China’s Relationship Status with South Africa: ‘It’s Complicated’

A China in Africa Podcast

South Africa’s relationship with China has undergone a profound transformation in a remarkably short period of time. In less than 20 years, the two countries have gone from barely acknowledging one another to developing a deep partnership that transcends economics, politics, and ideology.

Pretoria’s recent public backing of Beijing’s position in the bitter territorial dispute in the South China Sea highlights how these two countries have widened their engagement with one another, far beyond that of any other African country. Economically, South Africa is among the top destinations for Chinese investment in Africa. Politically, the two countries are now more aligned than ever on sensitive issues such as Internet freedom, international justice, and even the Dalai Lama. It’s in the ideological sphere, though, that the two countries have evolved the most in recent years.

China’s ties with South Africa now extend beyond the state-level to an increasingly close embrace between the countries’ two ruling parties, the African National Congress (A.N.C.), and the Chinese Communist Party. The A.N.C. and the C.C.P. now have a parallel engagement track that is seemingly entirely separate from that of the day-to-day state-led diplomacy between the two countries. In many ways, the A.N.C. appears to be modeling itself on the Chinese Communist Party, particularly how the C.C.P. has fused together state and party power as a means of ensuring indefinite political dominance.

Alison Bradley is a China-specialist and South African native who recently published a paper in the Journal of Contemporary China on the state of Sino-South African ties. In her analysis “China and South Africa: Emerging Powers in an Uncomfortable Embrace,” Alison argues that on the surface things may look tight between the Chinese and South Africans, but dig a little and the situation is much more complicated. Alison joins Eric and Cobus to discuss why China’s engagement in South Africa is among the most varied and complex of any of its ties in Africa.