Back in the 1960s when the world was young and all things seemed possible, Mao Zhedong was the avatar of revolutionary change – and China was the canvas where this picture would be painted brightest. Throughout the world, university students like the writer spent hours in their lecture halls, analysing the presumed success of The Great Leap Forward, the extirpation of feudalism and the elimination of a corrupt, retrograde Nationalist government from everywhere except Taiwan – and then the creation of the Chinese version of the new socialist man. And, of course, what followed was how these efforts would be the model of and inspiration for parallel achievements elsewhere in the world.
It was, of course, a rosy-hued, romanticised view of China, uninformed by the more brutal realities of Maoist rule. Path-breaking histories like Mao: the Unknown Story, by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday that put Mao Zhedong’s crimes on the continuum of death beyond even the baleful results of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin’s regimes were still far in the future. But those optimistic opinions were becoming the norm for so many in America and the rest of the West, and if they helped in some ineffable way to fuel the student-led uprisings across so much of the West in 1968 – in the middle of China’s own Cultural Revolution – how much more would it have contributed to the political imagination and education of young revolutionaries like Jacob Zuma, as they pondered the way forward against a truly great injustice.
Years ago, while working in another African state, a small nation hosting a growing refugee population from nearby conflicts, my wife and I became friends with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees there and his wife. The two of them had a fascinating personal history – he was originally from Somalia and his wife was an African-American. Before they were married they had been students together at Brandeis University, just outside of Boston. That a Somali Moslem exchange student and a black American (who later embraced Islam) would have met at the leading university of progressive secular Jewish education in America was more than a little surprising.
But the conversation that followed after a relaxed Sunday lunch was more interesting still. As we drank our coffee and ate our deserts, my friend explained that of course as a student he had been a communist, any rational African student went through a communist phase as a way of rejecting the obvious inequalities all around him – pretty much wherever one was and wherever one looked. (My wife, also raised in Africa, had nodded her assent – an understanding of this impulse.) Even more than Russian communist thought or classical Marxism, though, the Chinese way of thinking woven together with a racial analysis built on the ideas of Caribbean intellectual Franz Fanon, generally held greater appeal for such students, building, as it did, on the idea of the put-upon agrarian peasantry as the real incubator for a socialist revolution.
And so perhaps it is logical that someone like the young Jacob Zuma – and so many of his compatriots in the movement – would have entered onto such a pathway as well – the influences all flowed along the same track, right down to that mix of race and socialist thinking. And besides, China loomed large in those days for Africa, from the putative heroics of the Maoist Cultural Revolution, through the emotional high for many from Chinese participation in the construction of the Tanzara Railway from Zambia to the Tanzanian ports (to allow Zambian copper exports to avoid South African railroads and harbours), and then on back through to the futurism of the Afro-Asian non-aligned summit in Bandung in 1955. Thus these intellectual and emotional appeals, rolled together, offered a comprehensive critique of present difficulties and an alluring influence on generations of young idealists and revolutionaries for a better tomorrow.
The irony, of course, is that the China that Zuma and his administration now admire so much is a far different place than the home of the fiery revolutionary rhetoric of “The Great Helmsman”. Replaced by Deng Xiaoping’s own (counter) revolutionary exhortation, “To be rich is wonderful” – the idea that took hold in China after the Tiananmen Square massacre to offer economic growth in lieu of political freedom – the China of Zuma’s South African presidency is a nation that has shucked off its older revolutionary ardour and is attempting to merge state-centred capitalism with the development aesthetic pioneered by Japan and then subsequently adopted by the Four Little Dragons of Asia.
But in Zuma’s mind, this China (or the old one – it is never entirely clear) still stands in opposition to the forces of the West and colonialism’s memory. This is despite the rise of the that nation’s new millionaires, their fleets of Rolls Royces, their massive industrial concerns now thoroughly integrated into global supply chain and manufacturing webs – and China’s vast trade networks with the US and the rest of the West.
And now, with the Brics summit meeting in Durban just around the corner, observers are bracing for a wave of eternal, fraternal affection between South Africa and its four Brics partners. While South Africa’s leadership will dutifully embrace their Indian, Russian and Brazilian counterparts with public gusto, the greatest affection will almost undoubtedly be cast further eastward.
The Brics summit will also include a bilateral meeting in Pretoria between Jacob Zuma and Xi Jinping as a key element of the latter’s official visit to Africa. And all of this comes just after Xi will have been officially confirmed as the head of the Chinese state at the country’s National People’s Congress parliament session in Beijing. And Xi’s ascension is the culmination of the country’s once-a-decade leadership transition. This inaugural trip for Xi abroad as the country’s top leader will also include a visit to Russia and two other African nations – Tanzania, and the Republic of Congo. And in an unprecedented move for a Chinese leader’s overseas trip, there will be a high-profile individual public programme for Xi’s wife, folk singer, Peng Liyuan. Peng is famous in China for her renditions of patriotic songs and analysts say her efforts will be a key part of the Chinese charm offensive to build “soft power” abroad, even further.
Beyond history, perhaps one key to Zuma’s admiration for China also comes from the sheer size and impact of the Chinese economy and its growing business involvement with Africa – this in addition to Zuma’s publicly stated irritation with Western businesses and nations. Or perhaps it is a question of a kind of envy over the ability of Chinese economic technocrats like Xi to exert sufficient control over their economy to direct investment into the most politically potent sectors of their economy. Or perhaps it is the way, noted earlier, that so many of his generation were caught up with that romantic notion of revolutionary China as the great new wave of the future. Or maybe, more likely still, it is all of these rolled together.
In focusing attention on China in advance of the Brics summit, in recent weeks, President Zuma has made use of the international media to warn third parties away from criticising Chinese behaviour in Africa and South Africa. Moreover, in these same interviews he has extolled the Chinese way of doing business with Africa – in contrast to the West.
He recently told the Financial Times, for example, that Western businesses and governments have a “psychological problem” because they remain prone to lecturing Africa. He added his advice that they must learn to eschew warning Africa against any embrace of China – and that they must rethink their own African investment strategies. Building on this, Zuma added, “I’ve said it to the private sector from the Western countries: ‘Look. You have got to change the way you do business with Africa if you want to regain Africa. If you want to treat Africa as a former colony… then people will go to new partners who are going to treat them differently’.” Zuma did add a slight hedge to his finger wag when he said, “China is doing business in a particular way and we think we can see the benefits, but we are very, very careful.” Given the colonial experience on the continent, he argued that any international economic relationship still has to “benefit both. And this is what we and China have been agreeing”. In effect, mind your own business and let us get on with it ourselves.
However, recalling that etiology of ideology and admiration noted earlier, not all observers are convinced today’s love of China is just the Zuma camp’s interest in diversifying sources of investment and trade. One veteran international economic editor told the author that in his view Zuma’s position was economic and political opportunism: “We all know what this is about. Play ball my way and stop hectoring about corruption or I’ll play with the others – which of course he is [doing] anyway. The great tragedy in this context is that the South African business and financial community, which all BRICS partners would cherish as assets, goes away unwanted in their home country.”
On the other hand, political analyst Frans Cronje of the SA Institute of Race Relations’ Unit for Risk Analysis argues some of the blame for this state of affairs rests with the behaviour of the Western international business community itself. Cronje says, “The broader business community, their reps in organised business, and their diplomats have never done much to sell the idea of private investment led growth in South Africa. They have thrived on a culture of appeasement and ‘deal or pact making’ behind closed doors… Is it any surprise therefore that the government walks all over them and treats them with contempt? Zuma’s comments are, for example, in line with SA’s not renewing EU investor protection agreements. From where I sit the Chinese have done a splendid job of getting the government to buy into their ideas.”
Cronje, in asking why this should have been any different, answers: “Who stood up and tried to sell the most basic idea that investment-led growth is good for South Africa? Who in business has challenged government to use the taxes they generate more productively?” This has led to a predominant narrative that government policy is there to protect the poor from business and investment rather than the alternative view that business and investment community are there to save the poor from squalor of their lives.
However another veteran foreign analyst argued that instead of simply being anti-business, the country’s political leadership is actually simply pulled in too many different directions – racial transformation, appeasement of Cosatu, socio-economic development, that lingering nostalgia for socialism – to pursue a consistently pro-investment strategy. Instead there is a tendency for that political class “to take business for granted and assume it will always be there, ready and able to pay taxes and create jobs”.
“Sometimes,” he added, “I think black activists were too impressed by the wealth and permanence of capitalist business firms. They didn’t understand that the investment machine can wind down if it isn’t properly nurtured.”
Finally, this analyst argues, there is also a tendency to “assume that development will be funded mostly by the private sector but only in response to vigorous state/SOE leadership.”
Business commentator Chris Gibbons, by contrast, adds that the predilection towards Brics partners is a more general one than just with China. “If push comes to shove, a Zuma-led government will take a deal with any of the Bric nations over a deal with any of the classic ‘Western’ nations any day… Why? There is a deeply ingrained anger among many black South Africans, and not just politicians either, about the roles played by “Western” – read former colonial – powers during the anti-Apartheid years.” The ghosts of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan are still around, as is the perception of their informal partnership with the Apartheid state.
Gibbons adds that China and Russia backed the liberation movements, and because China is the emerging superpower – and it is one that doesn’t ask all those awkward questions about corruption, human rights and other inconvenient topics. He says that if one looks through the eyes of Jacob Zuma and his associates, it is too easy for the “colonial corporates” to be conflated with their various governments. And this is made easier because, he says, “The ANC – like its Chinese and Russian friends in the Brics arena – makes very little distinction between party, state and the corporate sector.” (Something that, curiously, has an historical analogue with the Dutch East Indies Company that effectively founded South Africa in the 17th century.)
University of Cape Town political scientist Anthony Butler finds a somewhat different perspective, arguing that while Western media have highlighted Zuma’s bias against Western businesses. Zuma also noted, Butler points out, that: “Europe remains SA’s key economic partner and he is right. China is ostensibly SA’s largest trading partner, but only if the euro zone is treated as 27 distinct states. The UK remains the largest overseas investor. South African manufacturers, moreover, export to the EU. China only takes our minerals – further hastening this country’s deindustrialisation.”
Given this disproportion, why is China so attractive to Zuma and company? Butler argues that partly this is “because it is not judgmental (as SA itself tries not to be). [And] in part [it is] because the ANC yearns for modernity but distrusts Westernisation. The generation of exiles that developed deep friendships and understandings of European social democracies and leftist parties in, for example, Sweden and the UK, is dying out. But also because it is possible to strike deals with China that bring state-owned banks and parastatals into play.” By contrast, in the current era, “Western states have little sway over the banks and businesses that occupy their territories. So all EU governments can do is to pass on the concerns of the companies whose interests they represent. The Chinese have capital and they are planning long term. They are willing to expose themselves, and their para-statals and banks, to risk. This makes SA leaders happy. But in truth the Chinese will ultimately gain most, using capital they cannot otherwise deploy today to secure access to SA mineral resources over the longer haul.”
Political economist Abdulwaheed Patel meanwhile adds, “Zuma is not suggesting that SA does not need non-Brics foreign investment. Quite to the contrary, his comments can be interpreted as suggesting that there is a place and desire for foreign ‘western’ investment, on terms that are favorable to the SA government… On the other hand, both the South African government and foreign investors, especially those who are termed as ‘western’ can do more to better understand each other ideologies when it comes to investment philosophy. I have certainly heard recent stories of a significant nature about US companies in SA considering possible divestment from SA, sending a very negative message about their commitment to the country…”
Finally, economist Iraj Abedian, parsing the mix of ideology and pragmatism in the Zuma administration vis-à-vis western investment versus China, argued that although American corporations may well have a more progressive, and less insensitive, approach to doing business in Africa, “the same cannot be said about the French, the British, the Italian and some of the other ‘colonial’ business outfits who have not moved with time”.
“West Africa is still riddled with old-style French business practices, promoting much unsavoury conduct, among others corruption. So, in this sense, President Zuma is hinting at a truth.”
However, “Chinese corporations are no less guilty in this regard,” Abadan adds, “Given the history of colonialism, the West is suspect as a matter of principle. Events in Libya and the region have not helped the cause of the West and the Western corporations. Chinese, and Indians, manage the PR much better.” Further, in his view, the former “Western colonial powers have become so enmeshed in their own internal problems that they have forgotten to focus on Africa.
“In any event, unlike China, or India, for the West there is no single authority, no centralised focus on PR management, learning, and reinvesting” in order to make amends with the Western past in Africa. Given that handicap, Abadan warns, “If the West and the Western corporations do not mend the past, reinvent themselves within the new African reality, they are going to lose to other emerging competitors such as China, India, Brazil, and Russia.”
From that perspective, Zuma’s statement may be less a threat than the “recycling of a fairly ‘old’ and prevailing reality.” Finally, Abadan offers a caveat about Chinese behaviour. “More often than not, the Chinese are willing to pay bribes to those in office to get whatever business licence or favour they require.” By contrast, American and some Western corporations are bound by ethics codes barring them from such behaviour. “This is a good thing, and it needs open discourse and enforcement. This is where an effective PR approach is needed to deal with this critical issue.”
Finally, a rising younger African businessman in South Africa argued that Zuma’s perspective increasingly has an almost-sepia-toned generational bias built into it. In his view, “The young people of Africa who feel almost all the time let down by the revolutionary leaders, are looking and treating China with scepticism. They are waiting for their chance to lead and lead better in an age where information, education and skills are as equal to any place in the developed world. Their ‘sense of leadership’ betrays the style of always looking for an outside saviour – to rescue, yet again Africa. In the next decade, you are likely to see all the octogenarian leaders being eliminated either by coup d’état or death and you will see the emergence of new leaders who are born in Africa, educated in the West and want a new renaissance of Africa, on Africa’s terms.” By contrast, Jacob Zuma’s comments, while they may well have been true a decade earlier, “Since 2008, we are living in a different world, whether we admit to it or not. The greatest future of any sector lies in Africa and the emerging world, the former colonised world – even including Latin America and parts of Asia. The Chinese have no equity in Africa – they don’t integrate and don’t bring good value/high value products, instead they do the opposite. They take your resources through cheap construction constructs or ill-conceived or poorly structured loans which exploit the local conditions by leaving you worse off than before.”
Paralleling Barack Obama’s comment in his Accra speech nearly four years ago, this business figure argued, “Africans, in general want younger, dynamic, educated, impactful and leaders with integrity who have their people’s best interest at heart. They want a corrupt free environment that helps them live full lives, a state that functions best – through the provision of services and creating a conducive environment both for work and starting-operating businesses.”
And so, it’s complicated. Just where are Jacob Zuma’s core values on China? Do they come from his youthful enthusiasm for a country that was shucking off the weight of decades of exploitation and decay; from a deep aversion to the sins of the West generally and of Western business in particular; or approval of the Chinese model of revolutionary economic change and its newer model of resurgent state capitalism? Or perhaps is it a kind of international opportunism borne of a sense that China is simply the wave of the future and that the cheap loans, investment and export purchases are there to be had for as long as the Chinese economic engine continues to grow?
Observers will be watching the words and the body language very carefully next week in Durban and Pretoria during the Brics summit and related events in an effort to try to tease out the deeper inner meanings from the group portraits, the anodyne statements and the careful smiles at the banquets. The Daily Maverick will be there too to try to make sense of it all. DM
Photo: Britain’s Queen Elizabeth greets South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma during a ceremonial welcome on Horse Guards Parade in London March 3, 2010. Zuma was on a three day state visit to Britain. (REUTERS/Chris Jackson)
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