early 1990s and especially with the opening up of diplomatic relations in 1998. This wave has witnessed the arrival of the highest number of Chinese migrants ever to South Africa.

Based on the above summary, South Africa has one of the largest and oldest Chinese citizenry in Africa while being a magnet for continuing Chinese migration. Cumulatively, various scholars suggest the Chinese population in South Africa is approximately 300,000.

Indirect diplomatic relations between South Africa and China started in 1931 in the era of the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang (Republican) Party – the Republic of China (ROC) – on Mainland China although still through British mediation. Britain recognized Beijing in 1950 after the CCP-led revolution of 1949 and in 1955 Pretoria switched from using London as a diplomatic conduit to using Washington in dealing with Taipei, while not recognising Beijing. Direct diplomatic relations between ROC and South Africa were established in 1975 under President Yen Chai-Kan and Prime Minister John Vorster and accelerated under PW Botha and Ching Ching-kuo, for instance with Botha visiting Taipei in 1980, with the relations underpinned by tightening military and economic links.

In his bestselling autobiography, A Long Walk to Freedom, former South African president Nelson Mandela writes that Walter Sisulu (the late South African liberation leader) led an African National Congress (ANC) youth league delegation to Beijing in the 1950s and 1960s and eventually ANC fighters were trained in China. Once elevated to its UN Security Council membership in 1972, the People’s Republic of China voted time and again against the apartheid regime. In 1982, ANC leader Oliver Tambo met with Premier Zhao Ziyang in Zambia and Chinese support for the South African liberation efforts was routed via the South African Communist Party (SACP) which was and remains an alliance member of the ANC.

China was one of the first countries for Mandela to visit (1992) on his whirlwind global tour after release from jail in 1990. China made entreaties for formal ties with Pretoria in 1993 but Taiwan remained the recognized Chinese entity. After the ANC won the first fully democratic South African  elections in 1994 it attempted to simultaneously recognise Taiwan and Mainland China and a diplomatic battle or courtship tussle for South Africa ensued. In 1996 Mandela suddenly announced that South Africa would terminate relations with Taiwan from 1998 and recognize only the PRC, apparently for strategic ANC political interests and South African economic and multilateral interests. Thus, the year 2018 marks the twentieth anniversary of the relations.

After the 1998 establishment of bilateral relations, reciprocal visits became dense. President Mandela made the first official visit to Beijing in 1999 and President Thabo Mbeki followed in 2001 and again in 2006 during the Beijing FOCAC Summit; President Jacob Zuma first visited in 2010. President Jiang Zemin visited Pretoria in 2000, President Hu Jintao in 2007 and President Xi Jinping in 2013 during the fifth BRICS Durban summit and in 2015 during the Johannesburg summit of the Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). President Zuma has made two recent visits, one in 2016 during the G20 Summit in the picturesque Chinese city of Hangzhou and in 2017 in the southern China city of Xiamen for the ninth BRICS summit.

In next week’s second installment: Economic engagements.

Bob Wekesa ( is a Research Associate at the Africa-China Reporting Project.

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