South Africa through Chinese eyes

Chinas President Xi Jinping and President Cyril Ramaphosa are expected to push for stronger ties at the 10th BRICS Summit.Picture: EPA/Phil Magakoe

Attending conferences, where academics and members of civil society make presentations, often gives one an insight into the thinking and practices that are in vogue. In the field of international relations this is important because often this constituency influences foreign policy. The BOYA Conference on China-Africa Relations: Retrospect and Prospect hosted by one of China’s top leading institutions, Peking University, was one such occasion and a presentation was done specifically on South Africa. 

Titled: “President Ramaphosa and South Africa’s Challenges in Governance”, the presentation by a leading Chinese foreign relations expert gives us, as South Africans, insight into what the Chinese think about us and how Chinese foreign policy towards South Africa, in particular, is shaped. 

For this Chinese expert, the South African political landscape has certainly been marked by a decline in the ANC’s popularity, due to internal squabbles, corruption, a dip in the GDP growth rate and a messy state of governance. Corruption, she suggested, was threatening stability and economic growth and she went on to point out the specific cases of Nkandla-gate, the Guptas, state capture, the size of cabinet and the challenges at the National Treasury.

President Ramaphosa, she suggested, was coming in to safeguard unity, cohesion and reach political consensus while wanting to bring in people who are professional and capable. He has made fighting corruption his focus and cleaning up state-owned enterprises was one of the key areas in which this fight began. 

Yet it was also the president’s strong emphasis on the economy that drew her attention. In his pursuit of a stable business environment, mitigating tensions between employers and employees and attracting foreign direct investment, he has sought to recover economic growth. The target of US$100 billion in five years and the investments from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Germany, among others, illustrated his commitment and the commitment of international partners to work with him. 

Interestingly, the question of the expropriation of land without compensation was also mentioned in the presentation. The professor agreed that accelerated land reform could be a blessing as inequality could be a ticking time bomb. She assured this Chinese conference that the process would happen within a constitutional framework though, given the hundreds of thousands of responses to the parliamentary process, and that there would be minimal disruption in food security.

She went on to cite the 139 farms identified as pilot projects and assured the audience that after studying the case studies of land reform in Zimbabwe and Namibia, the South African one was a much more reasonable and matured in its approach. However, she did note the decisions and lobbying by Afriforum as well as the possible interference by the United States in respect of the land question. 

The peaceful and seamless transition from the presidency of former President Jacob Zuma to President Ramaphosa was good for international, and especially Chinese, confidence in South Africa’s political system. The fact that this took place in an orderly and legal manner, unlike maybe other parts of the developing world, suggested that South Africa’s political institutions were strong. 

President Ramaphosa is certainly viewed as “less fragile” than the DA or EFF and, as a result, investor confidence is growing. The ANC, she suggested, will garner more than the 50% majority but will not achieve the two-thirds majority to change the Constitution. 

As our country continues to embark on the road to our sixth democratic national and provincial parliamentary elections, it is good to stop and listen to what others around the globe are saying and thinking about us. What we hear is not always pleasing for we may be critical of their views or that they are not necessarily understanding the specific nuances that accompany these issues and incidences. 

Yet what is important is that we realise that the world is watching us. What we, particularly as leaders of society, do and say is being seen and heard by a global audience; often these days instantly. These views, especially the ones shared by experts such as this one, shape the relations that a country, in this case China, a major global player, has with us. 

We may differ with their interpretation but they determine how they act towards us. We must be ever conscious that even though we are at the tip of Africa, we continue to play a global role, given our geo-political positioning, and as a result, we are being watched.   


Wesley Seale is doing his PhD in China-South Africa relations at Beijing Foreign Studies University. The Chinese expert is not named in this article due to the fact that her permission to be named was not sought but is known to the author.