This year ANC leaders regularly travelled to China and President Jacob Zuma recently undertook a state visit to Beijing with a large government and business delegation.
The ANC also announced that cadres are to learn how to set up a political school broadly based on the Chinese model. But the relationship is more complex than it looks, which may be why the ANC won’t go much further than a press release in explaining it.
Interview requests are not even answered, let alone granted, and a recent request to cover one of the study visits by the ANC top brass to China was met with a firm “no” from ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe. Why the anxiety?
A document recently leaked to the Mail & Guardian detailing the study trip of July 25 to August 6 2010 offers some insight into the relationship between the two countries and also shows why the ruling party is intent on managing news about this relationship so tightly.
The heavyweight delegation included ANC national chairperson Baleka Mbete, Minister in the Presidency Collins Chabane, Public Enterprises Minister Malusi Gigaba, Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini, Deputy Speaker Nomaindia Mfeketo, axed communications minister Siphiwe Nyanda, ANC spokesperson Jackson Mthembu, former National Intelligence Agency boss Billy Masetlha, Northern Cape Premier Hazel Jenkins and newly appointed deputy ministers Ngoako Ramathlodi, Joe Phaahla and Ayanda Dlodlo.
The costs of the study trips are shared by the ANC and the CPC and they typically include briefings from Chinese officials on national planning, state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and China’s foreign policy.
Delegations are taken to rural areas like the Jiangxi province to see how the agriculture sector operates. They visit Chairman Mao‘s House in the Jingangshan Mountains and China’s commercial capital, Shanghai.
The document we were handed, a report to the national executive committee of the ANC on one of the study visits, led by Mbete, shows that although the ANC leaders want to soak up as much as they can about the “Chinese way of doing things”, these trips also compel the ANC to embark on some deep introspection about its own aims and capacity.
South Africa and China, delegates clearly realise, are very different, and the document admits there is the need to think carefully about how the “Chinese way” can be implemented locally.
One area that clearly caught the imagination of the ANC officials is the way in which the Chinese government deals with SOEs, which produce one-third of that country’s GDP.
The ANC is deeply frustrated with SOEs in South Africa. The ruling party sees them as vehicles for developing jobs and fulfilling election promises but, because the SOEs are accountable to their respective boards, the ANC feels it does not have enough power to tell bosses what they should do.
“There must be introspection on the part of the ANC, especially about our understanding of the political management as it relates to the SOEs.
Are we really in charge of them or are the boards too powerful?” asks the report.
This question was recently echoed by incoming Public Enterprises Minister Malusi Gigaba in an interview with the M&G.
It stands in stark contrast to the views of his predecessor, Barbara Hogan, who believed only sound independent governance would ensure the success of parastatals.
The document goes on: “The [ANC] delegation observed that the management and staff at the Chinese SOEs have perfect clarity about the central government’s wishes for their particular SOEs.
This clarity is reinforced by dynamic interaction with party structures.” The report recommends “interaction between the ANC and the commission [set up by Jacob Zuma to review the role of SOEs]”.
According to the report, the CPC complained to the ANC delegation about the negative media coverage of China’s relationship with Africa.
The delegation agreed that China got a raw deal from the media, but the ANC leaders were adamant that China should not just cry on their shoulders, it should change the situation itself.
“Part of our engagement with China must stress that its position as a strong developing country imposes on it the obligation to assist developing trade partners to change its trade structure through technological and skills development. This will also help combat the negative press from Western countries.”
The delegation also took the Chinese to task about the lack of empowerment when Chinese business people set up shop in South Africa.
China’s defence was that Chinese overseas investors are not encouraged to send remittances back home, therefore they invest more in the host country than other migrants do.
According to the report, the ANC delegation pressed Chinese officials to explain why China voted in favour of sanctions against Iran at the United Nations Security Council.
“The ANC delegation had to raise these questions as it considers itself a friend of the CPC and the Chinese people and the implications of this vote worried the ANC.” South Africa also voted in favour of the sanctions, but in a recent interview with the M&G, Deputy Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Ebrahim Ebrahim said if it could do it again, South Africa would vote against them.
Not all the Chinese ideas are implementable in South Africa, the delegation found. In Liufang village spatial planning does not allow villagers to build houses or grow flowers or trees without proper planning, but the village’s residential policies do not make sense in South Africa, the report says.
“The residential buildings (flats) will not necessarily work in SA as our people value space. The question must be asked, though, whether we have the limitless land to sustain widespread residential development going forward.”
The future of the budding friendship between the ANC and the CPC will depend on whether there is enough overlap between Chinese and South African realities — and crucially between Chinese and South African interests — domestically and geopolitically.
As Chairman Mao himself said: “People can talk as much nonsense as they like without having it tested against reality. Materialism needs effort. Unless one makes the effort, one is liable to slip into idealism and metaphysics”.