South Africa, World

Analysis: Ramaphosa’s China Conundrum – to kowtow or hit back?

Analysis: Ramaphosa’s China Conundrum – to kowtow or hit back?

In the wake of China’s apoplexy regarding the recent visit to South Africa of a vocal Tibetan leader, our new president faces a question of major moral and economic import: will Beijing make good on its threat to disinvest if we don’t toe the line? Put another way, does South Africa need China more than China needs South Africa? And to add to that, what about the recent embarrassing, insulting and illegal behaviour of Pretoria’s new best friend? KEVIN BLOOM wonders whether these are quandaries that even Ramaphosa can’t “negotiate”.

I. The special kid

Not that South Africans were paying attention, but in April 2017 we were singled out for special treatment by a major heavyweight on the geopolitical playing field. It was as if we were the skinny kid who ate his sandwiches alone every day, and then suddenly we got a standing invitation to the staff room to take hot meals with the principal. The People’s Republic of China, represented by no less than nine vice ministers, had arrived in Pretoria to co-host the launch of something called the “China-South Africa High Level People-to-People Exchange Mechanism”—or “PPEM”. And so we smiled, heaped our plates, and quickly got used to the luxury.

What is the PPEM? Typically, none of the architects of the initiative could answer this question with anything approaching transparency. Liu Yandong, its co-chairperson, after reading out a “letter of congratulations” from Chinese commander-in-chief Xi Jinping, said,

It is a strategic decision made by Xi and South African President Jacob Zuma in view of the overall situation of China-South African relations.”

Then, as if this somehow clarified things, she said,

It will play an important role in enhancing China-South African relations [and] deepening bilateral co-operation.”

Finally, in an attempt at what she must have assumed was detail, Liu said,

It is imperative to bring into full play the leading role of the PPEM to push forward bilateral exchanges and co-operation in a wide range of areas such as education, culture, science and technology, health, youth, women, sports, think tanks, press and tourism.”

This dissembling, true to its nature, didn’t flow just one way. Directing the return flow was Nathi Mthethwa, one of our former president’s favourite henchmen, who at the time was serving as South Africa’s minister of arts and culture. First, Mthethwa recited back at the Chinese a “letter of congratulations” from His Excellency Jacob Zuma. Next, drawing on his cache of platitudes, he promised that the PPEM would “give a boost” to South African efforts to “realise the African Dream”.

So clearly, when it comes to the PPEM, the best question isn’t what? As is almost always the case with these things, the best question is who? And here, in plain English, is the short and unequivocal answer: France; Russia; Indonesia; the United States; the European Union; the United Kingdom. Our own little country, at that mostly ignored event in Pretoria last year, became the first and only nation in Africa to be accorded PPEM status. It was going to be hot meals every day forever, unless we somehow did something to invoke the wrath of the People’s Republic of China.

Enter Lobsang Sangay, the “sikyong” – president – of the Tibetan government-in-exile, who arrived in South Africa for a four-day trip on the morning of 5 February 2018. In the late afternoon of 5 February, at the Lamrim Tibetan Buddhist Centre in Johannesburg, Daily Maverick sat down with the sikyong for a conversation that would turn out to be unprecedented. For the first time on South African soil, a Tibetan leader had spoken openly and at length about the Chinese “template” of foreign engagement – a template that began, in his view, with a charm offensive, followed up with the paying off of pliant bureaucrats, and ended with the full and unfettered exploitation of local institutions and resources.

This, said the sikyong, is what happened in Tibet in the 1950s. It is what began happening in the late 2000s in Australia – who were currently suffering, he said, from “buyer’s remorse”. And now it was “happening in Africa”.

On Thursday 9 February, the same day that Daily Maverick’s interview with the sikyong was published, the Chinese embassy in Pretoria issued a statement about the visit, which in its disregard for South African sovereignty was also unprecedented:

It has sent a wrong political signal to the world community, and has undermined the political mutual trust between China and South Africa. It runs against the common interest of SA-China relations, and will undoubtedly discourage Chinese investors’ confidence in South Africa, undermine SA’s efforts for poverty reduction, and cause grave harm for the interest of South Africa and the South African people.”

Later that day, a crowd protested outside a venue at the University of Stellenbosch, where the sikyong was supposed to give a talk. The Chinese embassy’s view was that the protest was reflective of the “fury” of the majority of “common South Africans”; the countervailing view was that the Chinese embassy had arranged their own rent-a-crowd.

Sikyong Lobsang Sangay, who spoke to Daily Maverick on 10 February just before boarding his return flight, said: “Regarding this event, where the Chinese embassy orchestrated a protest, I felt quite sad to see that in such a great land, who so many have gone to prison and died for, freedom of speech and human rights has been trampled upon. It looks as though in South Africa the Chinese embassy is more powerful than any government or parliament, which is indeed a sad chapter. You know, I always say this – if you give up on Tibet, it begins with Tibet and it ends with you.”

II. The not-so-special kid

And that was about the sum of it: since the “go out” policy had been initiated by the Chinese government in 1999 to promote Chinese investments abroad, the Tibet question had increasingly acted as a mirror. As the sikyong saw it, either a sovereign nation placed human rights before its economic and diplomatic interests, or it didn’t. In an editorial published in the Guardian in October 2016, titled “The Guardian view on the Dalai Lama: Don’t squeeze him out”, the context behind this uncomfortable choice was laid bare:

Getting other governments to snub the Dalai Lama has been an occupation of Chinese diplomats for the last nine years or so,” wrote the newspaper’s editors, “ever since George W Bush awarded him the Congressional Medal of Honor. That public recognition of the Tibetan spiritual leader seems to have stung the Chinese state into a furious and long-lasting reaction. The public rhetoric had always been angry, but now it was matched by private pressure. Government after government has quietly cancelled meetings with him. It is in the interest of no side of these squalid little transactions to publicise them: the host countries look weak and unprincipled, the Chinese spiteful and bullying, and the Tibetans just look powerless. In all cases, this appearance corresponds to reality.”

Significantly, as the Guardian pointed out, it has only been on the rarest of occasions that the curtain has lifted – and South Africa’s denial of the Dalai Lama’s entry visa for his friend Desmond Tutu’s 80th birthday celebrations was one such time.

In fact, South Africa has denied the Dalai Lama a visa three times in the last decade: once under President Mbeki, and twice under President Zuma. What will the country do under President Cyril Ramaphosa? This was what both the Chinese embassy and the Tibetan sikyong were asking themselves during the week of 5 February, when it became clear that Zuma would be recalled and Ramaphosa would deliver the State of the Nation address.

I once heard Ramaphosa give a talk at Harvard Law School,” the sikyong told Daily Maverick, “on the most progressive Constitution in the world. But the Constitution of South Africa is not the most progressive if the principles enshrined in it are compromised, or the implementation is lagging. I hope those Chinese students and embassy staff protesting outside the school will realise how valuable freedom of speech is – because they were enjoying their freedom of speech yesterday protesting against me.”

As for the Chinese embassy’s take on the changeover in power, it was the assessment of a leading China-Africa expert that the statement of 9 February – which essentially amounted to a threat – was a direct message for the incoming president. This expert, revealingly, insisted on remaining anonymous, as he had “family in mainland China” who he believed “would be in danger”. Equally revealing is that none of the other China-Africa experts that the Daily Maverick approached for comment were prepared to go on record.

So the underlying question is this: will the People’s Republic of China make good on its threat to disinvest if the Ramaphosa government doesn’t do its bidding? Put another way, does South Africa need China more than China needs South Africa? And to add to that, what about the recent embarrassing, insulting and illegal behaviour of Pretoria’s new best friend?

These questions are inextricably interlinked, but let’s deal with them one by one.

First, South Africa has unequivocally been identified as Beijing’s gateway into Africa – as evidenced by our PPEM status, our hosting of the all-important sixth Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in December 2015, and our position as the continental headquarters for the vast majority of banks and multinational companies that implement the big China-Africa deals. For Beijing to pull out of South Africa now would be to undo almost two decades of painstaking, complicated work.

Second, Africa’s poster child for governance and transparency, the Republic of Botswana, literally put a hold on all deals with Chinese corporations back in July 2013 – and, by all accounts, the country hasn’t collapsed as a result. The circumstances behind these events, which were covered in a book co-written by the author of this article and Daily Maverick contributor Richard Poplak, pointed to the Sinohydro Corporation being both over schedule and below par (on construction standards) on all five of the major infrastructure projects it was handling in Botswana at the time. (As a side note, in a recent interview, Botswana’s President Ian Khama revealed how the Chinese embassy tried to block the Dalai Lama’s visit to his country in August 2017).

Third, that embarrassing, insulting and illegal behaviour – regarding which we’ll provide just three examples. Last week, China’s biggest Lunar New Year TV show sparked widespread accusations of racism when it ran a comedy routine, meant to celebrate the China-Africa engagement, that included an Asian actress in blackface with exaggerated buttocks. This incredible tone-deafness came against the background of our second example, which is of course the link between China South Rail and Gupta businesses and associates in the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) debacle that’s been making headlines again lately.

And that came against the background of a City Press exposé published in September 2017, which revealed that two mega-contracts worth an estimated R70-billion had been awarded to a Chinese parastatal “with neither a public tender nor permission from Treasury to bypass tender laws”.

It goes on. Almost 20 years of experience has shown that Beijing’s “win-win” rhetoric when it comes to the China-Africa phenomenon is exactly what it seems – so much pomposity, grandiloquence, and speechifying. Which is not to argue that China’s sustained interest in Africa is a bad thing. At the first FOCAC back in 2000, what African governments were given was a choice: no longer did our leaders have to submit to the dictates of the West, with its World Bank and IMF-inspired loan conditions that have done nothing but render the continent poorer. Suddenly, we had a new power against which we could play the old colonisers.

Now we understand the implications of this choice. Beijing’s lauded “political non-interference” has been exposed as the lie it always was. The PRC will intervene every single time a sovereign country threatens its ambitions or self-image. And here, as Sikyong Sangay suggests, Tibet is at once China’s blind spot and Africa’s mirror: a decision to kowtow is a decision to forsake, in the long run, the dignity and rights of one’s own citizens.

If this is something that our new president – who’s supposed to be a master of the art – thinks he can negotiate, he will almost certainly be proved wrong. DM

Photo: Then South African Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa (L) and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang shake hands during a meeting at the Zhongnanhai leadership compound in Beijing, China, 14 July 2015. Photo: EPA/NG HAN GUAN / POOL


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted


This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.

Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox

Feeling powerless in politics?

Equip yourself with the tools you need for an informed decision this election. Get the Elections Toolbox with shareable party manifesto guide.