Notebook

March 26, 2013 7:09 pm

The Boers make a plan for China

The relationship between South Africa and China is proving productive for both, writes Alec Russell

South Africa to become China’s 35th province? To be called Safdong? And to follow China’s authoritarian ways and reinstate the death penalty – abolished at the end of apartheid?

South African foreign ministry officials are not known for their thick skins. So there will have been much Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans – maybe even Mandarin – harrumphing when one of South Africa’s editors lampooned this week’s Brics summit in Durban in a waspish letter of welcome to China’s president Xi Jinping. My advice to the African National Congress is to exhale, and then heed the pragmatic approach of its old foes from the apartheid era – the Afrikaner and big business – to the rising giant of the east.

For a decade as diplomatic and commercial ties between Pretoria and Beijing have waxed, officials have liked to cloak the relationship in protective diplomatic guff – “win-win” is the hideous cliché beloved of both sides. This has covered an egregious diplomatic “sin”, the refusal to give the Dalai Lama a visa to attend Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s 80th birthday. It has also, as the ANC’s allies, the unions, have highlighted, been manifestly untrue in the case of the erosion of South Africa’s manufacturers by Chinese competition.

And yet the ANC should brush aside much of the knee-jerk criticism of the relationship. For all the cases of it being too slavish to Beijing, or the over-enthusiasm of some ruling party cadres about state-led capitalism, you have only to travel through, improbably, the Cape wine lands to see how the relationship can and should flourish – as an unsentimental business deal.

Banx cartoon

Last month, in the space of 24 hours, I met an Afrikaner farmer’s wife whose wine business depends on its partnership with a Chinese company, and the headteacher of a former diehard Afrikaner Nationalist high school who is about to introduce Mandarin classes. Both have clearly been imbued with the spirit of surely the exemplar of the post-apartheid Afrikaner – Koos Bekker.

The chief executive of the giant media company, Naspers, has in 15 years transformed what under apartheid was a sleepy publisher of broadly pro-Afrikaner Nationalist newspapers into a dynamic multinational with interests in China, India, Russia and across Africa – in short the very model of a Brics company.

Mr Bekker had a setback in China. Then he regrouped and returned, and now has a one-third stake in the Hong Kong-listed internet champion, Tencent Holdings. He has also been a vigorous promoter of Mandarin: he has sponsored a chair in Chinese Studies at Stellenbosch University, the intellectual cradle of Afrikanerdom; guests recount how the signs at his magnificent Babylonstoren farm are in English, Afrikaans – and Mandarin.

There is an old Afrikaans saying that a Boer maak ’n plan. Mr Bekker has certainly come up with a canny plan for doing business in China. Those of us reporting on the last days of white rule had many predictions for Africa’s last white tribe. None foretold this.

. . .

Mr Zuma: think of Gandhi not Xi

Jacob Zuma has spoken his mind in recent months about the sensitivities of South Africa’s relationship with the west and east. He told me last month that western businesses had lessons to learn from China when it came to doing business in postcolonial Africa.

Such talk rattles some western officials and irks some businesspeople. I would argue Mr Zuma has a point about the snooty approach of some western executives. But given the Bric leaders are in town, I would also urge him to broaden his field of admiration from China to India.

After a dispiriting year for investor sentiment, businesspeople have been heartened by the re-elevation in the ANC of Cyril Ramaphosa, anti-apartheid negotiator sans pareil turned business mogul. When I asked Mr Zuma if this signalled a pro-market tilt he gently played it down. He should trumpet it to the rooftops; he has a story to tell. The centrist National Development Plan points the right way. Mr Ramaphosa can champion himself as the Manmohan Singh of South Africa.

Mr Zuma can then take on Sonia Gandhi’s role as the grand head of a somewhat dysfunctional ex-liberation movement ... Surely, as the diplomats would say, a “win-win” for Mr Zuma, investors and the ANC.

alec.russell@ft.com

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