Tuesday, January 10, 2012

South Africa: The New Colonialists – Will South Africa Continue to Buckle Under Pressure from China?

Source: ISS

The New Colonialists – Will South Africa Continue to Buckle Under Pressure from China?

Dr Jakkie Cilliers, Executive Director, Institute for Security Studies

As the ANC celebrates its 100 years of existence, South Africa this year faces a number of important foreign policy decisions, including how to manage its relations with China.

The controversial issue of the Dalai Lama will arise again in 2012, following an invitation from Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi for the Dalai Lama to visit South Africa during a Human Rights Day celebration in March this year.

At the end of 2011, civil society groups in South Africa were infuriated when the South African government dithered and obfuscated in response to a request for a visa to the Dalai Lama. The exiled spiritual leader of Tibet was invited by retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu to celebrate his 80th birthday in Cape Town in October last year. Eventually the Dalai Lama withdrew his visa request “to avoid inconveniencing the South African government”, and cancelled his trip, saving South Africa huge embarrassment.

Having waited almost four months for a response to the visa application a furious Tutu called President Jacob Zuma`s administration "worse than the apartheid government" for bowing to Chinese pressure and ignoring the values of the liberation movement. But for a government committed to jobs, the decision was a foregone conclusion and the burocratic egg-dance a carefully considered response to avoid a legal challenge. The withdrawal of the visa scuppered a subsequent high court application. According to News24 Western Cape High Court Judge Dennis Davis, speaking in court two months later, stated quite bluntly: "We can`t get to merits until you can convince me there is a live issue. The man [the Dalai Lama] withdrew his visa, whether right or wrong there was not a decision."

China is hugely important for South Africa, and South African dependence upon China is growing by the day. Last year China became South Africa’s largest trading partner. Chinese products already account for 13% of South Africa’s total imports. In 2011 South Africa imported US$13,5bn worth of goods from China. More importantly, South African exports of goods (mostly iron ore) to China have grown faster than imports and, according to Standard Bank, reached a record US$15bn in 2011. This is big money for South Africa but small change for China. Although South Africa is China’s largest market in Africa, it represents only 1% of Chinese trade. As a result the country is hugely vulnerable to Chinese pressure - which is applied unrelentingly against what it terms interference in its internal affairs. Evidence of action against much larger and more powerful countries such as France, Australia and Norway abound after French and Australian heads of state met separately with the Tibetan spiritual leader in 2008, souring diplomatic relations with China. And China was outraged after the Nobel committee handed the Dalai Lama the peace prize in 1989, effectively refusing to speak to Norwegian diplomats thereafter. All three countries paid a clear subsequent economic price and South Africa, an economic lightweight by comparison, has no leverage on this issue.

Had the Department of Home Affairs decided not to grant a visa it would have faced a successful legal challenge on the basis of the right of association guaranteed in the South African constitution and it would have been left with serious egg on its face. International Affairs Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, her predecessor and now Minister of Home Affairs, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, were caught in a bind from which only the Dalai Lama could release them. These views were confirmed when, in December 2011, Home Affairs director general Mkuseli Apleni said in a court affidavit that his advice to his minister on the Tibetan spiritual leader`s visa application was not to jeopardize ties with Beijing.

Apleni insisted that the Home Affairs minister had not acted "under the dictates of China," but "further took into account the fact that the deputy president had just conducted a successful visit to China." South Africa is deeply indebted to China for orchestrating South Africa`s invitation to join BRICS, the group of developing giants that originally consisted of Brazil, Russia, India and China. The story is far from over, however. Time will tell what will happen if the Dalai Lama accepts Buthelezi’s invite later this year. In the meanwhile South African officials can only pray…