The 2024 Chinese new year celebration in the Republic of South Africa (RSA), is a moment of legitimate festivity and merited reflection. It is deserving of commemoration as the world rebuilds itself stronger after the Covid-19 health and economic devastation. In olden times, the Chinese new year was celebrated to honour deities and ancestors and revive family ties. In recent times, the designation of “family” is now extended to include rejuvenation of ties with member countries of the Global South majority such as RSA.
This year the celebration are observed, according to the Chinese lunar calendar, under the symbol of the Year of the Dragon. In the Chinese zodiac system, the dragon stands apart of all the 12 animals since most Chinese view themselves plus their culture and civilisation as descendants of the dragon. The event was hosted by H. E. Ambassador Chen Xiaodong who welcomed representatives of the South African Government, Honorable Patricia de Lille, Minister of Tourism, H. E. Siyabonga Cwele, South African Ambassador to China, and Princess Nthando.
What is the dragon associated with in the People’s Republic of China (PRC)? In the words of scholar, Professor Xiao Fang of Beijing Normal University, speaking recently to the Global Times: “in the eyes of our Chinese ancestors, the dragon could provide rain, nourishing the earth and ensuring bountiful harvests in agricultural societies. The dragon's power and majesty also symbolized the maintenance of order in the human realm”.
Therefore, there is room for celebrating the importance of RSA-PRC relations as they turn 26-years and are heightened by cultural-civilisational interactions founded on the notion of people-to-people exchanges. This is underlined so that there could be harmonious coexistence and mutual learning whilst building a community with a shared future for humankind. What is the significance of the latter in 2024?
Our world is beset by colliding polycrises that include wealth inequality, climate change and internecine conflict and wars in Ukraine, Sudan, Gaza, Yemen. These wars have demonstrated the folly by belligerent countries in retreating towards deglobalisation and ideological competition. What is sacrificed are the benefits that accrue from multipolarity and global cooperation. This was the enduring message communicated at the recent Third South Summit by the Group of 77 and China, hosted on 21 January in Uganda, to address developmental challenges and unleash the untapped growth of the Global South countries.
Linked to this was the existential urgency to transform the global governance system of the United Nations (UN) and Bretton Woods organisations. In the memorable words of the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, at the same Uganda Summit, the UN’s “Security Council is stuck in a time warp. How can we accept that it still lacks a single African permanent member? It is a clear injustice”.
The dragon symbol is relevant in the country, continent and globe to bring nourishing rain win-win development bountiful harvests of harmonious co-existence amongst nations and people. Precisely because of this grounding factors, the RSA has been focused on developing areas for mutual learning (like FOCAC) and ensuring the tourism sector is initiating more direct flights between China and South Africa plus streamlining the visa process. It is another reason RSA is prioritising the training of the Mandarin language since to synergise with the PRC’s status as the world’s economic engine.
Certainly our country and continent can benefit from this unquestionable fact given that, in 2023 alone, the PRC’s economy rebounded by improving its GDP standing at 126-trillion yuan, a year-on-year increase of 5.2%. Ambassador Chen Xiaodong pointed out in his welcoming speech that such growth rate is the fastest among all major economies in the world and China contributes more to global growth than the US, Europe and Japan combined. Ambassador Chen went on to detail China's contribution into the global market where it was responsible for production and export of electric vehicles, lithium batteries and solar cells are worth over 1 trillion RMB in the year 2023. During the same year China was responsible for the production of nearly one-fourth of the world’s grains, one-third of vehicles, over half of steel and nearly 60 percent of home appliances.
This translates to a country expected to contribute one-third to global economic growth. As such, it does not make practical sense to speak, as some in the Global North do, of economic decoupling from the PRC. Economic globalisation is a reality that cannot be changed or reversed. Hopefully, all countries will see the value of investing in multipolarity and genuine democracy in multilateral forums like the UN and AU as desirable goals and positive ends in themselves for the 21st century.
In this sense, tourism and cultural exchanges are synonymous with win-win outcomes and building a common prosperity for humankind. There is plenty to enjoy by the open-minded Chinese tourist to South Africa, from the Kruger National Park’s Big 5 animals to the bountiful energy of amapiano music at Umlazi township. Safety concerns are being addressed with the reactivation of the SA Tourism safety forum that will patrol 59 hot-spots and deploying 2,300 safety tourism monitors at tourist attractions.
A community of shared interest is not a zero-sum game where countries prioritise their national interests above the collective international welfare. Instead, as President Xi Jinping of China has always stressed, it is premised on “safeguarding the UN-centred international system, the international order underpinned by international law and principles of the UN Charter”. Similarly, when post-apartheid South Africa took the unprecedented but widely welcomed step of approaching the International Court of Justice (ICJ), to highlight the genocide perpetrated by apartheid Israel, it was based on principles dating back to the 1955 Freedom Charter blueprint.
To be clear, RSA’s foreign policy is based on five principles of pan-Africanism, South-South solidarity, non-alignment, independence and progressive internationalism. These principles informed the administration of President Nelson Mandela in his tireless advocacy for peace and stability in the continent and globe. They informed President Thabo Mbeki’s mediation efforts in South Sudan and elsewhere in the globe. They are the basis for RSA’s continued stance of denouncing the oppression of Palestinians, Western Sahara’s occupation by Morocco and the decades-old trade blockade of Cuba.
During the Chinese New Year Gala Ambassador Chen Xiaodong elaborated on China's Foreign Policy under the the strategic guidance of Head of State diplomacy where solid progress has been made in building a community with a shared future for mankind, Belt and Road cooperation was taken to a new stage of high-quality development and the BRICS mechanism achieved a historic expansion. Ambassador Chen went on to point out that China has for 15 years in a row been South Africa’s biggest trading partner. In 2023, our bilateral trade volume was 55.6 billion US dollars. He concluded by stating that China-South Africa relations today have gone beyond the bilateral spheres and are carrying stronger strategic significance and global reach. Our relations have set a fine example for China-Africa and South-South Cooperation. Ambassador Chen Xiaodong concluded by wishing prosperity to the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of South Africa, as well as the happiness of all our people coupled with the everlasting and ever stronger friendship between China, South Africa, and all of Africa.
The words of the Ambassador are a reflection that there exist a space for win-win co-operation and mutual economic benefits between the cultures and civilisations of the Global South majority and the Global North minority. However, this heavily depends on abandoning 20th century mentality of ideological dogma and hegemonic military might. President Xi is clear that “the international community has recognised that no country is superior to other, no model of governance is universal, and no single country should dictate the international order. The common interest of all humankind is in a world that is united and peaceful, rather than divided and volatile”. The year of the dragon sets the stage for a prosperous and peaceful world where building a community of a shared future for mankind remains the guiding maxim for south-south cooperation and the world.
Tembe is a pragmatic sinologist and founder of SELE Encounters.