For the past 25 years I’ve been observing the rise of China’s influence in South Africa, and Africa, principally through the lens of the Tibetan political struggle. From the mid-90’s through to the early 2000’s, as a full-time activist for the Tibetan cause, I acted as the liaison for the visits of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to South Africa. While most may only remember the more recent and deeply humiliating visa debacles, the Tibetan leader did in fact visit South Africa three times, in 1996, 1999 and in 2004. Each time he travelled to South Africa I witnessed the gradual drawing back by the political leadership, a shrinking away from meeting with the Dalai Lama until ultimately, under Zuma’s regime, he was de facto barred from further entry.
Madiba and the Dalai Lama
What remains a fascination is that the only president who ever agreed to meet with the Dalai Lama was Madiba. They met twice, first in ‘96 at an official reception at De Tuynhuys, and then again in 2004 at the offices of the Nelson Mandela Foundation. They met that second time on Mandela’s direct request. It was clear that the two held a deep appreciation and respect for each other—considering the fabric of both their characters, their shared struggles and the scale of their respective losses in life, why wouldn’t they?
The Chinese pushed hard against the meeting happening in 1996, but President Mandela held fast, explaining to the Chinese representative at the time that South Africa had not come this far only to be told what to do by yet another controlling power. He did so, however, with classic Mandela largesse, clarifying for them that he has many friends, the Chinese and the Tibetans among them. Those days of the rarified altitude of our moral high ground are, sadly, long gone.
While the Dalai Lama has essentially been the canary in the coalmine of China’s ever-expanding influence in the region, we need to understand what exactly it is that we should be concerned about. With all the complexity that makes up the Chinese communist government, one thing we can be certain about, at least from the outside, is that theirs is a monolithic worldview. If there is no substantial pushback to the Communist Party’s oppressive form of power within the Mainland, you can forget about finding any by those Chinese actors executing Beijing’s plans on the global stage. What is it that makes up the singularity of the Chinese mindset?
China, Tibet and the Uyghurs
At the outset, they are a highly disciplined, spectacularly effective and intensely unified nation. This fact of unity is non-negotiable, and by that I mean that there is little room to maneuver should you disagree. Unlike that which drives the Western ideal, the individual takes a seat way at the back when it comes to the will of the collective. That’s clearly so within their own population—consider the recent public smacking down of the high-profile billionaire business leader Jack Ma—unfortunately this principle also applies to those smaller neighbouring nations or minorities within Greater China.
The Tibetans have suffered for over six decades at the brutal hands of the Chinese Communist Party—over one million killed in a genocidal act that measures up in scale to that of the Rwandan slaughter—and in much the same way as the Uyghurs are now experiencing. Why does the plight of the Uyghurs keeps resurfacing on international headlines? Because of the sheer scale of these so-called ‘re-education camps’; effectively cleaned-up, ghettoized constructs of psycho-cultural genocide, forcefully bussing in the victims from their villages, then psychologically and, according to multiple reports, physically manipulating them to reject any connection to their traditional Islamic beliefs. There they learn to recite by rote the party line of the only party in town.
At home the Chinese Communist Party have had the advantage of simply rolling over smaller and weaker border nations and minorities, absorbing them into the Motherland. Going abroad, however, is another matter. Here they need some semblance of diplomacy. That’s where countries like South Africa come in.
China and Africa
There’s no question that China has to feed its almost 1.5 billion strong population. For this it needs immense resources, and one of the most malleable continents to deal with, Africa, is also the largest. Essentially a vast warehouse of goods, China has applied all her prowess to woo various African governments into deals that fit hand in glove with the Belt and Road Initiative. But things are not so simple.
There are indeed massive infrastructural developments across the continent, including the financing and construction of harbours, roads, mines, railways and dams. These come with a blend of benefits and burdens. Often the debt incurred by the poor host countries will never be able to be repaid to China, and therein lies their strategic economic colonization. The only way a country would ever be able to pay for its infrastructure projects is to hand over the asset itself as collateral. That is an extremely dangerous model, and one that works heavily in favour of China.
Beyond that, labour issues abound, cultural clashes are common, deforestation of old growth habitats are unceasing, and international maritime policies are often ignored along the African coastline. Coral reefs have been raked and overfishing is the norm. There have been numerous accounts by Mozambican fishermen who came across de-finned sharks; the central ingredient in shark fin soup, apparently sharks were being caught, their fins sliced off and then thrown back to sea, to a cruel and confusing death on the sea bed. Most African countries don’t have the naval forces to fend off the Chinese fleets, and why would they risk an incident with China? It’s a perfect storm.
While Sino-African relations aren’t solely the territory of illegal overfishing, riding roughshod over local labour laws and flouting environmental standards, there are other more nuanced approaches whereby China’s ‘oversight and guidance’ is integrated at the most senior levels of government. It is here where our concerns as South Africans should be directed.
China and South Africa
In what looks like a benign training programme, in March South African government officials will receive instruction by the Chinese National Academy of Governance. According to the announcement, participants will be able to understand China’s basic national conditions, among other leadership lessons China can teach South Africa. One can’t help feeling that this is in fact a pliable, cushy re-education camp, met with open arms and a total willingness by the South African government to do China’s bidding.
In a staggering move by the ANC, the recently deceased stalwart and seasoned activist politician, Jackson Mthembu, was replaced in parliament by a naturalised Chinese national who holds little to zero political or struggle credentials, Xiaomei Havard. While Ms Havard may be a successful businesswoman, her appointment has sent shockwaves through the country with many questioning the merit of the move.
During one of our conversations I expressed my concerns with the Dalai Lama around China’s ever-expanding control in Africa, and how it directly impacted support for the Tibetan cause. I asked him how he thinks South Africa in particular and Africa in general should deal with China. Unlike the many activists who oppose China’s rise on the continent, he responded with his distinctive wisdom and maturity. “China and Africa can be good partners. The Chinese know how to work hard and be productive. But Africa needs to see itself as equal partners with China, not below them. Africa just needs to find confidence in itself.”
Will South Africa be able to find the depth of self-confidence required to ensure that our dignity, independence, natural resources and national assets remain our own and intact? Only time will tell – if it’s not already too late.