JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — The leaders of South Africa’s ruling party are going back to school. They will undergo two weeks of “intensive political education” in China, under the direction of the Chinese Communist Party.
Under a training program devised by China and the African National Congress, at least 35 senior ANC members have travelled to Beijing over the past year to attend lectures about Chinese national planning and the Communist Party’s political education system. A group of provincial-level party secretaries will make the trip by the end of this year, and dozens of other ANC cadres are expected to visit China for the same training.
South Africa's ANC, like many other African ruling parties, are increasing their links with the Chinese Communist Party with an eye to copying its political and economic development strategies. However, key differences in South Africa's history may make the Chinese model unsuitable to be emulated, according to some South African analysts.
The ANC wants all members of its national executive committee to take part in Chinese Communist Party lessons, “as part of the ongoing political education for the leadership of our movement,” according to a report delivered at an ANC policy conference last week.
As the ANC maps out a new economic system for South Africa with greater state control of key industries, the ruling party has been cultivating closer political links with China. The ANC recently announced plans for greater state intervention in key sectors of the economy, saying that it will research proposals to nationalize mines and boost state intervention in financial institutions and currency rates.
South Africa’s persistent poverty and inequalities in the distribution of wealth since the end of apartheid in 1994 has led to recent renewed calls for nationalization of the mining industry.
China’s array of state-owned enterprises, in many cases run like private corporations though under government control, are also being looked at as a model for South Africa to adopt. Many of South Africa’s state monopolies have floundered in recent years, wracked by management problems and needing large government bailouts.
Yet another trip to Beijing is on the horizon. Members of a parliamentary committee on public enterprises will visit China in January to study the country’s state-owned enterprises, according to reports in the South African media. South Africans were expecting a reciprocal visit by Chinese officials, although a date had not been set.
China has long made it a priority to provide study programs and host visits to China for government officials from across Africa, as part of a push to expand its reach and influence on the African continent. There is a near-constant flow of political visits of various levels between China and African countries, with China normally footing the bill.
For example, as part of a longstanding media training program, 36 African government press officers visited Chongqing earlier this year to tour the state-controlled media. In total, more than 200 press officers from 46 African countries have visited China under this program, according to China’s State Council Information Office.
Chinese government officials and top Communist Party cadres regularly tour African countries. In September, a Chinese Communist Party delegation paid a “good-will visit” to the ANC in South Africa and to Malawi after attending the 8th Congress of Ethiopia’s ruling party, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front.
South Africa-China relations have grown closer under President Jacob Zuma’s leadership. On a visit to China in 2008, Zuma spoke at a Chinese Communist Party’s executive leadership academy and said that the ANC wanted to learn “cadre development and party organizational work” from China.
Tony Yengeni, an ANC national executive member who visited China last year, told South Africa's Mail & Guardian newspaper that the ANC is developing a political school based on the Chinese model.
On Zuma’s most recent trip to China, a four-day visit in late August, he was accompanied by a nearly 400-strong South African delegation of business representatives and government ministers. In a speech he praised the “discipline” of China's authoritarian political system, wondering aloud if it was a recipe for economic success.
On the same visit, China officially upgraded its relationship with South Africa to the level of “comprehensive strategic partnership.”
Many Chinese people have seen dramatic improvements in their living conditions over the past 30 years. The trade-off, however, is the lack of political and religious freedom under China’s one-party, authoritarian government. Dissidents are regularly jailed, and the internet and media are heavily censored.
While China has been a success story in terms of its rapid development, “it’s not a completely adaptable, quick-fix model,” cautioned Sanusha Naidu, research director for the China/Emerging Powers in Africa program at the Cape Town office of Fahamu, a social justice organization.
“We must be very careful in terms of assuming that there can be a quick fix from China,” she said.
In South Africa, labor unions play an important role in the political sphere — unlike in China where unions are state-controlled.
If South Africa tries to adopt the Chinese model of an export-led economy based on cheap manufacturing and low wages, it could find it difficult to overcome “the culture of resistance” among South African workers, which dates back to the apartheid era, Naidu said.