Defend Truth

Opinionista

Is Huawei any different to other tech giants, or are we just getting caught up in Trump’s mud-slinging?

mm

Dr David Monyae is the Director of the Centre for Africa-China Studies at the University of Johannesburg.

Should South Africa get caught up in the Sino-US jostling over Huawei? The answer is that South Africa should be leery of all actors that are involved in its security status. And that includes Facebook, Twitter and the defunct Cambridge Analytica which have been accused of similar allegations as those against Huawei.

South African journalist and academic Heidi Swart has drawn an analogy between the coronavirus and the possibly troubling effect of Huawei in South Africa. Her article in Daily Maverick obliquely argues that Huawei is a different kind of virus that could endanger South Africa’s cyber-security.

The emergence and spread of the coronavirus have held the world captive for almost the entire first half of 2020. The virus has also come at one of the most inauspicious junctures in 21st-century politics. This juncture is characterised by ultra-nationalism in consequential global players like the United States, the United Kingdom, Brazil and India. Nationalists such as Donald Trump in the US and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil initially wanted to play down the portentous effect of the coronavirus. While Trump seemed to have at least tempered his initial denialism, Bolsonaro has not yielded to reasonable counsel and scientific opinion.

This backdrop creates some context in which Swart’s article, “Are South Africans safe with Huawei? (Part 2): A Different Kind of Virus”, could be understood. Swart argues that Huawei poses a great risk to South Africa because the country does not have mechanisms such as the UK’s Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre (HCSEC), which is a leading centre in advising the UK government on cyber-security. Swart laments the fact that South Africa does not have such a body despite it being more exposed to Huawei than the UK.

South Africa’s State Security Agency (SSA) is never subjected to vigorous parliamentary scrutiny, and its responses to concerns over cyber-security seem to be woefully inadequate and exasperatingly vague. The Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence (JSCI) does not help to demystify the mystery surrounding SSA’s activities and capabilities; meetings are usually closed to the public. Swart might be forgiven for not familiarising herself with the workings of parliamentary committees on intelligence matters across the world. JSCI operates like all democratic parliament committees, including ones in the UK and the US, holding extremely sensitive matters of national security behind closed doors.    

Security breaches and lapses that were exposed under Siyabonga Cwele’s tenure as minister of state security have continued under the incumbent, Ayanda Dlodlo. South Africa’s vulnerability to cyber espionage and its alarmingly high levels of crime and doubtful efficiency of the South African Police Service (SAPS) justify the intent of articles such as Swart’s.

However, Swart’s article is an addition to the anti-China narrative that is arguably successful in Western politics and traffics mostly in underscoring the possible threats that Huawei’s technological advances herald. Through the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the United States bans carriers in rural America from tapping the Universal Service Fund (USF) to purchase Huawei equipment. The Senate voted unanimously to replace Huawei and ZTE equipment. Five Chinese entities were added to the 2019 US Entity List for “acting contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States.”

More than security concerns, what seems to be playing out in the mudslinging between the Trump administration and Huawei is, in effect, American unwillingness to risk competition for 5G prominence with a Chinese entity. This is a tussle between the two governments (American and Chinese), with Huawei conflated with the Chinese government. It is noteworthy that the United Kingdom has had to backtrack on engaging Huawei services because of Conservative Party concerns, and America’s animosity to its closest ally enlisting the services of a tech giant emanating from one of America’s mortal rivals.

When one talks about Huawei’s perceived intent, such conduct by non-Chinese tech giants should also be mentioned. This makes the argument that vigilance should be applied to all tech giants more compelling.  

From this backdrop, even though Swart’s article offers nothing new, it joins a general trend of Western antipathy towards China’s technological advances. Washington has been the leading campaigner of this anti-China narrative.  

Should South Africa be caught up in this jostling? The correct answer is that South Africa should be leery of actors that are involved in its security status. This should be applied to all actors, both from the West and the rest. Swart conspicuously leaves out the security concerns that come with Western tech giants such as Facebook, Twitter and the defunct Cambridge Analytica that have been accused of similar allegations levelled against Huawei.

Furthermore, Facebook and Twitter have also lent themselves to polarising political narratives, especially in the United States, that are likely to shape political events in the US and beyond. It is also noteworthy that Facebook has especially been notorious in harvesting and storing data from users across the world. When one talks about Huawei’s perceived intent, such conduct by non-Chinese tech giants should also be mentioned. This makes the argument that vigilance should be applied to all tech giants more compelling.  

But Swart’s article is a timely cautionary tale because fears of Huawei working at the behest of the Chinese government are understandable, notwithstanding their arguable veracity. However, articles that seek to raise concerns about Huawei would be more rigorous if they provided the context in which Huawei is characterised as a concern.

Second, such opinion should also take cognisance of cyber threats that have hitherto been conducted by entities other than Chinese.

Third, South Africa should be presumed to be a sovereign country with its own rights to decide whom it wants to engage.

Fourth, there is a political history to Sino-South African trust that influences South Africa’s seeming confidence in China and its multinational corporations. In a world of rational agents, national identities, interests and conduct are shaped by a confluence of historical, cultural, social, economic and political factors. These, in turn, influence the presumed or inferred interests in the relations that nations establish.

It will be South Africa’s prerogative to elect whom it enlists for its 5G ambitions. What is certain now is that the United States is not doing itself favours by pandering to ultra-nationalism, racial denialism, and humouring a president who cannot be counted upon as a reasonable voice in international affairs. China, and enterprises that emanate from there, could gain a lot of sympathy by being more level-headed than the United States.

Historically, China has presented itself to South Africa as a non-interfering, well-meaning partner. The United States, on the other hand, was historically sympathetic to capitalist politics, even in their most vulgar and racist guise. This was mainly because the capitalist West was poised to work with any player that disavowed the non-capitalist players.

The acrimonious dichotomy that played itself out between the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War seems to be playing itself out to this day, with China having replaced the Soviet Union. As was the case during the Cold War, Western intentions over Africa should be scrutinised because they may not necessarily be for Africa’s benefit; they could be gambits used to curtail the influence of America’s perceived foes. As South Africa appraises the pros and cons of engaging Huawei, it should keep these eventualities in mind.

Swart’s article is right in decrying South Africa’s incapability to repel cyber threats. It should have gone on to mention that capability should not be expressly aimed at Huawei; it should be aimed at all possible threats, irrespective of their provenance.

In the final analysis, it will be South Africa’s prerogative to elect whom it enlists for its 5G ambitions. What is certain now is that the United States is not doing itself favours by pandering to ultra-nationalism, racial denialism, and humouring a president who cannot be counted upon as a reasonable voice in international affairs. China, and enterprises that emanate from there, could gain a lot of sympathy by being more level-headed than the United States.

Drawing up analogies between the coronavirus and Huawei’s activities in South Africa is also a curious venture by Swart because it purports not to see any positive thing in Huawei’s advance. Because the article has not been supported by unimpeachable evidence that Huawei spies on South Africa, the virus analogy is unfortunate. DM

Gallery

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

MavericKids vol 3

How can a child learn to read if they don't have a book?

81% of South African children aged 10 can't read for meaning. You can help by pre-ordering a copy of MavericKids.

For every copy sold we will donate a copy to Gift of The Givers for children in need of reading support.