In an article featured in Cape Business News (‘Advancing South Africa into the 4th Industrial Revolution’, 11 July 2018), it is presciently stated that, “The changes brought about by accelerating technology, and the prospect of robots workers in particular, creates and presents significant opportunities and risks for South Africa. To stay ahead, public policy must be agile and receptive to the speed of change. If there is one thing our political principals and their policymakers must fully realise, it’s that 4IR technologies will be a defining political and social issues over the next 10 years”.

One such area of application in 4IR has been space technology, to which this article will turn and focus. Applied peacefully, satellite technology has numerous applications linked to development and massive improvement in the economic conditions of states. Indeed this is the message touted by African leaders on January 31st in 2016 in Addis Ababa, when the African Union Heads of State and Government adopted the ‘African Space Policy and Strategy’ as the first of the concrete steps to realize an African Outer space Programme.

This came against the backdrop of historically meagre African expenditure on outer space matters. For example in 2014, African civil space programme spending was about $185-million compared to the global $42.4-billion. Total global expenditure on the space was about $330-billion. The top-four investors on the African continent were Nigeria ($66-million), Algeria ($45-million), South Africa ($31-million), and Angola ($26-million). Adoption of the Space Policy and Strategy has sought to “set pace for collective revitalization of African space activities in contribution to the achievements of the overarching Agenda 2063”. 

Furthermore, it has opened up opportunities and channels for cooperation across the continent with strategic partners. Not only was cooperation heightened with the European Union on the 2007-formed Global Monitoring for Environment and Security and Africa (GMES & Africa), but Africa sought to cooperate with new players in the area. As a result of this, China has been a growing collaborator in this regard. “Our overall goal is that, by around 2030, China will be among the major space powers of the world,” Wu Yanhua, the deputy chief of the National Space Administration, said in 2017.

Since the 18th CPC national congress, XI Jinping has outlined China’s plan for the reform of global governance mechanism. In recent years, the major practices of XI’s global governance ideas is Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which has gained much attention from the international community and positive response from related Belt and Road countries. BRI Space Information Corridor is one few noticed project of BRI, it has evolved from Beijing’s past space cooperations and has played its roles in helping other countries with monitoring and implementing SDGs.

Overtime, the overall satellite capacity of Beijing has reached historical highpoints. Particularly in the year 2012, an important landmark year to China’s satellite history. It was first time in history that China has had 120 operating satellites, ahead of Russia (110) and only after US.

Most of China’s satellite assistance to Africa is free, the forms including experts training, free provision of satellite data etc. Within the FOCAC framework, in 2009, China launched the China-Africa Science and Technology Partnership Plan which aims to promote technology transfer to Africa and research exchanges, as well as the sharing of more scientific and technological achievements. Major successes have been registered and by the end of 2012, China had cooperated with African countries on 115 joint research and technology demonstration projects, including projects relating to cashew pest control technology and resources satellite receiving stations.

While we could easily find out that all these co-operations are bilaterally, some multilateral and more integrated satellite initiatives have emerged. Dr Zhu Ming, who delivered this special public lecture at the University of Johannesburg, argued that these practices can be understood to be forming part of a grander plan in sync with China’s re-globalisation strategy (as previously articulated in a recent UJ Confucius Institute seminar headlined by Peking University’s Wang Dong). As Dr Zhu has written elsewhere, “as necessary evolution steps,” these initiatives “should be viewed as the necessary components or steps of BRI Space Information Corridor”.

Insofar as it is meant to mean a transfer of knowledge, skills and investment, the relationship between Africa and China, in space and in other areas, ought to be built for the purposes of ‘self-destruction’ in the long run. To begin with, among others, what are the practical applications to be derived from the collaboration? Which countries are China’s primary partners in this sector? How are Africa’s developmental plans, as laid out in the Agenda 2063 document, being understood and incorporated in Beijing?  Thus, for Africa, the measurement of the success of the satellite cooperation is the extent to which Africa is gearing itself up to be an independent player in the area of satellites and space exploration.

David Monyae is a senior political analyst Co-Director at the University of Johannesburg Confucius Institute.