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China, Africa, and South African Regional Influence

China, Africa, and South African Regional Influence

This past week South Africa’s Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe attended the fifth South Africa-China bi-national commission (BNC) in Beijing. There is nothing particularly shocking about this. China has worked hard in the last decade or more to establish relationships with African countries. And while we can argue (as myriad academics and journalists have) about the nature of this relationship — is it fundamentally unequal? Does it represent a version of Sino-imperialism? Does it provide a protection for African regimes that violate the human rights of their citizens? — The fact that the Chinese would want to engage with the most powerful economic and political power in sub-Saharan Africa seems obvious.

But what is also interesting is that while by any economic measure China dwarfs South Africa, the relationship is far closer to one between semi-equals than it is the sort of asymmetrical relationship that plays out with China and most countries north of the Limpopo and Orange Rivers. South Africa, after all, puts the “S” in the BRICS economic partnership in which China represents the “C.” Where in some African cities Chinese construction projects seem ubiquitous (Just one of many examples is the ongoing construction at the University of Botswana and literally across a major city road at the National Stadium in Gabarone) this is not the case in South Africa.

It is not impossible to imagine, then, that South Africa could be a solid representative of regional interests in engaging with China. Botswana is not likely to want or expect its neighbor to the South to speak for it — indeed that would be a nightmare scenario in Gabarone or Harare, Kinshasa or Lusaka — nor would South Africa necessarily want that responsibility. But it might be possible that South Africa’s regional superpower status will be confirmed in its relationship with Beijing.



Derek Catsam

Derek Catsam is a Professor of history and Kathlyn Cosper Dunagan Professor in the Humanities at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin. He is also Senior Research Associate at Rhodes University. Derek writes about race and politics in the United States and Africa, sports, and terrorism. He is currently working on books on bus boycotts in the United States and South Africa in the 1940s and 1950s and on the 1981 South African Springbok rugby team's tour to the US. He is the author of three books, dozens of scholarly articles and reviews, and has published widely on current affairs in African, American, and European publications. He has lived, worked, and travelled extensively throughout southern Africa. He writes about politics, sports, travel, pop culture, and just about anything else that comes to mind.

Areas of Focus:
Africa; Zimbabwe; South Africa; Apartheid