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South Africa-Zimbabwe relations in the context of China’s growing footprint in Africa

PhilaniMthembu largeRelations between South Africa and Zimbabwe pose interesting questions about regional dynamics in Southern Africa in the context of China’s growing footprint on the African continent. Rather than describing the relationship, the following article suggests a way of understanding it in a changing global political landscape. It does this by presenting five key themes, namely 1) the Johannesburg FOCAC Summit in 2015, 2) China’s second Africa policy paper released prior to the summit, 3) the convergence of the inception of FOCAC and Zimbabwe’s Look East policy, 4) the role of emerging powers in establishing regional autonomy, and 5) the fallacy of using traditional International Relations lenses to explain the relationship between South Africa and Zimbabwe throughout the political crisis that unfolded.

The historic nature of the FOCAC summit in 2015 was reflected in its being upgraded from a ministerial meeting into a summit of heads of state, the first of its kind on African soil since the inception of FOCAC as a mechanism for channelling China-Africa relations. With China having pledged $60 billion to support the ten point plan for Africa’s development, it followed this up with commitments to increase mutual trade from $220 billion in 2014 to $400 billion in 20201, and grow its stock of investments from $32 billion in 2014 to $100 billion in 2020. It was thus evident that resources would be allocated to ensure the successful implementation of the Johannesburg action plan and declaration. One of the most important discussions to come out of the summit was the commitments made in aiding Africa’s industrialisation in the context of a rebalancing taking place in the Chinese economy and growing resentment towards the nature of trade with China, where African countries mostly import manufactured products in exchange for primary goods.

It is under these pledges that both South Africa and Zimbabwe should seek to capitalise on their relations with China to ensure that domestic and regional aspirations are met through their mutual partnership. One only has to read China’s second Africa policy paper released prior to the summit to understand that the declarations of the summit can be seen as the operationalisation of the policy document, which raises the question of agenda setting within the FOCAC. While much of the emphasis on industrialisation and regionalisation has been championed from within the continent, the fact that it received greater attention after inclusion in the policy paper shows that it came at a time when it suited both China and its counterparts on the African continent. It should however not be taken for granted that the offloading of access industrial capacity in the Chinese economy will automatically bring benefits to its counterparts on the African continent. Instead this will depend on strategic engagement and competition with well-placed South East Asian economies.

When trying to understand the growing economic relations between Zimbabwe and China, one should certainly not overlook the reality that the inception of FOCAC actually converged with the political crisis in Zimbabwe and President Robert Mugabe’s ‘Look East’ policy. This certainly assisted in the deepening of economic relations on the back of already strong political relations between the two countries. This is visible when one takes into account the exponential rise of Zimbabwe’s tobacco exports to China in recent years.

What the socio-political crisis in Zimbabwe also brought to light was how the influence of emerging powers has had an impact on the preservation of regional autonomy where an existing regional power works with emerging powers such as Russia or China within the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Indeed on several occasions, South Africa as chief mediator in the crisis used its relations with Russia and China to ensure that the crisis was largely left to the Southern African region to resolve instead of referring the situation for a UNSC resolution or for extraterritorial intervention. This will likely be a continuing feature of global politics in a multipolar world order, where relations between regional powers such as South Africa and emerging powers in the Security Council assist in preserving regional autonomy in crisis management.

While South Africa certainly has more material capabilities2 than Zimbabwe, it has often puzzled domestic and foreign media houses and observers why South Africa was so reluctant to send a firm message and impose economic sanctions and political pressure on what was perceived as a troublesome neighbour reneging on its democratic commitments. While indeed puzzling when analysed through traditional lenses of International Relations as a disciple, one must factor in the politics of liberation movements in Southern Africa and traditional African culture, where despite South Africa’s leaders presiding over a more sophisticated modern economy with greater material resources, President Robert Mugabe remained a figure revered as a father figure in the regional liberation struggle despite the continuing crisis at home. This meant that despite the supposed moral authority of South Africa and the greater material capabilities, its leaders still engaged with the elder statesman in a manner which continued to highlight the relative seniority of President Mugabe relative to both Presidents Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma. This last factor should not be overlooked as scholars attempt to better understand what may be called the limitations of material resources as sources of power in contemporary global politics.

Dr. Philani Mthembu is Senior Researcher at the Institute for Global Dialogue and co-founder of the Berlin Forum on Global Politics. The views expressed are his own, unless stated otherwise.

1 Check Mthembu P. ‘Reflecting on the Johannesburg Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC): Where to from here?’, Global Insight, Issue 125, March 2016
2 Hard (material) power is often reflected through indicators which capture demographics, military capacity, and economic size

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