In March 2009 the Dalai Lama was scheduled to attend a peace conference in Johannesburg. The conference was supposed to address how the 2010 World Cup could be used to fight racism and xenophobia, but it never took place because the Dalai Lama didn’t attend it. Or rather, he was refused entry into the country by the department of home affairs. According to the department, the Dalai Lama’s visit would detract attention from the World Cup, and that just wouldn’t do. His Holiness’s visit “would not be in South Africa’s best interests,” Thabo Masebe told the journalists who had been assembled to find out exactly why one of the world’s most revered peace icons had been barred entry into South Africa. The irony of South Africa, of all places, refusing a visa to the Dalai Lama was not lost on people. The conference was cancelled when other speakers, including Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, pulled out in protest.
The Dalai Lama’s people blamed China. “It is true that South Africa, under intense pressure from the Chinese authorities, have denied a visa to the Dalai Lama,” said Thubten Samphel, a spokesperson for the Dalai Lama. “Since His Holiness says he will not inconvenience any government, we at the Tibetan administration will not issue any strong response. But we are certainly very disappointed.”
The department of home affairs hotly denied any accusations that their decision not to grant a visa to someone who had been forced into exile by China had been in any way influenced by pressure from Beijing. Pundits saw it differently, and that event may come to be remembered as one of the first clear signs that South Africa’s ruling party had entered the bedroom, kicked off its slippers and lifted the covers to get into the bed where China lay waiting.
Beijing’s influence is shaping this country’s future, by shaping the texture and timbre of the ruling party’s policies. Chinese direct investment in South Africa is already quite considerable, $6 billion in 2008, according to the Sunday Independent. In August 2010 President Jacob Zuma visited China at the head of a 400-strong delegation of politicians and businessmen, and was nothing if not awed by China’s political system. The relationship between South Africa and China was officially bumped up to a “comprehensive strategic partnership”, which is nothing to sniff at, given China is widely considered to be the world’s next superpower.
China is also playing a crucial role in the political formation of ANC members. The ANC’s secretary general told the party’s national general council in August they planned to send the entire ANC national executive committee to China for political schooling. “The organisational renewal is on-going and focuses on areas of rebuilding our structures, growing our membership base, embarking on massive political education programmes, building a campaigning ANC and strengthening the strategic policy capacity of our movement,” Gwede Mantashe said in Durban.
Jackson Mthembu told the Herald that senior-level ANC officials would be attending a two-week Chinese Communist Party course in economics and politics. For now, the party is only sending NEC members.
The exact amount of influence this schooling in the Chinese way of doing things will yield remains to be seen, but we can already deduce that the ANC will become even more enamoured of China’s interpretation of the developmental state. The ruling party has warmed a great deal to China’s strategy of direct state intervention in economic growth, and Zuma seems particularly impressed with China’s ability to “get things done”. He reserved special praise for the “discipline” (a word that was inserted a lot into Zuma’s opening address at the NGC) of China’s political system, his mind perhaps lingering on the apparent lack of discipline among cadres deployed to various positions within the alliance, government and parastatals.
Last year, the ANC announced the formation of a political school, after the political education strategy workshop. The press release said, “The political school will be an autonomous institutional centre whose primary mission is to serve the ANC and broader democratic movement by building political, ideological, academic and technical capacity of cadres of the movement and leadership collectives.” Speaking to the Mail & Guardian earlier this year, the head of the school, Tony Yengeni, held forth on a lack of political consciousness among cadres, which leads to corruption, greed and intolerance and how the school was supposed to solve all that.
The ANC seems very keen to replicate the Chinese political school model in South Africa. Jackson Mthembu said, “We also want to look at what knowledge we can get regarding running a political school.” According to Mthembu, the purpose of these delegations that go for “political and economical learnings in China for make benefit South Africa” is to understand how China managed to become a dominant economic force in the world. We hope that the Chinese will throw in a little history into the two weeks that the NEC members are in China. It’s true that China’s government seized assets for the state. But that was in the 1950s, and what followed was “30 years of Maoist chaos, economic regression and grinding poverty,” as Jeremy Goldkorn put it. It was only after Deng Xiaoping began opening up the country’s economy (remember his famous line “poverty is not socialism. To be rich is glorious”?), some heavy intervention from Wall Street and other foreign investors and a freeing up of the private sector that China’s state-owned companies came into their own. China’s economy didn’t boom because the state tightened its grip on the economy. Quite the opposite.
We learnt that the head of the last delegation to go for political schooling China was the ANC’s national chairwoman Baleka Mbete. Her office ignored our request to enlighten as to how exactly the classes went and what exactly they were taught. The ANC knows how to run a busy hive of receptionists, personal assistants and telephone-answerers, to ensure that if someone doesn’t want to be reached, well, they won’t be reached. As of the date of publishing, Tony Yengeni’s office had “promised” to get back to this reporter at some point. We would have asked him just how many of the Chinese Communist party’s school textbooks was he going to be using in his school.
The ANC is going to run into some pretty hard walls when it begins aggressively pursuing Chinese-style politics in South Africa. The two countries have significantly different political climates – the ANC would have to somehow convince everyone from the courts, the media and big business to toe the line – and stakeholders won’t give up their bit of the pie without some sort of a fight. The ANC would basically have to kill the Constitutional dispensation we currently live under to achieve the level of control the Beijing government has.
Then there are the factions within the ANC itself to contend with. Can the ANC make the nationalists, socialists and others work together seamlessly? Not without at least exercising the same iron discipline that the Communist Party of China imposes upon its members, to the point of executing offenders. And precedence tells us that the disciplinary process is too big a temptation for selfish factional interests within the party – it was almost used earlier this year by the tenderpreneurs to silence Vavi, who was making a proper nuisance of himself by calling certain individuals out for smelling of corruption.
Then there’s the small matter of South Africa’s mighty trade unions, which most certainly would not be open to Chinese-style labour policies. China’s industries get their competitive edge in part from cheap labour, and they can get away with it because their trade unions are controlled by the state. This is something the ANC would not be able to replicate here. Patrick Craven, Cosatu’s spokesman, said that although the trade union federation would welcome greater state intervention in the economy, Cosatu would always fight to keep their independence. “In fact, we support Chinese workers fighting for better work conditions,” Craven said.
In China, ideological change came first, followed by economic reform and then a lot of very hard work. Then only did the economic boom happen. The rock on which the public sector was built was a prosperous private sector. Will they teach that to the ANC in Beijing? One can only hope. DM
Photo: South African President Jacob Zuma (L) shakes hands with with Chinese President Hu Jintao in Beijing August 24, 2010. South African President Jacob Zuma called on Tuesday for greater investment in his country from China, as South Africa seeks to narrow its trade deficit with Beijing and bring growth to its sluggish economy. REUTERS/ Adrian Bradshaw.
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