SA-China relations 25 years on

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Cyril Ramaphosa. (Xinhua/Xie Huanchi)

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Cyril Ramaphosa. (Xinhua/Xie Huanchi)

Published Dec 8, 2023


David Monyae

It has been 25 years since South Africa and China established official diplomatic relations. However, ties between the two countries have existed longer than that. Since the 1950s, the Communist Party of China (CPC) stood in solidarity with South Africa’s anti-apartheid movements including the African National Congress (ANC), the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Pan-African Congress (PAC). Even after the demise of apartheid, the CPC still maintained strong relations with the ANC and the SACP, partners in South Africa’s ruling coalition. Such close association between the governing parties of the two countries reflects shared values and a sense of solidarity in the Sino-South African relationship.

Two years after the establishment of formal diplomatic relations in 1998, the South Africa-China Bi-National Commission was formed in 2000. The commission was to serve as a platform for discussing shared interests and goals between the two parties. In 2010 the relationship was elevated to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in recognition of the mutual strategic value the two countries hold for each other as major developing countries.

This meant that South Africa and China were going to pursue cooperation in bilateral and multilateral issues. The two countries share a number of multilateral cooperation platforms such as the Forum for China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), the Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa (BRICS) grouping, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the South-South Cooperation. The countries use these platforms to pursue not only their mutual bilateral interests but also advance the interests of the global south or the so-called developing countries.

In global multilateral platforms such as the United Nations (UN), the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the World Trade Organization (WTO) to mention a few, South Africa and China have frequently been on the same side of important issues. For example, the two countries have shared the same position on climate change, the wavering of intellectual property rights on Covid-19 vaccines and the governance of the digital space, among other issues.

South Africa and China share a robust and strong economic relationship. Trade between the two countries has grown from $1.3 billion in 2000 to over $56 billion in 2022, making China South Africa’s largest trading partner while South Africa is China’s biggest trade partner in Africa. However, even though trade between the two countries is booming, South Africa mainly exports low value primary commodities to China such as ores, iron and steel, copper, wood, fruits, wool and precious.

For example, in 2020, about 70% of South Africa’s exports to China consisted of ores slag and ash in value. In 2019, while China’s top export product to South Africa was broadcasting equipment, South Africa’s top export product to China was gold. As such, the trade relationship is characterised by unequal exchanges in terms of China occupying a higher position in the global value chain than South Africa.

China has also become one of South Africa’s biggest sources of foreign direct investment (FDI) with stock valued at $25 billion. Chinese investment in South Africa has created more than 400,000 direct and indirect jobs.

Through such mechanisms as the China-Africa Development Fund, Chinese entities have invested and financed important projects in energy, home appliances, cement and cultural sectors, thus advancing South Africa’s industrialisation and development. South Africa has stood with China’s global geopolitical issues around digital technology and the Covid-19 pandemic. For example, South Africa refused to blacklist Huawei even as countries such as the United States and the European Union banned the company from their jurisdictions. South Africa has also stood with China in the face of criticism by Western countries over its handling of the coronavirus when it first broke out in one of its cities. China also donated tons of anti-pandemic material to South Africa such as personal protective equipment, face masks, temperature guns and testing kits, among others. The two countries have frequently adopted common positions on significant international issues such as the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Israeli-Palestine war, and South-South cooperation among others.

People-to-people relations between the two countries are relatively strong. South Africa is host to the largest population of people of Chinese descent with their numbers ranging from 250,000 to 350,000. Thus, South Africa hosts 25% to 35% of the estimated one million Chinese in Africa. This has created opportunities for increased familiarity and mutual cultural understanding between ordinary South Africans and Chinese citizens. In 2015, former South African President Jacob Zuma and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to form a High-Level People-to-People Exchange Mechanism (PPEM) between the two countries. The PPEM was launched in 2017 to promote relations and cooperation between South Africans and the Chinese in areas of education, sports, tourism, and the youth. The number of South African students studying at Chinese universities in 2019 exceeded 3,000. These young South Africans become the cultural ambassadors of South Africa in China thus further promoting people-to-people relations. There are other programmes such as the China-South Africa Young Scientists Programme, China-South Africa Youth Innovation and Entrepreneurship Forum, and the Youth of Excellence Scheme of China Master Programme that attract the South African young people to China.

Moreover, South Africa hosts six Confucius Institutes at the Universities of Johannesburg, Cape Town, Stellenbosch, Rhodes, Western Cape, and Durban University of Technology. The Confucius Institutes narrow the cultural gap between South Africans and Chinese through teaching Chinese language and history. Tourism is one of the important avenues of people-to-people relations between the two countries. South Africa received around 100,000 Chinese tourists in 2019 before the pandemic even though this is still a tiny fraction of the Chinese tourist market. However, people-to-people relations have been affected by flares of anti-Chinese sentiments on social media with some South Africans claiming that the Chinese want to take over the South African government. The election of the Dr Xiaomei Havard, a South African citizen of Chinese descent, as ANC MP early in 2021 triggered a storm of protests on social media. This demonstrates the lack of knowledge and trust of the Chinese among ordinary South Africans. Hence, a lot remains to be done in improving South Africa and China’s people-to-people relations.

Overall, the Sino-South African relationship continues to flourish. Secondly, improving the quality of trade is important so that South Africa moves from being a supplier of primary products. This perpetuates the classic dependency syndrome that has kept Africa underdeveloped. Such issues as digital technology, artificial intelligence, climate change, and health infrastructure are likely to define the future of South Africa-China relations.

*Monyae is the Director of the Centre for Africa-China Studies at the University of Johannesburg

**The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Independent Media or IOL