South Africa, World

Zuma looks to the east – and likes what he sees

By Simon Allison 23 July 2012

Forgive Jacob Zuma if he’s taken his eye off all that messy domestic politics for a while. He’s been busy, working hard to conquer an arena in which he has a less than stellar reputation: foreign policy. After his unexpected success in Addis Ababa, he headed east, to China, where he made it clear that South Africa was going in the same direction. By SIMON ALLISON.

First on the president’s busy foreign itinerary was Addis Ababa, where he played a crucial role last Sunday in the surprise election of home affairs minister (and ex-wife) Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to the most influential position in Africa: chairperson of the African Union Commission. Some analysts suggest that it was Zuma’s personal, impassioned campaigning on his ex-wife’s behalf that tipped the scales in her favour.

Barely had he returned home before he was off again, this time on the long-haul to Beijing, where he was attending the Forum for China-Africa Cooperation (Focac), a government-level talk shop where China explains to African leaders exactly what they plan on doing with the continent; or, as Zuma described it, an “opportunity to hammer out strategies to extricate our peoples out of the devastating recession” – a clear indication, if any was needed, that the cooperation between China and Africa is still all about the money.

Again, Zuma’s personal involvement was crucial. Although eight African presidents and prime ministers were present, Zuma was by far the most important, the others being from countries like Burkina Faso and Niger. Other heavyweights, such as Nigeria’s Goodluck Jonathan and Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi, did not attend; and while Kenya’s Prime Minister Raila Odinga was present, local rumour has it that he was only there to escape his own domestic problems.

Why, exactly, did our busy leader think it so important to be in Beijing, when most of his continental counterparts stayed at home? It might just have something to do with another bid to lead an important international institution. That’s right, South Africa will now chair Focac, putting the country at the forefront of managing Africa’s delicate and lucrative relationship with China.

But it’s a complicated relationship, as even Zuma acknowledged in his address to the forum. “China’s commitment to Africa has already been demonstrated through tangible and concrete results, particularly in terms of human resource development, debt relief, and investment. On the other hand, Africa’s commitment to China’s development has been demonstrated by the supply of raw materials, other products, and technology transfer. As we all agree, this trade pattern is unsustainable in the long term.”

Unsustainable or not, Zuma has made it abundantly clear that he still prefers Chinese involvement in Africa to European meddling in the continent. “Africa’s past economic experience with Europe dictates a need to be cautious when entering into partnerships with other economies. We are particularly pleased that in our relationship with China we are equals, and that agreements entered into are for mutual gain. This gathering indicates commitment to mutual respect and benefit. We certainly are convinced that China’s intention is different to that of Europe, which to date continues to attempt to influence African countries for [its] sole benefit.”

So this is the world according to Jacob of Nkandla: the Chinese are the good guys, the Europeans are the bad guys, and Africans are the future. “Over the last decade, and partly because of China’s unrelenting support, the African continent has seen tremendous growth rates, making it one of the fastest growing continents and certainly the next growth pole,” he informed forum delegates.

This forum has traditionally been where China unveils its latest plans for Africa, sugar-coated in the language of development and cooperation. This time was no different, as the People’s Republic outlined five areas in which support to Africa would be increased. Cutting through the diplomat-speak, there are a few things worth noting.

First, that $20 billion in low-cost loans would be made available over the next three years to African countries – a big number, but less than Europe as a whole is contributing to Africa in overseas development aid. Expect this number to supplemented, however, with special loans for specific projects that are financed through other Chinese institutions.

Second, that China will offer 18,000 scholarships to African government officials, to bring them to China and train them in the Chinese style of governance. If these scholarships are distributed evenly across the continent, that’s at least 300 officials from each country that will get a little bit of Chinese indoctrination – a good investment as far as China is concerned. 

There’s been plenty of indoctrination going on already, of course; some 20,000 government scholarships have already been given, and there are thousands of academic scholarships being given to African students (as compared to the handful on offer from European and American universities). Not that this is a bad thing; there is plenty that African governments need to learn and can perhaps implement about the Chinese economic and governance models.

Zuma, it seems, intends to do just that. It’s telling that in the same week that his government ignored United Nations criticism over withholding information about mercenaries in Somalia – an obstinacy that could jeopardise South Africa’s bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council – the president made a personal appearance in Beijing. He’s already looking east; and where the president looks, the country is sure to follow. DM

  • Zuma’s speech to the Forum for China-Africa Cooperation from the website of the Presidency
  • President Hu proposes new measures to boost China-Africa ties on Xinhua

Photo: China’s President Hu Jintao (R) shakes hands with South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma during the opening ceremony of the Fifth Ministerial Conference of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, July 19, 2012. Hu on Thursday offered $20 billion in loans to African countries over the next three years, boosting a relationship that has been criticised by the West and given Beijing growing access to the resource-rich continent. REUTERS/Jason Lee


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