Fingerprints of Chinese influence over the African National Congress and South African government have been omnipresent in the last two weeks.
Besides the BRICS meeting that was overshadowed by BRICS-big-brother the Chinese, ANC leaders were on a high-level political training visit to China, the ball was set rolling for the Chinese-funded African liberation movement political school in Tanzania, and Eskom sealed a R33-billion Chinese loan to help keep this money-burning state-owned enterprise from devouring itself.
As much as this confluence hints at Chinese expansionism through political and economic influence, it also tells the tale of the ANC’s identity 25 years after the signature 1994 political liberation. Along with other former liberation movements (some in government, others ousted) the ANC is more comfortable close to political powers that were also partners in the liberation struggle. Distance from the African colonisation project preconditions public solidarity. The irony is that the Chinese ruling party finds fertile “political training” spaces in this post-colonial (rather than decolonial) vulnerability.
This analysis maps how the ANC’s political education links with the Communist Party of China (CPC) have progressed systematically after first being expressed concretely in the early days of former president Jacob Zuma’s ascendancy into national politics. It was under Zuma that the CPC was confirmed as the ANC’s new, big best friend, even if at government level the rapprochement had started in the time of Thabo Mbeki.
The ANC is not unique in having this party-to-party relationship with the CPC. China has conducted political training for parties such as Tanzania’s Chama Cha Mapinduzi, Zimbabwe’s Zanu-PF, Namibia’s Swapo, and the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front. The Chinese have helped some of these parties develop strategies to manage the media, public opinion and criticism of the party.
The high-level ANC delegation’s recent visit to China– estimated to have been roughly the 6th similar visit in the last decade – is paired with the ANC’s mid-July participation in the ground-breaking ceremony in Tanzania to launch the Mwalimu Julius Nyerere Leadership School. It is the start of the long-awaited and Chinese-built African liberation movement political school.
The ANC’s Ace Magashule was effusive in the solidarity he expressed with the CPC of the Peoples Republic of China. He noted this “revered gesture” to “strengthen the humane acts of the longstanding historical friendship and solidarity between the people of the African continent and the great Chinese nation” and said this milestone “is an impressive demonstration of the true facts of solidarity and internationalism between the people of the African continent and the great Chinese nation”. It is also “an unequalled achievement in the history of the struggles of humanity for freedom and dignity”.
The new school also invokes liberation struggle memories for the ANC, given that its Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College, established in 1978 by the ANC in exile, was also in Tanzania. The new school emerges also in the context of multiple years of ANC negotiations with the Chinese to build the ANC’s national political school.
On a visit to China in 2008 Zuma asked the CPC to provide leadership training to the ANC. It was agreed that, until the ANC’s own school is established, it will send its leaders for political education tours in China. Many current and former leaders have been on this pilgrimage — at least 300, was one of the recent estimates.
Themes of the Chinese training have involved exercising party political power over state structures, ensuring that branches obey the party’s central command, instilling a culture of discipline in a party, and nurturing citizen loyalty. On the 2015 leg of these tours, one touring ANC guest explained, the delegation was lectured on, among others, building and managing party structures, understanding communism and a market-oriented economy, and running state-owned enterprises.
The ANC’s national political school, judged by the 2018 Nasrec conference resolutions, remains a pipe dream. An ANC resolution in Polokwane, 2007, stressed the need to establish and institutionalise a political school as a key organisational priority. It was argued then that aspiring National Executive Committee members should be trained at the ANC’s forthcoming political school. Nathi Mthethwa confirmed at the time that the ANC was talking to the Chinese about funding.
The idea was that the ANC school would be modelled on the CPC’s China Executive Leadership Academy Pudong in Shanghai. It was preferred over the models of the Julio Antonio Mella School in Cuba and the Komsomol in Russia.
In December 2012, the ANC at Mangaung was stressing the imminence of the ANC Political School and Policy Institute. It had been reported in 2010 that the ANC purchased a 130 hectare farm at Vredefort, alternatively the land was reported to be “on the Vaal between Parys and Potchefstroom”; a price tag of R800-million was mentioned. Julius Malema and his Youth Leaguers then had their rehabilitation mapped out for them. Mangaung presidential loser Kgalema Motlanthe explained that he would rather head the ANC’s political school than make himself available as deputy ANC president on the Zuma slate.
None of this has materialised. In the interim there have been the Walter Sisulu Leadership Academy at University of Johannesburg, and the ANC’s ongoing online political school, largely aimed at branch members. We also heard recently that ex-premier Supra Mahumapelo was to lead the ANC’s North West provincial school in the aftermath of him being ousted as premier.
By the time of Nasrec 2017 it was clear that the ANC and other liberation movements were pooling hopes for a formal institution of political education and training, and the focus was on the Chinese for a joint venture in Tanzania. As Pule Mabe explained this week, the ANC has had long-standing relations with China, ever since Oliver Tambo visited China in 1963. Historian Stephen Ellis (in External Mission: the ANC in Exile) took the bond back further. His research showed that the ANC’s armed struggle was launched only after the ANC had received the blessing from Mao Zedong, November 1960. The ANC developed close bonds with the former USSR, yet its links with the Chinese were maintained.
Zuma, often exposed in Western media and criticised by Western powers, used Western criticisms of his rule to argue for reinvigorated bonds with the former patrons of China and Russia. Zuma’s 2014 remarks, while on visit to China, are revealing. He referred to the post-liberation disconnect that had congealed between parties and their people: “former colonisers… took advantage of the disconnection between the masses and their leaders”, discontent was “encouraged”, on occasion “coups were staged against leaders whose power bases had been deliberately eroded”.
Zuma straddled party political and state spaces, and signed a strategic programme to set out the terms for co-operation on state-owned enterprises. For example, SOE managers from South Africa were to be sent on courses. In a related manner, the ANC’s Zizi Kodwa had enthused that he liked how the Chinese run their state-owned enterprises; they “are extremely organised”. Paul Mashatile, ANC treasurer general, remarks in ANC Viewpoints that the “fact that our country has become China’s largest trading partner in Africa, while China has been the country’s biggest trading partner for nine years, is an encouraging development”.
Magashule’s words encapsulate the epoch in which Ramaphoria battles for a foothold:
“The present historical period of the most complex and hostile world environment dominated by capitalism requires the world progressive movement to strengthen the bonds of human solidarity and internationalism”. DM
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