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China and South Africa: Lessons from Mandela to Xi


Jessie Duarte is the Deputy Secretary-General of the ANC. She writes in her personal capacity.

Placing party, people and having a dream for the people have been at the hearts of both Nelson Mandela and Xi Jinping.

As Africa celebrates in 2018 the centenary birthday of Nelson Mandela, China is celebrating the dawn of President Xi Jinping’s Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.

This Thought has dominated the events of the last two weeks in China with the meeting of the “Chinese parliament”, the National People’s Congress, and it would be good to reflect on lessons that this Thought holds for South Africa and the rest of the continent. Placing party, people and having a dream for the people have been at the hearts of both Nelson Mandela and Xi Jinping.

The Xi Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era comes in the Thought Tradition of the Communist Party of China. At the dawn of the New China, Chairman Mao Zedong and his generation introduced Marxism-Leninism as the basis for the socialist revolution in China. Marxism-Leninism was followed by the Mao Zedong Theory, then the Deng Xiaoping Thought, the Three Represents and finally the Scientific Outlook on Development.

Yet what distinguishes the Xi Thought from these five other Thoughts is that it is for this era. Each Thought was for a particular era and given the nature of the era, China’s final stretch to achieving a modern and prosperous society as well as the age of globalisation; unlike maybe the other five Thoughts, President Xi’s Thought could serve as a lesson to the rest of the world.

One would therefore want to propose that there are four lessons for South Africa and the African continent.

First, President Xi’s Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era clearly indicates that in 2018 socialism is still alive and that it has a future. An illustration of this living socialism is the internationalism or multilateralism that China continues to promote. Whereas the West promotes nationalism, isolationism and protectionism, China is strengthening its partnerships through the United Nations, the G20, ASEAN countries, BRICS emerging nations and other international fora. Exclusive clubs such as the G8 and WTO have become almost irrelevant. Whereas some countries want to be great again, China suggests rather: make the people great again!

As a result, the lesson Africa and South Africa must learn from China is that after 60 years of neoliberal policies imposed on it by the West and which have yielded very few developmental results for the continent, Africa must develop its own socialism with African characteristics.

Second, the Xi Thought on Socialism Chinese Characteristics for a New Era places the people at the heart of China’s development. A recurring theme in the Thought Tradition has been the centrality of “the people”. It is for this reason that China has invested so much into sectors such as education and health. Investment in human capital leads to innovation, especially in infrastructure and technology.

Yet even the technology and infrastructure produced by China has at its heart: connecting people. It is with China’s assistance in building the Nairobi-Mombasa railway corridor that it takes a Kenyan, living in Nairobi, four hours to visit her family and friends in Mombasa. The journey took 14 hours before. The examples of the investment into connecting people are the expressways in Ethiopia, Uganda and Namibia. Cross-sea bridges are being built in Mozambique and Tanzania while in South Sudan, Togo and Zimbabwe investments are being made into airports.

As the African Union’s Agenda 2063 aims at accelerating the pace of investment into infrastructure, Africa must learn from China that the people must be at the heart of these innovations and infrastructure. Creating markets and the transportation of goods are but a by-product.

People before profits”, declares President Xi’s Thought.

At the same time, as South Africa engages the Fourth Industrial revolution through promoting science, technology, engineering and mathematics, it would be important for us too to keep people at the centre of these innovations. If we concentrate on training and skills development, it must be to serve people and not the market. When we create jobs it must be decent jobs to give our people decent lives.

Third, President Xi’s Thought highlights the central role of the party and its officials. The first example is the role of the Communist Party of China. Nelson Mandela once said:

I am what I am because of the African National Congress.”

For President Xi, the CPC continues to gain legitimacy because the Chinese people want it to govern. Continuous reform of the party is essential in securing the confidence of the Chinese people.

In this respect, corruption and the impeccable character of officials become paramount. Again, like Nelson Mandela, President Xi came from a rural village. Like the young Nelson Mandela he had to do hard labour in his village and soon he won the trust of the rest of the villagers. As with Nelson Mandela, President Xi knows the plight of the people; he has experienced it first-hand.

The lesson for South Africa, and the ANC, is that we must encourage stamping out corruption, because corruption is an offence against the people, but also expand the understanding of merit. Merit should not only include qualifications and skills, but it should also take into account the exposure that the official has had to the plight of the people. Both aspects are equally important.

Finally, through socialism for a new era and the investment into the people, through education, health and development, the party allows for people to dream. President Xi’s Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era highlights the importance of the Chinese dream. Yet it is a twin dream. It is the dream of the individual Chinese person in cohesion with the dream of the Chinese people. The dream of the Chinese people is to develop a “modern and prosperous society” by 2049, the centenary anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic.

While Agenda 2063 must assist Africa in realising its dream and the National Development Plan: Vision 2030 assists South Africa, we must ensure that, in the understanding of Amartya Sen, this development creates the space for realising capabilities, allowing the space and opportunities for our people to realise their dreams.

It would be foolish not to acknowledge that Africa and South Africa are very different from China. In our country alone, the home of Nelson Mandela, there are 11 official languages. China is rather homogenous culturally and politically, whereas South Africa is heterogeneous. Yet these are lessons that South Africa could learn and, as China did, ensure that she adopts them “with African characteristics”.

As the world celebrates the centenary birthday of Nelson Mandela, a man of the people, South Africa and the ANC has offered to the world an example of freedom, justice and reconciliation for all. As President Xi, a man from the people, offers his Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, so too South Africa can learn from this Chinese example. DM

Jessie Duarte is Deputy Secretary-General of the ANC


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