‘It is my honour to serve’: New Chinese Ambassador Wu Peng reveals his big plans for China-South Africa relations

New Ambassador of China to South Africa, Wu Peng - a veteran diplomat sat down with IOL for a wide-ranging interview. Picture: Supplied

New Ambassador of China to South Africa, Wu Peng - a veteran diplomat sat down with IOL for a wide-ranging interview. Picture: Supplied

Published Jul 7, 2024


President of the People’s Republic of China Xi Jinping has unleashed one of the Asian giant’s diplomatic heavyweights to South Africa as ambassador plenipotentiary, with a mission to escalate the unparalleled trade, economic and political ties, improve people-to-people relations and contribute to Pretoria’s extensive job creation drive.

IOL was granted the opportunity to sit down with the affable Ambassador Wu Peng, former director-general of China’s Department of African Affairs in the Foreign Ministry, just days after he took the reins at the Embassy of China in South Africa.

“I arrived here in the middle of South Africa’s beautiful winter. I have to say, winter in South Africa is much warmer and more pleasant than in Beijing. More importantly, the people here are so kind and hospitable. I feel even warmer because of their friendship,” Wu remarked at the beginning of the wide-ranging interview.

“To me, South Africa has amazing weather, massive resources and just everything it takes to achieve sound development.

New Ambassador of China to South Africa, Wu Peng - a veteran diplomat sat down with IOL for a wide-ranging interview. Picture: Supplied

“In the past three decades, under African National Congress (ANC) governments, South Africa made great progress in socio-economic development. To that, I say congratulations. South Africa’s strong development is a perfect example of the rise of the Global South,” he said.

With the pleasantries out of the way, Wu expounded on his mission in South Africa, in Pretoria’s seventh administration which is led by a government of national unity (GNU).

“As the new Chinese Ambassador, it is my duty to promote friendship, exchanges and practical cooperation between our two countries, so that our relations continue to move forward. China has always been South Africa’s brother, sister and friend. We are ready to further contribute to South Africa’s modernisation drive as your sound partner,” he said.

The veteran diplomat said after assuming the reins at the Pretoria embassy, he has been warmly welcomed by the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco), and advised to give special focus to two pressing matters - cooperation in renewable energy, and job creation for South Africa’s youth.

“China is quite strong in electric vehicles and solar energy. We are well-positioned to cooperate with South Africa in these fields. Chinese EV (electric vehicle) brands such as BYD and King Long are already working with African businesses in countries like Ethiopia and Kenya to assemble electric buses locally,” he said.

BYD electric buses are getting popular in different parts of the world. File Picture

“Thanks to their joint work, Chinese EVs are not only making it easier and more carbon-friendly for Africans to travel, but also creating massive local jobs for the young people.

“As Ambassador, I look forward to working with friends from all communities to strive for shared development. I am confident that China-South Africa relations in the Golden Era will harvest more golden fruits to benefit the people,” he said.

For the past 15 years in a row, China has been the largest trading partner not only for South Africa, but also for the Africa continent. On the other hand, South Africa has now been China’s largest trading partner in Africa for 14 years straight.

President of China, Xi Jinpijng last year visited South Africa, where he was hosted by President Cyril Ramaphosa, before the two heads of State led their respective delegations in official talks in Pretoria. File Picture: Kopano Tlape / GCIS

“From January to May this year, our bilateral trade reached US$23.5 billion. South African exports to China were US$15.3 billion, up 14 percent year-on-year,” he said.

The former ambassador of China to Kenya said South African wine, rooibos tea, aloe gel, and other quality products are now very popular on the Chinese market.

“Actually, before I came here, I saw rooibos tea in a five-star hotel in China. It costs you 60 yuan to get a cup, which is roughly R150. Of course, I bought myself a cup. It tastes really nice but R150 is a little expensive. That is why I think China should import more rooibos tea and bring the price down, so that more (people) can enjoy rooibos tea in China,” he said.

“The Chinese government is committed to advancing high-level opening-up. We are ready to share our mega-sized market with all countries, including South Africa. It is estimated that by 2035, China will have 800 million people in the middle-income group,” he said.

New Ambassador of China to South Africa, Wu Peng - a veteran diplomat sat down with IOL for a wide-ranging interview. Picture: Supplied

In recent years, China actively opened up its vast market of more than one billion people to South African agricultural products. Wu said measures are being implemented to fast-track the exportation of more agricultural products to China.

“In June 2022, the two countries signed the export protocol for South African soy-beans. Guess what? Last year, South Africa exported 147,000 tonnes of soy-beans to China. Last year, we also signed another protocol for South African avocados. Agri-exports to China bring benefits to South African farmers. They also help create local jobs,” he said.

In a boost for South African farmers, a protocol was signed last year for the exportation of avocados to the People’s Republic of China. File Picture: Steve Lawrence

“South African farms are more than welcome to fully tap into the Chinese market and export more to China. This year, we are working hard with the South African side toward signing export protocols for yet more South African goods, including wool, dairy products, pet food, and wild aquatic products.”

When it comes to buying South African agri-products, Wu said China is very sincere and he hoped that relevant South African departments can “improve efficiency” and work with the Chinese authorities towards this common goal.

Moving on, the Chinese envoy highlighted that trade cannot flourish without the catalyst of strong people-to-people exchanges.

South Africa has the largest number of Confucius Institutes and independent Confucius classrooms in Africa, with seven institutes and three classrooms, plus more than 10,000 students signed in to learn Mandarin in South Africa.

South Africa has the largest number of Confucius Institutes and independent Confucius classrooms in Africa. File Picture - Tracey Adams / Independent Media

“In 2022, South African young people were invited to the embassy for an exciting dialogue with China’s “Shenzhou” spacecraft astronauts. Last year, we even carried a painting by a South African student to the Chinese space station. I hope that one day, we can see South African astronauts working in the Chinese space station,” he said.

During his sojourn in the City of Tshwane, Wu said he hopes to elevate people-to-people exchanges through sport and tourism.

Ambassador Wu Peng said he will seek to elevate people-to-people exchanges through sport. File Picture: Leon Lestrade / Independent Newspapers

“South Africa is a champion in rugby. The Springboks won the Rugby World Cup four times, including a stunning title defence run last year. I’m sure South Africa has a lot to share in terms of your experience in managing and strengthening the sport of rugby. China is ready to learn,” he said.

“Tourism-wise, South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, the Kruger National Park, and the Garden Route are all famous attractions for the Chinese people. In the first quarter of this year alone, Chinese people made 11,000 trips to South Africa, up by 82 percent quarter-on-quarter. I believe that as our people get closer to each other, the foundation for trade will be stronger.”

Minister of Tourism, Patricia de Lille speaking to journalists during an event hosted by the Embassy of China in South Africa earlier this year. File Picture: Jacques Naude / Independent Newspapers

The Chinese envoy arrived last month, amid heightened political activity in South Africa, following the May 29 general elections, the formation of the Government of National Unity and the re-election of President Cyril Ramaphosa on his second term in office.

IOL asked the Chinese diplomat to give his views on the political developments in South Africa, given the close ties between the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the ANC.

With diplomatic hesitation, Wu highlighted that Beijing welcomes the re-election of Ramaphosa and looks forward to work closely with the government of national unity which was formed and is led by the ANC.

“It is my honour to serve in South Africa at this critical juncture. Let me stress that President Ramaphosa’s re-election is a choice made by the South African people. China would like to express sincere congratulations on that,” he said.

New Ambassador of China to South Africa, Wu Peng - a veteran diplomat sat down with IOL for a wide-ranging interview. Picture: Supplied

After Ramaphosa’s re-election, President Xi Jinping was one of the first leaders to send a congratulatory message to Ramaphosa.

A high-level delegation was also dispatched from Beijing to attend Ramaphosa’s auspicious inauguration ceremony held at the Union Buildings on June 19.

“That once again shows the high level of China-South Africa friendship and the deep bond between our two presidents. In recent years, President Xi Jinping and President Ramaphosa kept close contact with each other through meetings, phone conversations, or letters. They built a profound personal friendship with each other,” said Wu.

“As you rightly put it, we as diplomats also closely follow what is happening in the political life of this country. We fully respect and sincerely congratulate President Ramaphosa on setting up the Government of National Unity. My observation is that all Cabinet members of the GNU are appointed by President Ramaphosa with his prerogative mandated by the Constitution.

“We fully believe that with the strong leadership of President Ramaphosa, all parties in the GNU will bear in mind the people’s interest, actively participate in governing the country, jointly advance economic and social development and bring about more tangible results for the people. The Chinese side will continue to support the South African people and carry out friendly cooperation with the new government,” he added.

Wu said he has no doubt the government of national unity will continue to firmly uphold friendship with China.

President Cyril Ramaphosa was sworn-in for his second term in office during the inauguration ceremony hosted at the Union Buildings in Pretoria last month. File Picture: Kopano Tlape / GCIS

The next Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) Summit will take place in Beijing, in September. Wu said China is looking forward to Ramaphosa’s attendance, to boost bilateral and multilateral relations.

The next Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) Summit will take place in Beijing, in September. File Picture: Elmond Jiyane / GCIS

“Our side looks forward to President Ramaphosa’s attendance at the summit, when he and President Xi Jinping can strengthen friendship and give further guidance to our cooperation, as well as China-South Africa and China-Africa relations,” he said.