In late 1996, Nelson Mandela shocked Taiwan with the announcement that South Africa would establish diplomatic ties with Beijing and subsequently cut official relations with Taipei.

Twenty years later, the furor sparked by last week’s visit of an opposition party mayor to Taipei shows the volatility of relations between Pretoria and Taipei and displays the extent of South Africa’s dependence on China.

Tshwane Mayor Solly Msimanga returned to South Africa earlier this week after visiting Taipei City Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) last week to discuss economic opportunities. In response, South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation has stated the trip breached South Africa's foreign policy and is “highly regretted.” President Jacob Zuma has also noted the issue.

Msimanga has defended the trip. To show the visit was not a break from protocol, he and the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) have pointed to a 2014 business delegation visit to Taiwan sponsored by the South African government.

Eric Olander, a commentator on China-Africa relations and host of the weekly "China in Africa" podcast, told The News Lens that before the revered leader Nelson Mandela announced the intention to split from Taiwan, South Africa had for decades maintained its diplomatic relationship with Taiwan as part of a deeply-held anti-communist ideology.

Today, however, China – which does not have formal diplomatic relations with countries that recognize Taiwan – holds “extraordinary political leverage” over South Africa, Olander says.

Olander, who says it is “hard to overstate” South Africa's economic reliance on China, points to South Africa’s third denial of an entry visa to the Dalai Lama in 2014 as an example of how China’s influence has manifested in the past.

“Now, the South Africans reject the assertion that they were somehow buckling under Chinese pressure but to any outside observer there simply isn't any other logical explanation,” Olander says.

He describes South Africa’s shift over the past 20-plus years on the Taiwan issue as "equally stunning.”

“When Nelson Mandela switched recognition from Taipei to Beijing no one could have foreseen how aggressively South Africa would embrace China and so easily abandon its long history of bilateral relations with Taiwan,” Olander says.

“Although Msimanga's visit was not an official, state-sanctioned trip, it is now evident that there can be real consequences for opposition politicians to venture into this sensitive diplomatic turf.”


Economic reliance

Today, South Africa is inextricably tied to Beijing. China is South Africa’s largest market – almost 20 percent of the country’s trade is with China – and Olander suggests that the reliance extends beyond trade to almost every aspect of the South African economy.

“You can see this dependence play out in the South African currency market where the rand is effectively pegged to every Chinese economic data point that emerges,” he says. “Back in the beginning of 2016, when there were real concerns about China's economic slowdown and falling share prices in Shanghai, the effect in South Africa was pronounced as the rand fell to near record lows. More recently, as fears of a Chinese 'hard landing' have receded, the rand has stabilized.”

He also points to China recently opening its market to South African citrus, its importance as a destination for South African wine exports, and a number of recent investments in South Africa by Chinese manufacturing companies.

“Although these investments may be small for the Chinese they are very important for South Africa that is facing growing unemployment and declining foreign investment from the West.”

Comparatively, Taiwan does not rank in the top 10 of South Africa’s trade partners – the exact ranking could not immediately be found. Still, there are about 800 Taiwanese factories and companies based in South Africa supporting some 40,000 jobs.

Commenting on Msimanga’s visit, the Taiwan representative office in South Africa says, “We recall in a statement issued on the 27th of November 1996, former President Nelson Mandela said, ‘We will continue constructive relations with Taiwan.’ He further went on to say that the Republic of China on Taiwan had made a generous and much-appreciated contribution to South Africa's transition to democracy.”


The China question in South Africa

More broadly, foreign influence in South Africa is a point of conflict between the DA and the ruling African National Congress (ANC); specifically the intimacy between President Zuma, the ANC and China.

“Last year, the DA challenged the Zuma government over a cyber-security pact with the Chinese and this visit to Taipei must be seen as part of that broader DA agenda to continue to pressure Zuma over China,” Olander says.

“Although China does not have the colonial legacy in South Africa that some European countries have, the issue of foreign influence and control of the economy remains a very sensitive issue among the South African public and the DA is clearly hoping to use China as a way to tap into some of that anxiety to score political points against Jacob Zuma and the ANC,” he adds.

Olander says that President Zuma feels that so long as he can deliver the economic gains from a closer China relationship he will be immune from political pressure at home.

Interestingly, given South Africa’s previously anti-communist stance, Olander also suggests China now represents an appealing political model for the ANC, “where the line between party and state blurs.”

“Zuma is clearly trying to model his own government on the fusion of party and state power in China where the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) enjoys absolute power over the state which is something that I am sure he dreams of achieving in South Africa with his own ANC party,” he says.

“The most visible evidence of this is the proposal to model the ANC Political School and Policy Institute on the CCP's own training academy in Beijing. The Chinese have provided advisors and supposedly even some funding for the ANC's training institute and there is no doubt a lot of coordination between the two.”

Editor: Olivia Yang