South Africa and China: behind the smoke and mirrors

The Chinese and South African governments, led by presidents Xi Jingping and Jacob Zuma, cement ties during a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Reuters/Wang Zhao/Pool

The People’s Republic of China’s relationship with South Africa has deepened significantly in recent years, as shown by a raft of economic and political proclamations.

The year 2014 was dubbed “the year of South Africa in China”. It was followed last year by the “Year of China in South Africa”. Now South Africa has been upgraded to China’s lofty “Strategic Comprehensive Partner”.

And the governing African National Congress (ANC) has made no bones about how it feels. Its 2015 National General Council discussion document identifies a new “Cold War” in which

the exemplary role of the collective leadership of the Communist Party of China in this regard should be a guiding lodestar of our own struggle.

Such statements have left observers wondering whether the ANC-led government is making a geopolitical turn toward China. Such sentiments have been emboldened by bureaucratic obfuscation that’s prevented the Dalai Lama from visiting South Africa on three different occasions and the Chinese government funding an ANC training school.

China’s economic relationship with South Africa has added further fuel to the fire. China has been South Africa’s largest trading partner since 2010, with a total trade volume of R270 billion in 2013. The announcement during the China-Africa summit that China will be committing a further R90 billion to South Africa, will only confirm sceptics' fears of growing subjugation.

Knowing which side your bread is buttered

Reactions to China’s engagement tend to overlook one important fact. While, at least ideologically, the South African government may be thumbing its nose at traditional western partners, economically, multiple international engagement is the order of the day.

Europe and the US continue to be significant trading partners. Foreign direct investment from these regions far surpasses what comes in from China. In fact, India is the only BRICS country - Brazil, Russia, India and China - in the top five sources of foreign direct investment in South Africa.

Additionally, the US, UK and Germany are still the top overseas visitors to the country.

Those of an economically pragmatic bent may be scratching their heads as to why the South African government needs to engage with China at the expense of engagements with western partners.

This is, in fact, by no means the case. South Africa may be taking sides at an ideological level. But at the level of international economic engagement, it is business as usual. In an instance of what Patrick Bond refers to as the “talk left, walk right” approach, the South African government uses the language of anti-Western imperial hegemony while simultaneously being deeply engaged in the logic of global markets.

In fact, when it comes to international political economy, no one “talks left and walks right” more than the Chinese themselves. The country’s integration into the global market system, the rise of a consumer-orientated middle class, and its outward-bound commodity forays to support both domestic and international consumption make China a dominant player in global capitalism. Significantly its currency, the renminbi, has just been accepted by the IMF as a world currency.

China’s engagement in Africa is an extension of this process, a fact which many in the Euro-American world, and even Africa, seem unable to digest.

Nothing highlights this more clearly than the recent announcement of the Chinese-driven Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. The new bank includes most major global players, including South Africa. Notable absentees are Japan and the US. It has eclipsed the BRICS New Development Bank, presenting itself as a champion of the global South.

South African and Chinese aspirations have much in common if we look at China from the perspective of a formidable global market player, rather than simply as an authoritarian single-party state. Both are deeply integrated within global markets while at the same time being engaged in domestic ideologies which are inherently antagonistic to these markets. In this respect, they are part of a broader post- Cold War economic pragamatism in which domestic and even foreign policies - be they left, right or centre - are subordinate to the market imperative.