China South Africa Relations in a Post 2024 Election Era

Chinese president Xi Jinping

Chinese president Xi Jinping

Published Jul 1, 2024


Jaya Josie, Advisor China Africa Center Zhejiang University International Business School (ZIBS); Adjunct Professor, University of the Western Cape (UWC) & University of Venda (UniVen)

The South African elections have come and gone on 29 May 2024.

The ruling African National Congress (ANC) governing party sustained a cataclysmic loss of its majority in the South African Parliament and only managed to retain a 40% majority.

Following this setback, the ANC has now cobbled together a government of national unity (GNU) with the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), and other smaller minority parties in parliament. Political commentators have suggested that for the majority of South Africans, especially the African majority, the ANC’s thirty-year record has not delivered on its promises for a better life for all South Africans.

Of course, there is a generous amount of subjective bias in opinions of political commentators. It is a month since the South African elections and, although the same president was elected for another term in office there was much uncertainty about the new cabinet until negotiations were finally completed and the decision announced by the President on 30 June 2024. For observers of political developments, the big question is how a new government will affect South Africa’s international relations. In particular China, Africa, Asia and the Middle East will be waiting to see if there will be any fundamental change to past policies in international relations. 


On the eve of the BRICS summit in South Africa in August 2023 President Xi Jinping and a large delegation from China signed several agreements between the two nations.This successful visit is a vivid testament to the flourishing development of the comprehensive strategic partnership between China and South Africa. The strategic partnership with China is also a reflection of China’s view of South Africa as an important economic and political partner in BRICS and Africa. With respect to international relations both China and South Africa have strong and principled foundations for engaging in such relations. 


This year on 28 June China celebrated seventy years of the founding of the Five Principles for its policy on international relations and on 26 June South Africa celebrated sixty-nine years of the Freedom Charter endorsed by the mass anti-apartheid movement in 1955. China’s Five Principles were first enunciated in 1954 by the Communist Party of China and first articulated by China’s foreign minister Zhou Enlai.

The Five Principles for international relations include mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty; mutual non-aggression; mutual non-interference in each other’s internal affairs; equality and cooperation for mutual benefit and, peaceful co-existence. Subsequently, the Five Principles were enshrined in the preamble to the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China and have become the basis of China’s international relations. 


In South Africa many of the ten clauses of the Freedom Charter endorsed in 1955 have been incorporated into the Constitution. For international relations South Africa’s fundamental policy principle is derived from clause ten of the Charter, “There Shall Be Peace And Friendship! South Africa shall be a fully independent state, which respects the rights and sovereignty of all nations; South Africa shall strive to maintain world peace and the settlement of all international disputes by negotiation not war; Peace and friendship amongst all our people shall be secured by upholding the  equal rights, opportunities and status of all; The people of the protectorates-Basutoland (Lesotho), Bechuanaland (Botswana) and Swaziland shall be free to decide for themselves their own future; The right of all the peoples of Africa to independence and self-government shall be recognized and shall be the basis of close co-operation”. In this respect both China and South Africa’s international relations policies are founded on long standing and principled positions that express peaceful co-existence and non-interference in the internal affairs of other nations. 


With the negotiations for the formation of the GNU already completed and President Ramaphosa re-elected, the relations between China and South Africa are likely to remain stable. The Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Agreement, originally signed in 2010, underscores the strong economic and political ties between the two nations, further reinforcing the likelihood of continuity in their relationship. In any case, in terms of South Africa’s Constitutional Mandate, the President is ultimately responsible for South Africa’s foreign policy and it is the president’s right to conduct inter-state relations and enter into international agreements. Any deviation from signed international agreements can be challenged in South Africa’s judiciary. Perhaps a more important reason why South Africa’s relationship with China is unlikely to change is economic because China is South Africa’s largest trading partner in Africa and China and South Africa have billions of investments in each other’s economy.


All parties in the recent election campaign committed to addressing the country’s high unemployment rate of over 31% of the population. China is one of South Africa’s biggest investors in the mining sector that employs 396 000 workers, 17% of whom are women. Provinces of the North-West, Limpopo, and Mpumalanga have high numbers of workers in the mining industry with 123,000;  95,000, and 62,000 respectively. Chinese companies such as Taung, Jinchuan Group, East Asia Metals,  Gold One, Sinosteel, HBIS Group and, Bayin Nonferrous Group have indirect and joint venture investment agreements with local industries. The agreements stipulate that the Chinese companies provide financial resources and promote the exchange of knowledge and development skills. In return South Africa is obliged to put in place a strong regulatory framework to guarantee the investment environment, implement good labour standards, and the fair distribution of economic advantages. 


The mining sector agreements will offer the country the possibility of utilizing capital from China to develop an environmentally sustainable and inclusive economy. The South African mining sector has come to recognize that in comparison to non-Chinese mining firms,  companies from China provide competitive salaries to their employees. As the Chinese enterprises rely heavily on a very qualified and stable local workforce they adhere strictly to market pay scales and work with trade unions and contribute to equitable labour standards in South Africa. They can therefore attract proficient employees who remain motivated. In this context it is very difficult for opposition parties in the GNU to take a negative attitude towards investment from China.  

The premier of the Western Cape Province recently visited China and was extremely impressed by the potential for investments from China in the province. The province is governed by the Democratic Alliance (DA) that was in opposition to the governing party nationally before the 2024 elections. The DA is now one of the main parties in the GNU and it is very difficult for the DA to now reject a major boost in Chinese investment that will promote industrial development in the Western Cape Province and potentially offer job opportunities to absorb the unemployed in the province. The strategy in the Western Cape is to market its special economic zones (SEZs) and Industrial Development Zones (IDZs) and make these zones attractive to foreign direct investment. In recent years the province has successfully implemented this strategy and attracted a R2 billion investment from Hisense and created more that 1700 job opportunities. In the Freeport Saldanha Bay Industrial Development Zone and the Atlantis SEZ shows the province’s particular emphasis on certain industries. The Freeport Saldanha Bay SEZ is focused on maritime and engineering industries and offers a range of operational marine and energy services. On the other hand the Atlantis Special Economic Zone (SEZ) is important in South Africa's economy for promoting favourable conditions for environmentally friendly technology industries. 

The deepening bilateral relations between South Africa and China, facilitated by a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership and a new 10-year Strategic Programme of Cooperation, have created substantial commercial prospects, and promoted inclusive economic expansion. So far China’s $25 billion investment in South Africa has resulted in the creation of more than 400,000 jobs, demonstrating the concrete effects of these diplomatic and economic connections. The investments are crucial for addressing South Africa's high levels of poverty, inequality, and unemployment.

China has been South Africa's biggest trading partner for 15 years in a row and has also been a major source of foreign investment. Studies have shown that in 2023, the bilateral trade volume between China and South Africa reached an outstanding amount of US$55.62 billion and represents 20% of China's overall trade with Africa.

The investment and trade relations between China and South Africa is effectively supported by some of China’s most important banks such as the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), which has been in place for 16 years and, demonstrates the strategic cooperation that has enabled trade volumes. In 2023 investments from China was almost R200 billion in mining, telecommunications and manufacturing.

This relationship is testimony to the longstanding relationship between the two countries. It is very difficult to imagine that any party in South Africa’s opposition or in the Government of National Unity will jeopardize the benefits of such a relationship. Both the constitutions of China and South Africa emphasize that peaceful co-existence and cooperation is the foundation of their international relations.