Investigative journalist Heidi Swart poses the question of whether South Africans are safe with Huawei. From her previous articles, one can rightfully conclude that Swart has her mind made up: Huawei is a threat to security and privacy. Swart’s latest article, “Are South Africans safe with Huawei? It’s all about the risk” (Daily Maverick, 5 March 2020), the first part of two, is an impressive illustration of how Huawei has grown from its founding in 1987. Indubitably, one of the major factors behind Huawei’s astounding growth is its proximity to the Chinese government. The close relationship has seen Huawei score massive and lucrative deals from the Chinese government. Huawei’s founder, Ren Zhengfei, worked in the People’s Liberation Army and this experience partly explains why his franchise has close ties to the Chinese government.
While Huawei’s proximity to the Chinese government has been instrumental in the company’s breathtaking expansion, it has left China’s national and technological competitors unnerved. Swart’s article apportioned most of its attention towards America’s response and misgivings about Huawei’s growing footprint in the technological sphere. Perhaps reasonably, the US government is convinced that Huawei will be used by China to conduct espionage, harvest data illegally, hack into foreign trade secrets and pilfer intellectual property.
There has been a plethora of American voices that looks askance at China’s technology inroads. Even the arrest of Huawei CFO and Ren’s daughter Meng Wanzhou was arguably demonstrative of Western efforts to curtail Huawei’s and China’s development. The avalanche of protests from the Chinese government over the arrest provided fodder for people who look at Huawei as a hidden arm of the Chinese government’s surveillance tentacles.
Swart did an admirable job in providing a litany of measures that the US has taken in order to occlude Huawei’s alleged intrusion on privacy. She did equally well in providing information that links Huawei and its personnel to the Chinese government, but very little evidence about the safety and risk threats in South Africa. I hope that Part Two of her articles will answer the question that is of relevance to an African and a South African audience in particular; amid all the mudslinging between Huawei and its Western detractors: Whither Africa?
Without attempting to pre-empt Swart’s response, which is foregone in my view judging from her previous articles, Africa should exercise vigilance in its consumption of foreign products, whether Western or otherwise. Swart’s Part One does not delve into implications for South Africans who use Huawei products. My guess would be that the first piece was providing the context for the second piece which will pointedly outline how Huawei is a real safety and risk threat to South Africa. If indeed Huawei is a rogue enterprise doing the Chinese government’s bidding, the consequences could be dire in South Africa where Huawei claims almost 29% of the total mobile market.
The most important player in the consumption of technology in South Africa should be the country itself. Articles such as the one written by Swart should be put under scrutiny and lent context where it lacks. For example, no one would expect the US government to speak glowingly about its most formidable competitor, regardless of Huawei’s blemishes, which do exist. The arrest of Meng, for example, came at the time when the US and China were locked in the throes of the trade war.
Furthermore, due to its officious stance towards the developing world, the West has forfeited its allure in Africa. This erosion has further been compounded by Donald Trump’s cantankerous presidency. What all this does is enhance China’s image in Africa’s eyes. With that is the gain being made by Chinese behemoths such as Huawei. South Africa knows that it has to be vigilant in consuming tech products from outside, but for this, it does not need foreign tutelage and it does not need the encouragement of opinions, albeit from South Africa, that are suspiciously biased. In any case, Western surveillance the world over is well documented and so shunning Huawei and opting for Western products does not insulate one from surveillance.
What makes China and its enterprises more attractive to South Africa, as Swart correctly notes, is that South Africa and China share cordial relations, unlike with the US. This said, Huawei is as much a security issue as it is a political and diplomatic one. Trump’s presidency and rhetoric, laced as they are with insular bombast, and the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union, demonstrate Western withdrawal from the charge of globalisation. China has proved to be tending in the opposite direction in tandem with Africa.
Thus, America’s concerns over Huawei and China, in general, should never be automatically assumed to be Africa’s concerns. It is understandable that America, a country that for three-quarters of a century stood virtually unchallenged at the summit of the global pecking order, should be reluctant to be challenged by an ambitious China, a country that a few generations ago was a Third World backwater. In addition, as Hilary Clinton notes in her 2017 book What Happened, technology will dominate many spheres of life in the 21st century, including warfare. Naturally, America wants to be a principal architect of the emerging order. It takes umbrage at the fact that Africans seem to opt for China and its technological products to the detriment of America and its products.
Allegations that the Chinese government is using Huawei to illegally collect and steal information are likely not to find a sympathetic ear in Africa, especially if such allegations are coming from an increasingly paranoid America presided over by a man whose dislike of China is barely concealed. In terms of China’s support for Huawei, that is expected in much the same way as one would expect the United States government to support American private companies.
In South Africa’s case, the country is sovereign and hence has the right to choose what products to consume and from whom, without pandering to blackmail or slander from competitors that want to penetrate the continent. Is a perceived or manufactured threat of safety and risk to America also a de facto threat to South Africa? While the article makes a loaded US government case on Huawei as a threat to America, it hardly shows the evidential risk to South Africa, so far. For now, we await Heidi Swart’s Part Two for such a case. DM