February 2020 will come to be remembered as the month that we commemorated the 30th anniversary of the release of Nelson Mandela from prison. We will remember his walking out of Victor Verster prison and addressing the crowds on the Grand Parade some hours later. Yet we will also marvel at how the man, holding Madiba’s mic that day, was president of our country three decades later.
As we look at that picture, we see the other old man next to Madiba. He will remind us of the second reason why we will remember February 2020. For it was Ulyate Walter Sisulu, who serving as Secretary-General of the ANC at the time, was one of the first senior officials of the ANC to visit the People’s Republic of China in 1953.
The new China under Chairman Mao Zedong had been founded four years earlier. After being found guilty under the Suppression of Communism Act, in December 1952, Sisulu, together with Madiba, John Moroka, president of the ANC at the time, and seventeen others were sentenced to nine months imprisonment with hard labour, suspended for two years.
A few months later though, Sisulu, having been invited to the “World Festival of Youth and Students for Peace and Friendship” in Bucharest, Romania, escaped South Africa and would eventually go on to visit the then Czechoslovakia, Poland, Russia and China.
While the political differences between China and the USSR would come to strain relations between China and the ANC, Sisulu in his note, I saw China, concludes that his talks with the people of China, both the senior government leaders and the ordinary folk of the farms and factories, had convinced him, beyond doubt, that they had the warmest sympathy with and regard for the oppressed people of colonial countries; including those of our own African continent.
It is historically true that China had a much closer relationship with the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania but it is also very true that China’s relationship with Africa is not something new. As some would point out, it was through the ancient silk road, as early as the sixth century common era, and even the days of fighting for liberation that China stood by Africa during its darkest days.
Later, when African countries such as Zambia and Tanzania were freed and needed unbiased assistance in developing their countries and the continent, it was China that implemented projects such as the Tazara railway line linking Tanzania and Zambia with operations starting in 1976.
Long before infrastructure projects were fashionable and catchphrases like “Cape to Cairo” became the lingo, China constructed this railway line of 1860 km linking the ordinary people in Dar es Salaam to New Kapiri Mposhi in Zambia.
In 2019, official statistics suggested that the Tazara had transported more than 30 million tons of cargo and 40 million passengers since it began operating. To paraphrase Dr Martin Luther King Jr, in the end we shall not remember the inaction of our enemies but the actions of friends.
As China kneels in February 2020, affected by the Covid-19 virus, it looks to the actions of its friends. Predictably, those in the West were quick to abandon China and evacuated their citizens. Many African countries, especially those with world class airlines such as Ethiopian Airlines, have been slow to evacuate their citizens from Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak.
As a someone writing from Beijing and living under lockdown conditions, the measures in place are as stringent and isolating as can be with authorities doing everything in their power to ensure everyone remains safe and healthy.
A slight but simple bout of acid reflux last week had university staff members sending me to the local clinic, paying close attention to my condition for days and ensuring that I received not only effective but efficient healthcare treatment.
The situation is strenuous. Yet it is nothing as bad as the days when China stood by Africans in their struggle for freedom. When the rest of the world was exploiting Africa in those early days of independence, China was investing in Africa despite its meek economy then.
For a South African, and especially an African, living in China, the decision by our government to evacuate South Africans from Wuhan comes with deep regret. Having studied Sino-South Africa and African relations over the last decade, it is a downright betrayal of our values to be encouraging leaving China.
We should not be abandoning China during its hour of weakness. We should be standing by China to fight this disease and ensure that when it dies life will return to normality again. I refuse to leave China. How sadly true South Africa has proven the cliche that when things are tough friends are few.
Wesley Seale is completing his PhD on Sino-SA relations before and under BRICS in Beijing.