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November 30, 2017

South Africa-China relations at 20 years, Part III: Retracing politics & diplomacy

Diplomatic relations in the post-apartheid era started off on a complicated note with then President Nelson Mandela attempting dual recognition of the People’s Republic of China (PRC – the mainland) and the Republic of China (ROC – Taiwan). The ANC government sought to convince Beijing of the merits of dual recognition. One reason for South Africa’s push for dual recognition is that the ANC, according to analysts, had made a personal appeal to Taiwan for financial support for the1994 elections. Although much can be said of Mandela’s moralistic approach in the push for dual recognition, it is believed that the ANC might have felt beholden to Taipei, yet for the Beijing the ‘One China’ policy was and remains non-negotiable.

Why and how did Beijing triumph over Taipei in the ensuing battle for South Africa? The South African Communist Party (SACP), an alliance partner of the ANC was deployed to convince the PRC for dual recognition but these entreaties came to nothing. In  1997 the return of Hong Kong to the PRC was gathering steam and the South African consulate in Hong Kong was at risk. With regards to the Hong Kong equation, it has been pointed out that the then city-state had served South Africa’s interests both in its own right and as South Africa’s beachhead into mainland China. Indeed, a good number of regional headquarters of South African multinationals are based in Hong Kong rather than Mainland China and South Africa is one of the few African countries with a fully functioning diplomatic consulate in Hong Kong. Apparently Taiwan also failed to live up to a hefty investment commitment to South Africa.

These and other factors led to Mandela’s 1996 decision to terminate ties with Taiwan with commencement of bilateral relations with the PRC set for 1998. Intriguingly though, the cessation of diplomatic relations between South Africa and Taiwan has not meant cessation of economic ties between the two. Some observers explain that Taiwan is among the major investors on the Chinese Mainland and therefore Taiwan faces little opposition from the PRC in terms of its trade with foreign nations, of which South Africa is no exception. For instance, Taiwan has liaison offices in Pretoria and Cape Town, which appears not to be the case with other African countries.

Following the establishment of a bi-national commission in 2000, relations grew rapidly such that they were designated a ‘strategic partnership’ in 2004 and reached the level of ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’ in 2009 with an agreement signed in 2010 when President Jacob Zuma visited Beijing. Scholars delineate the “comprehensive strategic partnership” as the deepening of relations in such a way as to elevate them above other African countries. The nature of the comprehensive strategic partnership is said to have impelled the elevation of the sixth Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in 2015 in Johannesburg to the status of a summit, similar to the 2006 Beijing summit.

In comparative terms, relations have grown faster under President Jacob Zuma (2009-present) than Thabo Mbeki (1999-2008) and Nelson Mandela (1994-1998). The Mail & Guardian newspaper for instance reported thus in December 2006:

In its relationship with China, Africa must guard against merely becoming a supplier of raw materials in exchange for manufactured goods, South African President Thabo Mbeki said on Wednesday. Speaking in Cape Town at the 14th national congress of the South African Students Congress, he said there is danger of entrenching such an unequal relationship.

Interestingly President Jacob Zuma made comments similar to Mbeki’s at the fifth FOCAC ministerial conference in 2012 even as South Africa accepted the hosting of the sixth FOCAC ministerial conference, underlining the sophistication of  South Africa-China relations.

Then Chinese President Hu Jintao’s ‘hasty’ visit to Pretoria in 2007 was seen as a rebuttal of Mbeki’s 2006 comments. Besides, China’s support for African countries facing Western sanctions such as Zimbabwe and Sudan was counter to Pretoria’s standpoint. It is under President Jacob Zuma that relations have ratcheted up. During his 2010 trip to Beijing accompanied by a business delegation of 370, 38 bilateral co-operation agreements were signed marking a defining moment in relations. A dense repertoire of high-level visits has ensured, involving not just party and government officials from either side but accompanied by business delegations.

Despite the increasing proximity between South Africa and China at high levels, there are “realist” voices that suggest South Africa is better off diversifying relations, in other words, embracing China, other emerging economies as well as the old industrial economies of the global north. This view, for South Africa as elsewhere on the continent, rejects the “romantic” China-as-force-for-good in Africa idealism, opting for a pragmatic approach in which South Africa should focus on its interests rather than being solely seduced by China or indeed any other power. This view is said to be espoused by South African opposition political parties Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and the Democratic Alliance (DA) as well as many activists on the centre-left of the ANC-COSATU-SACP tripartite alliance.

A hot button issue in relations has been the blocking of visits to South Africa by the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama, who runs a Tibetan spiritual government in exile, has sought three times (2009, 2011 and 2014) to visit South Africa but was denied all three times, lending credence to those who view the blockage as dictated by pressure exerted by Beijing. This has been pointed out as an example of South Africa bending over backwards to trash democratic principles at the altar of economic interests and has attracted massive negative media reporting on China as well as courting litigation by a leading opposition figure, Mangosuthu Buthelezi of the IFP.

Some scholars speak to the exceptionalism of South Africa in Africa, being without doubt the most important all-round Sub-Saharan country for China, a confirmation of the “comprehensive strategic partnership” with interests traversing bilateral and multilateral levels and with China seeing it as the leader among equals on the continent. At the multilateral level, China and South Africa coordinate and engage in supra-national institutions such as the UN, BRICS, the G-20 and the AU among others and China is reliant on South Africa’s “spokesperson on the continent status” and continental anchor-country stature.

It is said that it is China that pushed for the inclusion of South Africa in BRICS as part of the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership agreement of 2010 and China is seen as more supportive of South Africa hosting some of the key BRICS institutions than the other three partners – Brazil, India and Russia. There has also been convergence of action at the UNSC during South Africa’s non-permanent member tenure (2007-2009, 2012) in such matters as vetoing sanctions against Myanmar, Zimbabwe and Libya. Still with regards to the UN, China is said to be willing to support South Africa’s bid for a UN Security Council permanent seat.

On the military exchanges front, one sees a reciprocal state of play in which benefits move from China to South Africa and vice versa. While China has made military donations and trained South Africa soldiers in China, Chinese pilots have also received flight training from ex-South African air force personnel, demonstrating the uniqueness of South Africa in these respects relative to other African countries.

Party-to-party relations have thrived initially through the SACP reaching out to the fellow communist CCP but currently have diversified to include the ANC and even opposition political parties such as the DA.

In next week’s fourth and final installment: Culture.

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

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