International Relations and Co-operation Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane is triumphant as she emerges from Beijing’s imposing China World Hotel.
Her plan seems to be coming together.
She has just taken over from her Egyptian counterpart as co-chairperson of the Forum on China Africa Co-operation (Focac), the framework for the burgeoning relations between the continent and the booming Asian giant.
Earlier in the week she and SA achieved a much greater and tougher ambition at the AU summit in Addis Ababa: getting Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma elected by African heads of state as the chairwoman of the AU Commission.
Last year, on her watch, SA was elected on to the UN Security Council for two years and at the end of that year was accepted as a member of the Brics bloc of emerging nations. Nkoana-Mashabane pauses at the hotel door to berate the media and others who doubted she and her government would break the deadlock in the AU and oust the incumbent chairman, Jean Ping of Gabon.
“You didn’t think we’d get Brics either. Watch me,” she says with a broad smile, encompassing unspecified future conquests.
SA has indeed got its collective backside on some important seats under the government of President Jacob Zuma and with Nkoana-Mashabane at the helm of foreign policy.
But what will it do with them? If the plan is coming together as the minister suggests, what is the plan?
She has not spelled it out but its outlines can be inferred. And China certainly seems to be key. Being accepted into the big boys’ club of Bric brought little SA within the sphere of influence of China.
And vice versa, SA hopes and believes.
On the UN Security Council last year and this year SA and China have mostly acted in concert.
After Dlamini Zuma was elected to the AU Commission chair, she said she would forge closer ties between Africa and Beijing. And at the fifth ministerial conference of Focac last week, as Nkoana-Mashabane underscored, the AU was admitted for the first time, joining the 51 individual African countries who were already members.
And that happened, just as SA took over the AU Commission and Focac chairs. SA will co-chair Focac with China for the next six years, hosting its next ministerial conference in Joburg in 2015.
SA has made no secret of its belief that under Ping the AU Commission was not only inefficient but also subservient to Western powers, especially France.
In the presence of Ping, Zuma alluded to that in his address to the Focac conference, saying Dlamini Zuma would ensure Africa’s independence “and protection from external influences which may not be in Africa’s best interests”.
Earlier he had also made clear what those influences were when he said Africa trusted its partnership with China as “one of equals for mutual gain” by contrast with Europe “which to date continues to attempt to influence African countries for its sole benefit”.
The key to SA’s strategy is to get this close to China to try to influence its economic policies towards SA and Africa, which have been a mixed blessing. On the one hand, as Chinese president Hu Jintao reminded Africa in his address to Focac, cumulative Chinese investment in Africa has now exceeded $15 billion in 50 countries.
The money has provided concessions loans to Africa and has built schools, hospitals, agricultural demonstration centres, roads, railways, the new AU headquarters in Addis Ababa, and so on – and given 20 000 government scholarships, trained almost 40 000 other Africans in various skills.
Two-way trade has soared since Focac was established in 2000, from about $10bn to $166.3bn last year.
But SA has also seen the other side of economic relations with China in the loss of textile and other manufacturing jobs to Chinese competition, for example.
And so Zuma thanked Hu for China’s contribution, but added that “on the other hand, Africa’s commitment to China’s development has been demonstrated by the supply of raw materials, other products, and technology transfer”.
“This trade pattern,” Zuma said, referring to the flow of mainly raw materials from Africa to China and the return flow mainly of manufactured goods, “is unsustainable in the long term”.
As a result, SA has been lobbying China, directly and through Focac, to invest more in African industry, including building factories which process African minerals and agricultural produce to make more sophicticated products.
“President Museveni (of Uganda) says that when you export only raw materials you are a donor,” said Nkoana-Mashabane. “We must add value to our minerals and agricultural products.”
And she said it was important for Africa to accelerate its construction of cross-border infrastructure to link national markets “so we don’t build highways to nowhere. If we build a road, it must go from Cape Town to Cairo”.
This would increase trade among African countries and boost their economies. She welcomed China’s positive response so far to these entreaties, expressing appreciation for Hu’s announcement last week of increased assistance to Africa, including another $20bn in soft loans for building infrastructure – especially transnational and trans-regional infrastructure – and for developing manufacturing and support to upgrade customs facilities to promote intra-regional trade.
“They (China) have agreed to relocate industries to Africa,” said Sisa Ngombane, SA’s head of African multilateral affairs. But we have to create the right environment for that,” he cautioned.
China must have been pleased that its African diplomacy seemed to be succeeding so well last week – and at the expense of the West.
But Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi also seemed to be offering a hint of caution to Africa that it could not afford to burn its bridges with other partners and donors. He welcomed the expanding relations with Africa.
Yet he also welcomed the fact that those expanding relations with Africa were stimulating others to increase their co-operation with the continent.