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South Africa-China Relations at 26: What explains the growth and strength

The relationship with China has increasingly become prominent and compares favourably to South Africa's relations with countries that are perceived as China’s competitors
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2024 marks 26 years since the establishment of South Africa’s formal relations with China. While South Africa has relations with all major powers and is also a member of international groups and instruments such as the United Nations, G20, BRICS and the International Criminal Court, its relationship with China has increasingly become prominent and compares favourably to South Africa’s relations with countries that are perceived as China’s competitors.

First among these competitors is the United States of America. At least two factors enhance China’s allure in South Africa. The first is a keen understanding of the history of foreign domination in the regions previously known as the Third World. This understanding informs China’s prudent foreign policy, one that seems to promote national sovereignty. Secondly, China comes across as more results-driven, thus more pragmatic than what is perceived as the proselytizing tone of the West.

History plays a big role in cementing South Africa-China relations. In 1994, when South Africa became a democracy after centuries of white domination and almost half a century of apartheid, it inherited the diplomatic relations that successive apartheid governments had with different countries. The most vexing of these were South Africa’s relations with Taiwan because Taiwan was not a member of the United Nations, and China was the only de jure representative of Chinese people since 1971. Thus, if the new South Africa wanted to march in tandem with the currents of international diplomacy, it would have to renounce its relations with Taiwan in favour of China. The African National Congress (ANC), South Africa’s ruling party since the end of apartheid, had had a chequered relationship with China and the Communist Party of China (CPC), a consequence of concerted animosity towards apartheid, but diverging approaches to international affairs influenced by the Sino-Soviet rift. However, the CPC’s anti-apartheid credentials were well known. Apartheid South Africa was an embodiment of African domination by foreign interests, a colonialism of a special type. Taiwan was thus complicit in perpetuating the colonial domination that the ANC and other liberation movements and China were trying to end.

Thus, this intersection of identities between the ANC and the CPC were a formidable raison d’etre for relinquishing relations with Taiwan. The sense of history that China and South Africa share does not end with their antipathy to foreign domination; it also informs their conduct in international relations. Their interests are primarily tailored towards the developing world. This is shown on matters such as how South Africa and China led the global charge for easing intellectual property rules that protect the technology behind Covid-19 vaccines and treatments. This view was supported by UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, E. Tendayi Achiume, who noted that “As of June 2022, 72.09% of people in high income countries had been vaccinated with at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, whereas only 17.94% of people in low-income countries have been vaccinated.” Achiume feared that this could also retrace racial inequalities as the least developed countries, with their measly vaccination rates, were predominantly peopled by individuals of colour. The term “vaccine apartheid” was used to describe the inequitable access to necessary vaccines that saw the West hoarding inordinate amounts of vaccines. China, on the other hand, was involved in not only providing a billion vaccines to Africa, but in the construction of Africa’s Centres for Disease Control. The use of the term “vaccine apartheid” resonated with South Africa’s history, while China’s aid to Africa was an endearing démarche, as it was somewhat a continuation of China’s contribution to help Africa in international affairs.

Apart from references to history, and what they entail in current South Africa-China relations, the pragmatic streak in China’s international relations helps not only to present it as a practical partner but also highlights what South Africa considers the condescending modus operandi of China’s competitors. Currently, South Africa is plunged in a long-running electricity crisis, which has had a telling impact on Africa’s most industrialised economy. Once again, China demonstrated its proven trait to deliver in practical ways. In August 2023, South Africa and China signed memoranda of understandings which included the donation of emergency energy equipment worth R170 million. By 30 November, South Africa received 450 gasoline generators.

What the above shows is that South Africa and China tend to have intersecting positions on international issues. Furthermore, China tends to move from rhetoric and sentiment to delivery. On that score, the same cannot be said about players that are considered to be China’s competitors in South Africa in particular. The most prominent of these is the United States.

On 26 October 2022, the US Embassy in South Africa released a statement, headed U.S. Embassy – Possible Terrorist Attack. It read: “The U.S. government has received information that terrorists may be planning to conduct an attack targeting large gatherings of people at an unspecified location in the greater Sandton area of Johannesburg, South Africa, on 29 October 2022. There is no further information regarding the timing, method, or target of the potential attack. The U.S. Embassy has advised staff to avoid crowds of people and other large public gatherings in the greater Sandton area of Johannesburg during the weekend of 29-30 October 2022.” There was no prior discussion with the South African government. “It is quite unfortunate the US issued that type of warning without having any type of discussion with us,” complained South African President Cyril Ramaphosa. That the Pride March in support of LGBTQ rights that was supposed to take place that weekend went ahead without any incident rendered the Embassy’s warning even more problematic from South Africa’s perspective.

In May 2023, the American Embassy made another diplomatic faux pas that left South Africa reeling. Ambassador Reuben Brigety accused the South African government of loading weapons on Lady R, a sanctioned Russian vessel, implying that South Africa covertly supported Russia in its conflict with Ukraine. There were calls within the ANC and the South African Communist Party (SACP) for Brigety to be expelled or recalled. Neither happened, and American President Joe Biden said that he still had “full confidence” in Brigety.

Understandably, South Africa chafes at what appears to be the American Embassy’s formula of going it alone without first liaising with local officials. Thus, from South Africa’s standpoint, China’s methods of diplomatic prudency steeped in deference to history, and the ability to deliver on what has been agreed upon is more responsive to South Africa’s sensibilities both in foreign domination and the desire to move from rhetoric to practical relations that help the country to cope with its formidable challenges. On these two realities rests the strength of South Africa-China relations.

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