/ 21 August 2023

Xi’s visit and the evolving China-South Africa partnership

Gettyimages 1241637534
Chinese President Xi Jinping.

In March 2013, during his inaugural international tour as the leader of China, President Xi Jinping embarked on a journey to Africa. 

He participated in the fifth Brics Summit, hosted in South Africa, where he introduced the fundamental principles of China’s strategy in Africa. In addition, he elaborated on his aspirations for bolstering the efficacy of the Brics collaborative framework. 

Fast forward a decade, and the narrative unfolds anew on African terrain. The 15th Brics Summit converges in Johannesburg this week, beckoning Xi once again. His itinerary includes a state visit to South Africa, interwoven with a symphony of high-level interactions. 

Xi and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa will join hands to co-chair the China-Africa Leaders’ Dialogue — a rendezvous laden with prospects and possibilities for the African continent.  As the stage is reset, echoes of history intermingle with prospects of a harmonious future for these geopolitical protagonists. 

This occasion marks yet another chapter in Xi’s consistent engagement with South Africa, marking his fourth official visit in just five years. This year, another significant milestone is also being commemorated — the 25th anniversary of China-South Africa diplomatic ties. 

As a key strategic partner, South Africa holds the distinction of being the first African nation in the “Belt and Road” collaboration. Over the past quarter-century, the alliance between the two countries has not only progressed rapidly but also amplified its global resonance. From this vantage point, the evolution of their relationship stands as a testament to their shared commitment to growth and influence on the world stage.

The political landscape has ensured a foundation of respect and mutual trust, while the economic sector thrives, thanks to a flourishing two-way trade partnership. It is evident that the strong bond between South Africa and China is continuing to grow, cementing their shared commitment to collaboration and progress. 

Xi’s addition of a state visit to his Brics trip carries a potent message for African nations. China’s resurgence after a pandemic-induced hiatus also signals a robust return to engagement and partnership with Africa. China, as South Africa’s primary trading partner, significantly dominates the Brics consortium’s commerce with the nation. Stavros Nicolaou, the head of South Africa’s Brics Business Council, revealed that China alone commands 68% of this trade, followed by India at 27%. Russia and Brazil, in contrast, hold notably smaller trade footprints with South Africa. 

This robust bilateral trade journey has seen remarkable growth, growing from under R1 billion in 1998 to R544 billion in 2021, amid the challenging backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic. China’s official data reveals a striking uptick in the first half of the year, with bilateral trade hitting $28.25 billion, marking an 11.7% year-on-year surge. 

Notably, China’s reign as South Africa’s chief trading partner has continued for 14 successive years while, reciprocally, South Africa has retained its role as China’s primary African trading partner for 13 years. This enduring economic synergy between the two nations underscores their consistent and mutually beneficial commercial alliance. 

However, a recurring concern raised by South Africa — and other African countries — revolves around the lingering trade imbalance with China. South Africa’s Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Naledi Pandor, aligned with this sentiment, has often asserted the necessity for redressing this trade imbalance. 

She emphasises South Africa’s persistent trade deficit in its overall Brics commerce, advocating for a shift towards diversification, especially given the preeminence of primary goods in exports. South Africa’s 2022 deficit stands at $10.9 billion vis-à-vis China. Notably, minerals, precious metals and agricultural goods constitute South Africa’s primary exports to China, while machinery stands out in the realm of imports from China. 

Chinese Commerce Minister Wang Wentao made a visit to South Africa last week, ahead of the summit. He and his South African counterpart Ebrahim Patel inked a $2 billion deal enabling Chinese firms to procure South African goods. Mining giants Anglo American and Glencore were among the local companies participating. 

Patel emphasised the necessity for trade recalibration. “Our levels of trade are very significant; however, the composition of our trade needs to change. It has been focused principally on raw materials. We now need to shift to greater levels of industrial exports of manufactured goods,” he said recently. 

Yet, because of various factors, the feasibility of South Africa transitioning from raw materials to exporting finished products remains a matter of contemplation among experts. Among its domestic economic challenges, South Africa grapples with energy and infrastructural limitations. It must prioritise products yielding swift export gains while navigating these hurdles. However, in its strategic vision, South Africa should also lay the groundwork for the future, ensuring a sustainable export trajectory. 

Over the decade separating the two South African summits, Brics has matured into a comprehensive, multi-tiered framework, exerting substantial global influence. Concurrently, the China-Africa partnership has flourished across diverse realms. 

Amid today’s unprecedented global uncertainties and rapid transformations, analysts anticipate Xi’s visit and the forthcoming South African deliberations will inject renewed dynamism into the Brics machinery. This, in turn, is anticipated to initiate a fresh chapter of collaboration between China, Africa and the broader South-South spectrum, effectively navigating the challenges and opportunities presented by the post-pandemic period. 

Incorporating South Africa in 2011 expanded Bric to Brics, meaning the organisation encompassed a quarter of the global GDP and about 40% of the world’s population. This coalition has evolved into a paramount South-South collaboration platform, driving global growth across three fundamental fronts: political and security cooperation; economic and financial partnership and cultural and people-to-people exchanges. 

Notably, the formation of the New Development Bank (NDB) in 2015 stands as a pivotal Brics accomplishment. Centred in Shanghai, the NDB is designed to marshal resources for infrastructural and sustainable development ventures within the Brics group and in other emerging economies. This multifaceted evolution underscores Brics’s indispensable role in shaping a transformative global landscape. 

Recent data from the bank reveals approval for nearly a hundred projects worth $33.2 billion, significantly fueling economic and social progress among its member nations. Impressively, the bank has fortified its commitment to sustainability, with approximately 40% of its initiatives concentrated on climate change mitigation and adaptation. This dual thrust of fostering development while prioritising eco-conscious endeavours solidifies the bank’s role as a catalyst for transformative growth and responsible global stewardship — and South Africa is a major beneficiary of this initiative. 

After just eight years, the NDB is one of the globe’s youngest, yet most influential, multilateral development banks. This ascent epitomises China’s embodiment of equitable cooperation within Brics, effectively bolstering global stability and equilibrium. 

This paradigm extends to the deepening China-South Africa partnership, a comprehensive and swiftly evolving alliance. This year’s summit theme, “Brics and Africa: Partnership for Mutually Accelerated Growth, Sustainable Development and Inclusive Multilateralism”, underscores the potential of these emerging economies to forge stronger bonds with a continent that harbours numerous nations within the global south. 

The summit has attracted interest from analysts and observers, particularly regarding its outcomes. A central spotlight falls on the group’s expansion in membership. Bric’s allure of openness and inclusivity has prompted more countries to seek inclusion, a reflection of the shared ambition among developing nations to prioritise self-driven progress, solidarity, collaboration and resistance to external interference.

The collective efforts by China and African countries are manifested in the extensive infrastructure initiatives undertaken, spanning 10 000km of railways, nearly 100 000km of highways, as well as pivotal projects including airports, bridges, docks and power plants. 

This partnership’s trajectory has extended beyond traditional realms of agriculture, infrastructure and manufacturing to encompass novel frontiers such as the green economy, healthcare, finance and digital innovation. This evolving synergy encapsulates the shared commitment of both sides to forge a path towards sustainable, diverse and mutually beneficial cooperation. 

China-South Africa relations have evolved rapidly and comprehensively, underscored by frequent interactions between their leaders, both bilaterally and within multilateral contexts. These engagements, be they physical or virtual, have propelled their collaborative efforts to loftier heights.

Notably, the China-South Africa dynamic has transcended its bilateral significance, resonating as an exemplar for broader China-Africa ties, South-South cooperation, and unity among emerging market nations. 

President Xi’s visit will certainly help in fostering a more robust and mutually beneficial future between China and Africa, ultimately contributing to an overarching global community founded on shared aspirations.

Dr Imran Khalid is a freelance columnist on international affairs based in Karachi, Pakistan. He qualified as a physician from Dow Medical University in 1991 and has a master’s degree in international relations from Karachi University.