South Africa and China Celebrate Twenty-Five Years of Diplomatic Relations and a Longstanding Bond of Friendship

Published Dec 13, 2023


Jaya Josie, Advisor, China Africa Center, Zhejiang University International Business School (ZIBS) and Adjunct Professor, University of Venda

Ambassador of China to South Africa, Chen Xiaodong, presented a commemorative speech in Pretoria (Tuesday 12 December 2023) to mark the 25th anniversary of the official state-to-state relations between the two countries. In January 2023 South Africa and China celebrated 25 years of official state-to-state diplomatic relations when in 1998 former President Nelson Mandela recognised the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the sole representative of the people of China.

Prior to this recognition the apartheid regime in South Africa had formal and unique diplomatic relations with Taiwan or the so-called Republic of China (RoC). In formally recognising the PRC the post-apartheid Government of South Africa joined most of the international community in officially acknowledging the one-China policy.

The Ambassador made it very clear that even though China and South Africa are geographically far apart, the two countries enjoy a long history of friendly exchanges and, that relations have set a good example for China-Africa cooperation and South-South cooperation. The Ambassador reiterated that the Communist Party of China (CPC), the African National Congress (ANC) of South Africa and, the South African Communist Party (SACP) enjoy a deep and friendly bond of friendship and comradely relationships that continues to grow.

The win-win relationship in 2023 started off with the anniversary of official commemorations between the two countries and culminated with the state visit of President Xi Jinping on the eve of the 15th BRICS Heads of State Summit in August 2023.

In between there were a flurry of bilateral meetings on trade, Africa and other issues related to the strategic partnership that bond the two countries. Both South Africa and China place high value on the bilateral trade relationships between the two countries. The 8th SA-China Bi National Commission (BNC) also took place during the 25th anniversary.

From the 5 to 10 November the 6th China International Import Expo (CIIE) was also an important venue that connected South African exporters to China. In November 2023 Ambassador Chen Xiaodong handed over emergency electricity generating equipment as part of China’s commitment to help South Africa mitigate the effects of loadshedding.

The relationship has developed from a partnership, to a strategic partnership and all the way now to a comprehensive strategic partnership. Both countries are currently working towards a stage of building a high-level China-South Africa community with a shared future.

While twenty-five years may seem a short period for official state-to-state international relationships, beyond economic and international relations there is a longer history of a bond of friendship. The peoples of both countries have had strong bonds that go back to 1955. The Communist Party (CCP) of China has shown sixty-eight years of solidarity and support for the anti-colonial and anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and Africa in general. This is the foundational history of the post-apartheid bond between the two countries.

There was solidarity from China in the early years of South Africa’s liberation struggle. The formal ties between the two countries was preceded by a long-standing relationship between the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the anti-colonial and anti-apartheid liberation movements in South Africa. Historical ties between the CPC and the African National Congress (ANC) date back to when Moses Kotane, a leader in the South African Communist Party and South Africa’s liberation movement, attended the Asia-Africa conference in Bandung, Indonesia, in 1955.

He engaged with various representative groups and met with influential figures, including Egyptian Premier Nasser, India’s Nehru, and China’s Zhou Enlai to garner support for the anti-apartheid liberation struggle. On his way to Indonesia Kotane visited China to further consolidate China’s role in supporting South Africa's liberation movement during this period. In 1960 a delegation from the South African Communist Party(SACP) was received in Beijing and met Chairman Mao Zedong in person.

These ties were further consolidated when leading members of the armed wing of the ANC went to China in 1961 for military training when the ANC launched its armed struggle. Raymond Mhlaba, Joe Gqabi, Wilton Mkwayi, and other members were in the group and also met with Chairman Mao.

Subsequently, these leaders were part of the group that was arrested, tried and sentenced to life imprisonment with former President Nelson Mandela on Robben Island. On their release from prison in 1990 they assumed leading roles in the ANC. The history of the early period of the liberation struggle is recorded in a journal article by Ellis (Stephen Ellis, The Genesis of the ANC’S Armed Struggle in South Africa, 1948-1961; Journal of Southern African Studies, vol 37, no 4, December 2011).

The comradely defence cooperation between South Africa and China also predates the official state-to-state relationship. Following the unbanning of the ANC in 1990 and, in 1993, a delegation from the ANC Alliance visited China. In recent years, South African-China the strategic relationship has extended to a defense cooperation in which the Chinese PLA Navy visited South Africa and has culminated in the first multinational maritime exercise (Exercise Mosi) involving China, Russia, and South Africa in November 2023.

High-level Chinese PLA delegations have visited South Africa, with reciprocal visits by South African National Defense Force (SANDF) personnel to China. Agreements were made to enhance knowledge exchange in defense technology development and joint operations support training. Both militaries engaged in military medical teleconferences to enhance COVID-19 prevention and control capabilities.

In his speech the Ambassador highlighted that the international relations and comradely bonds between the two countries are often manifested in the BRICS, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and other international fora. The countries also collaborate closely on international strategic platforms such as the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation or FOCAC, and the G20.

Currently, relations between the two countries is underpinned by a 10-Year Strategic Programme of Cooperation (2020-2029). Energy cooperation between South Africa and China was a key focus area. In June 2023 companies from both countries participated in a New Energy Investment and Cooperation Conference, which looked at opportunities for collaboration in the green economy, the just energy transition and on the transfer of science and technology.

South Africa expressed enthusiasm to deepen collaboration in China’s common prosperity doctrine strategically linked to its own National Development Plan and Economic Reconstruction and Development Plan. The Ambassador highlighted four principles for the new comprehensive strategic partnership.

Firstly he focused on mutual trust from the longstanding friendship and comradely relationship as a basis for the partnership. Secondly, he identified collaboration as development partners for common progress expanding the current strong economic ties. Thirdly, he affirmed that a friendly partnership can only be strengthened with mutual understanding. Fourthly, and finally emphasised the need for a global partnership in upholding justice and peace in the world.

The fraternal bonds are further reflected in their BRICS and BRI memberships mirrored in the strong international and economic ties between the two countries. Today China is South Africa’s most important global trading partner and South Africa is China’s largest trading partner in Africa. China holds important investments in South Africa’s emerging local infrastructure and development projects and, South African firms invest in China’s expanding market.

This year saw a significant increase in two-way trade between the two countries exceeding R900-billion with South Africa’s exports passing R500-billion. In August 2023 importing companies from China signed contracts for renewable energy products, precious metals and agricultural products.

China also committed to support South Africa’s energy and electricity infrastructure programmes to address challenges in this sector. The South African Minister of Trade, Industry and Competition estimated that during the Joint Economic and Trade Committee (JETC) engagement, in August 2023 deals worth about $2-billion were signed.

During his visit to South Africa in August 2023 President Xi said:

“The reason why China's relationship with South Africa is so good and the China-South Africa friendship is so deep is crucially because both countries and parties have shared weal and woe on their respective developmental paths, forging a profound friendship like comrades and brothers”.

South Africa was the first African country to sign the Belt and Road cooperation document with China. In an article published in South Africa President Xi emphasised the South Africa was China's biggest trading partner in Africa for 13 years in a row, as well as one of the African countries with the largest stock of Chinese investment.

He underscored that South Africa's Ubuntu philosophy advocates compassion and sharing. It resonates well with the values of Confucianism--"love the people and all beings and seek harmony among all nations". As an ancient Chinese saying goes, "A partnership forged with the right approach defies distance; it is thicker than glue and stronger than metal and rock."

President Xi called for sharing on governance, and support for each other in independently exploring a path to modernization that suits our respective national conditions. The countries should fear no hegemony, and work with each other as real partners to push forward relations amid the changing international landscape.

The long-standing bonds between the South African liberation movements and the CCP were built up over many decades and culminated in the establishment of twenty-five years of official diplomatic ties between post-apartheid South Africa and China.

Ambassador Chen Xiaodong affirmed that China is ready to work with South Africa to implement President Xi Jinping's initiatives on global development, security and civilization, practice true multilateralism and enhance the representation and voice of countries of the “Global South” in global governance.

He further noted that over the next 25 years China will work with all South African communities to strengthen dialogue, exchanges and cooperation and continue to develop a new Golden Era of China-South Africa relations.

That will be good for our joint efforts to build a high-level China-South Africa community with a shared future, so as to deliver more benefits to the two countries and peoples.