South Africa

South Africa

Although China had no diplomatic or trade relations with apartheid South Africa, in reality ties were much more complex. After a few years in which bilateral ties between the newly democratic South Africa remained on the backburner, in the late 2000s, and especially after the 2008 financial crisis, the two countries began drawing closer.

South Africa

Written by Romain Dittgen.

Historical Background

South Africa’s official diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) began on 1 January 1998 following a long period of relations with Taiwan. During the 1970s, the apartheid regime in South Africa, subject to an embargo and isolated internationally, turned towards Taiwan, equally in search of international allies. The ensuing engagement resulted in the influx of capital and investors from Taiwan (benefitting from special incentives), with the latter often setting up factories in proximity of bantustans or homelands, specifically created during the apartheid years as a way to segregate population groups and create basins of cheap labour. If, according to official accounts, the PRC had no diplomatic or trade relations with apartheid South Africa, in reality ties were much more complex. Due to the tensions between Maoist China and the Soviet Union, Beijing provided support to the largely ineffective Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) from the mid-1960s to the end of the 1980s, as the African National Congress (ANC) was shouldered by the Soviet Union. As detailed in the book Apartheid Guns and Money, evidence from declassified documents shows that Beijing did in fact supply the apartheid military with guns and bombs from at least 1980. The PRC proved to be at ease playing both sides. 

With the advent of democracy in 1994 and the subsequent normalisation of diplomatic relations with over 180 countries, the new ANC government debated the salience of maintaining ties with Taiwan. When President Mandela took office, the new government was keen to drop the image of the past while trying to draw closer to countries able to help its development trajectory. Mandela first suggested a dual recognition, which was rejected by Beijing due to its One China Principle. Eventually, South Africa could not avoid establishing official ties with Mainland China, a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and, at the time, an emerging economic power. During Thabo Mbeki’s time in office (1999–2008), South Africa’s agenda was primarily focused on bringing forth an African renaissance and the launch of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) in 2001, with the aim of strengthening aid and investments linkages with G8 countries. Relations with the PRC, although friendly, remained somewhat secondary during this period.

The sudden ousting of President Mbeki in 2009 provided an opportunity for Beijing to draw closer to one of the main economic drivers on the African continent. In parallel, the delayed repercussions of the 2008 financial crisis in South Africa and the recognition of the PRC’s ability to weather the negative consequences of the crisis led the new government of Jacob Zuma (2009–18) to develop an interest in learning from China’s developmental state approach. This mutual wish to strengthen cooperation and exchanges led to the elevation of bilateral ties to the level of ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’ during a state visit to China by President Zuma in 2010. At the same time, South Africa’s relationship with the PRC was also reinforced through the country’s membership in other broader international groupings such as the BRICS (that is Brazil, Russia, India, China, and after 2010 also South Africa) or the G20. As a reflection of its political and economic weight (whether regionally or continentally), South Africa not only hosted the sixth ministerial Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) summit in 2015, but also received official visits from both Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping (in 1999 and 2010 respectively), when they were vice-presidents on their first official Africa tours. Since taking office in 2013, President Xi Jinping has visited South Africa three times in 2013, 2015, and 2018, and received Zuma in 2014. His successor Cyril Ramaphosa was received by Xi Jinping in 2018.

While the official relationship between the PRC and South Africa has intensified over the last decade, public diplomacy displays mean little to ordinary South Africans. In reality, the tangibility of the Chinese presence in the country transpires primarily through the numbers and diversity of migrants. Chinese migration to South Africa has been tied to different waves and histories. The earliest dates back to the late nineteenth century and was driven by the gold rush, followed by Taiwanese industrialists in the 1970s, then entrepreneurs from the mainland from the late 1980s onwards, most of whom arrived after the turn of the century. In the absence of official figures, estimates have ranged from 350,000 to 500,000 during the mid-2000s, with a very likely decline in recent years due to a less favourable business environment. Even if trajectories, identities, and engagements with the host society vary, and economic footprints range from corporate capital to private initiatives at different scales, imaginaries of ‘China’ and ‘the Chinese’ are largely associated with wholesale trade. The combination of a dearth in supply and a high demand for large quantities of affordable goods triggered a considerable influx of migrant-entrepreneurs eager to benefit from these economic opportunities and eventually led to the mushrooming of Chinese-run shopping malls, especially in Johannesburg, the country’s economic powerhouse.  

Campaign posters of the three major political parties ahead of the 2016 local elections in Cyrildene, Johannesburg. Credit (CC): Romain Dittgen, July 2016.

BRI Status

South Africa officially joined the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) during a state visit by Chinese president Xi Jinping in early December 2015, which coincided with the sixth FOCAC summit in Johannesburg. In parallel, both governments agreed to strengthen the joint working group, initially set up in 2014 to implement an action plan covering a range of different economic areas. These included, among others, locomotive procurement, civilian nuclear energy, investment cooperation in industrial parks, trade promotion (especially focused on South African product expos and trade missions), cooperation in black industrialist programmes, financial cooperation, as well as the upgrading of the national electricity transmission and distribution system. While the signed MoU mentions the joint building of the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st century Maritime Silk Road, it is difficult to assess which projects fall under the BRI, BRICS, FOCAC, or simply bilateral agreements. 

Current Economic Relations

Trade: By 2008, merely ten years after the formal establishment of diplomatic ties, the PRC had already turned into South Africa’s largest import and export partner. In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, imports from main commercial partners, such as Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) members and EU countries dropped significantly. However, South Africa’s trade balance with the PRC runs a deficit. Additionally, while South Africa mainly exports raw materials, especially mineral products and base metals, textiles, precious and semi-precious stones, as well as wood products, imports from China are mainly value-added products such as electrical machinery, clothing and footwear, data processing machines, organic chemicals, iron or steel articles, and motor vehicles. From 2008 to 2018, imports from mainland China have increased from 8.6 billion USD to 16.3 billion USD, compared to 4.3 billion USD to 8.5 billion USD in South African exports in the other direction (data from the China Africa Research Initiative). However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, bilateral trade between South Africa and China fell by 27.6% in 2020, mirroring a sharp contraction in international trade and investment. The decline in exports to China (which began in 2019) is mainly due to a declining demand for ores and concentrates, possibly due to China’s changing economy. Data from the South African Revenue Service from October 2020 shows that, for the first time in over a decade, China had dropped to the third position (at 8.9%) in terms of exports from South Africa behind Germany (9.1%) and the United States (12.2%). Imports, on the other hand, remained firmly dominated by China (with 19.8%), ahead of Germany (10.1%) and the United States (7%).

Investment: Compared to the exponential growth of bilateral trade, the reality of Chinese investment is very different. Considering the size of South Africa’s economy, direct investment from China was initially very modest. Until 2007, South African companies had even invested more in China than their counterparts had in South Africa, an unusual setup considering predominant trends across the African continent. A number of factors can explain the largely cautious approach adopted by Chinese investors. While South Africa is rich in resources, it is viewed as having reached a mature stage of development, which limits interests in mining from foreign investors. Additionally, the complex regulatory environment, a rigid labour market, the influence of trade and labour unions, as well as the existence of positive discrimination policies (such as Black Economic Empowerment) have affected investor sentiment. Those who have invested in mining operations have largely opted for joint-ventures and brownfield investment. This includes the 243-million-USD purchase made by China Investment Corporation (China’s sovereign wealth fund) of 25% of the Shanduka group (a South African company with investments in energy, mining, telecommunications, and financial services), and the joint 200-million-USD acquisition of 45% of Wesizwe (a publicly listed mining corporation) by the Jinchuan Group, a provincial state-owned Chinese company, and the China-Africa Development Fund. 

The largest investment to date occurred in 2008, when the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) purchased a 20% equity stake in Standard Bank for 5.5 billion USD, becoming the bank’s largest shareholder. Over time, the interest of Chinese investors has grown, especially during Zuma’s time in office, when the foreign policy strategy geared towards establishing closer links with Asia. During Zuma’s state visit to China in 2010, South African and Chinese companies signed more than a dozen agreements covering investments in railways, power transmission construction, mining, insurance, telecoms, and nuclear power, including some projects that eventually turned out to be quite controversial, as outlined below. The opening of the China Africa Development Fund’s (CADF) representative office in Johannesburg in 2009 contributed to raising awareness about investment opportunities in the country, specifically by providing support for Chinese companies willing to invest. By the end of 2012, this private equity fund, solely funded by the China Development Bank (CDB), was involved in seven projects in South Africa, five of which were in manufacturing and two in mining, with a total investment of over 400 million USD. In 2013, a consortium led by the Industrial Development Corporation of South Africa Limited and Hebei Iron & Steel Group invested over 600 million USD (partially guaranteed through a loan by the CADF) to acquire the Palabora Mining Company from Rio Tinto. 

By 2012, about 25% of Chinese foreign direct investments in Africa had been funnelled into South Africa, followed by 11% into Nigeria and 9% into Zambia. For all that, by 2008 Chinese investments in South Africa only made up 4% (or 3.6 billion USD) of all foreign investment in the country. Between 2003 and 2019, a total of 88 (registered) Chinese companies had invested in South Africa with capital expenditure (stock) evaluated at 6.1 billion USD. Former Chinese ambassador to South Africa Lin Songtian stated that by 2017 existent and planned direct Chinese investments in the country added up to 25 billion USD (ranging from manufacturing, processing, mining, finance, energy, tourism, as well as trade and service sectors). This figure is difficult to verify, not only given the discrepancy between promised and realised projects, but also due to the reality of investments by migrant-entrepreneurs not being fully captured. Nevertheless, anecdotal evidence shows an upturn in interest from Chinese investors in the 2010s. In recent years, the Coega Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in Nelson Mandela Bay has become an attractive investment destination for Chinese investors, with a Chinese firm involved in the manufacturing of solar photovoltaic cells, as well as two vehicle manufacturers, First Automotive Works (FAW) and Beijing Automotive Industry Group (BAIC), opening plants to manufacture cars to be marketed locally and across the continent. Furthermore, Shenzhen Hoi Mor Resources, a Chinese company specialised in mineral beneficiation, has committed to invest 3.8 billion USD to operate the 8,000-hectare Musina Makhado SEZ, situated on the Limpopo River’s southern bank in the province of Limpopo. To be developed over the next years, the project comprises a metallurgical complex (with 1.5 billion USD to be spent on a ferrochrome plant and 1.2 billion USD on a stainless steel smelter) and a logistics hub to produce stainless steel. It has been touted by the South African government as the main driver of foreign direct investment in the country, with the investment figure of 2.6 billion USD in 2017 ballooning to 9.5 billion USD in January 2020, based on pledges by nine Chinese companies. Furthermore, in 2018, ahead of the 10th BRICS summit held in South Africa, Xi also pledged to invest 14.7 billion USD in South Africa, but not many details were released. The proclaimed aim was to help reboot a struggling economy, riddled by a decade of government looting and state corruption under Zuma’s presidency.

Source: Chinese Ministry of Commerce.

Aid and other finance: Although it is one of the most unequal societies, South Africa also remains one of the richest and industrially most advanced countries on the continent. Being classified as a middle-income country, aid has not really been at the forefront of its cooperation with China. A working paper by the Center for Global Development states that, between 2000 and 2011, South Africa received a total of 2.3 billion USD from China in development finance (policy-motivated loans). More recently, in light of a deflated economy and the struggling public sector, Chinese banks in 2018 lent a combined 2.8 billion USD to heavily indebted state-owned enterprises. The South African state power utility Eskom received a loan of 2.5 billion USD from the China Development Bank (CDB) and a loan of 300 million USD was extended by the ICBC to the logistics company Transnet. A few months later, South Africa’s Minister of International Relations and Cooperation claimed that the country had secured a commitment to loan 25 billion USD from the Chinese government, including 15 billion USD pledged in the context of the 2018 FOCAC summit. In April 2019, with the payment of the first tranche by the CDB having failed to materialise, Eskom required an emergency bailout of 355 million USD in order to stop a ruinous debt default. More recently, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in mid-2020, the Chinese government donated personal protection equipment (PPE), which was also replicated at a lower scale by Chinese businesses and associations donating PPE and food parcels to disadvantaged areas across South Africa.

Key Controversies

  • The aforementioned 25 billion-USD loan pledged by the Chinese government aimed towards funding a large proportion of South Africa’s economic stimulus package, has been considered controversial due to its size and lack of public information. Not knowing anything about the nature of the loan, the currency, interest rates, repayment period, and the actual expenditure, opposition parties criticised the loan as possibly steering South Africa into a ‘debt trap’.
  • Jacob Zuma’s presidency (2009–18) has come to be associated with state capture, corruption, and looting of government entities at previously unparalleled levels. The Gupta brothers, three Indian businessmen who at that time were based in South Africa, conspired with various politicians (including Zuma) and heads of state-owned enterprises to influence decision-making and advance their own business interests. One of the many scandals was linked to the partial renewal of Transnet’s locomotive fleet and directly involved CRRC, a Beijing-based rail conglomerate. By paying kickbacks to companies linked to the Guptas, China South Rail (CSR) and China North Rail (CNR), later renamed CRRC, won either large parts or the entirety of successive tenders for locomotives. In 2012, Transnet awarded CRRC a contract for 95 locomotives worth 333 million USD. In 2014, another contract for 100 locomotives was awarded to CSR for the sum of 422 million USD, roughly 114 million USD higher than what the Japanese company Mitsui had reportedly quoted. Transnet paid an excessive upfront payment of 60% before the first locomotive was even delivered. As for the largest tender, 1,064 locomotives (599 electric and 465 diesel), Transnet changed the adjudication criteria mid-stream and split both the electric and diesel bids in two, to ensure that CSR Zhuzhou (a subsidiary of CSR) and CNR were each awarded a significant proportion of the contract, despite not attaining the highest scores during the tender process. In all three instances, either the contract value had been inflated, documents altered, or the tendering process flawed. According to investigative journalistic reports, the Transnet locomotive suppliers had pledged roughly 545 million USD in kickbacks to the Guptas, 224 million of which had been paid. In December 2019, following a complete overhaul of its leadership structure, Transnet planned to approach the courts to have a number of controversial contracts linked to the procurement of the 1,064 locomotives declared unlawful, which led to a freezing of the funds. A year later, the South African Revenue Service went to court to claim back a large sum of money from CRRC, based on evidence about the company having paid kickbacks to the Guptas.
  • The Dalai Lama visited South Africa in 1996, meeting with then President Nelson Mandela, but he has been denied entry to South Africa ever since. In 2009, he was invited to a Nobel laureates’ peace conference, but the South African government argued his presence would detract attention from the 2010 World Cup. In 2011, he could not attend archbishop Desmond Tutu’s 80th birthday, with a South African court ruling a year later that the failing to grant him a visa in time by authorities was unlawful. In 2014, he was again refused entry to attend the 14th world summit of Nobel peace laureates. These repeated refusals caused a political debate in the country, with some accusing the South African government of being spineless and selling its sovereignty to China, compromising on its post-apartheid mission of commitment to human rights and democracy, and others pointed to the risk of possible negative economic consequences of angering China. In 2018, Lobsang Sangay, the president of the Tibetan government in exile, visited South Africa, temporarily straining relations with China. A planned lecture by Sangay at the University of Stellenbosch had to be cancelled due to local people protesting outside. While the then Chinese ambassador to South Africa claimed that all public activities were cancelled ‘due to the furious opposition and rejection from people across society’, Sangay is no household name in South Africa. According to conversations that the author of this profile had with scholars on campus that day, some of the workers (e.g. maintenance staff, cleaners, gardeners) mentioned that they were given some monetary compensation to protest against someone they had never heard of before.
  • There are fears that the Chinese-funded Musina Makhado SEZ in northern Limpopo will have seriously damaging environmental consequences for the Limpopo River. In January 2020, opposition MPs inquired about the Environmental Impact Assessment, but no information seemed to exist on the potential impact of the controversial SEZ on the millions of people living downstream of Musina, whether in South Africa, Mozambique, or Zimbabwe. The South African government considers this SEZ initiative as a flagship project and emerging regional economic epicentre, even if the planned mineral resource extraction and connected industries are very polluting. Since the Limpopo Economic Development Agency has given priority to a Chinese investor, an earlier project by a local company, aimed at building the first zero-solid-waste eco-industrial park, has been sidelined and there are serious doubts about beneficial impacts for the province. Furthermore, the chairman of Shenzhen Hoi Mor Resources, Mr Ning Yat Hoi, and main holder of the SEZ permit, is wanted by Interpol for fraud, which, apart from the criminal aspect, has caused concerns among potential funders. 
  • In 2013, Zendai Group, a property developer from Shanghai, announced its plans to build the ‘New York of Africa’ in Modderfontein in the form of a massive 7-billion-USD urban development to be spent over 15–20 years. The Chinese investor envisioned building a modern new city on 1,600 hectares of land, located in the northeast of Johannesburg. While approved by the provincial government, the City government of Johannesburg deemed the Modderfontein New City development to be too economically exclusive without including a sufficiently strong social and affordable housing component, subsequently forcing the developer to resubmit its plans. In 2015, Dai Zhikang, the founder and CEO of Zendai, surprisingly sold all his shares, which led to a splintering of ownership and an ensuing abandonment of the project. In addition to the controversy surrounding the nature of the project, the Economic Freedom Fighters, a leftist and very vocal opposition party, criticised the sale of 1,600 hectares of land to a Chinese development for ‘putting South African on sale in the world’s markets for the benefits of global ruthless capital’.
  • In the early 2000s, South African labour unions attributed the continuous decline of the local textile and clothing industry since 1994, both in terms of GDP and in numbers, to the growing competition caused by imports from Asia, in particular from China. The competitiveness of the South African clothing and textile industry was severely affected by the currency appreciation between 2003 and 2010 in addition to rising labour costs, and, internationally, by China’s dominant position as the leading producer of affordable textiles and clothing. Following pressure from the Confederation of South African Trade Unions, at the time a close ally of the ruling party, the South African government imposed a two-year import quota on 200 clothing items (effective between 2006 and 2008), with the agreement of China. These measures, however, had little impact and did not stop the decline of the industry.

Key Sources

English-Language Media:

Local media outlets in English include Daily Maverick, Mail & Guardian, Business Day, City Press, News24, Independent Online, and New Frame.

Research Institutes:

Books, Reports, and Scholarly Articles:

  • Alden, Christopher and Yu-Shan Wu (eds.). 2021.  South Africa-China Relations: A Partnership of Paradoxes. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Alden, Christopher and Yu-Shan Wu. 2014. ‘South Africa and China: The Making of a Partnership.’ Occasional Paper 199, South African Institute of International Affairs. Link.
  • Anthony, Ross, Sven Grimm, and Yejoo Kim. 2014. ‘South Africa’s Relations with China and Taiwan: Economic Realism and the ‘One China’ Doctrine.’ Centre for Chinese Studies, Stellenbosch University. Link.
  • Ballard, Richard and Philip Harrison. 2019. ‘Transnational Urbanism Interrupted: A Chinese Developer’s Attempts to Secure Approval to Build the “New York of Africa” at Modderfontein, Johannesburg. Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space 52, no. 2: 383–402.
  • Dittgen, Romain. 2017. ‘Features of Modernity, Development and “Orientalism”: Reading Johannesburg through Its ‘Chinese’ Urban Spaces.’ Journal of Southern African Studies 43, no. 5: 979–96.
  • Dittgen, Romain and Ross Anthony. 2018. ‘Yellow, Red and Black: Fantasies about China and ‘the Chinese’ in Contemporary South Africa.’ In Yellow Perils: China Narratives in the Contemporary World, edited by Frank Billé and Sören Urbansky. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai’i Press, 108–41.
  • Harris, Karen L. 2019. ‘Untangling Centuries of South African Chinese Diasporas: Molluscs/Abalone, Ungulates/Rhinos and Equidae/Donkeys.’ South African Historical Journal 71, no. 2: 263–81.
  • Harrison, Philip, Yan Yang, and Moyo Khangelani. 2017. ‘Visual Representations in South Africa of China and the Chinese People.’ Journal of African Cultural Studies 29, no. 1: 25–45.
  • Harrison, Philip, Moyo Khangelani, and Yan Yang. 2012. ‘Strategy and Tactics: Chinese Immigrant and Diasporic Spaces in Johannesburg, South Africa.’ Journal of Southern African Studies 38, no. 4: 899–925.
  • Huang, Mingwei. 2020. ‘The Chinatown Back Room: The Afterlife of Apartheid Architectures.’ In Anxious Joburg: The Inner Lives of a Global South City, edited by Nicky Falkhof and Cobus van Staden. Johannesburg: Wits University Press.
  • Huynh, T. Tu. 2018. ‘China Town Malls in South Africa in the 21st Century: Ethnic Chinatowns or Chinese State Projects?’ Asian and Pacific Migration Journal 27, no. 1: 28–54.
  • Huynh, T. Tu, Yoon J. Park, and Anna Y. Chen. 2010. ‘Faces of China: New Chinese Migrants in South Africa, 1980s to Present.’ African and Asian Studies 9: 286–306.
  • Le Pere, Garth and Garth Shelton. 2007. China, Africa and South Africa. Midrand: Institute for Global Dialogue.
  • Lin, Edwin. 2014. ‘“Big fish in a small pond”: Chinese migrant shopkeepers in South Africa.’ International Migration Review 48, no. 1: 181-215.
  • Park, Yoon J. 2008. A Matter of Honour: Being Chinese in South Africa. Johannesburg: Jacana Media. 
  • Park, Yoon J. 2010. ‘Chinese Enclaves Communities and Their Impact on South African Society.’ In Strengthening the Civil Society Perspective: China’s African Impact, edited by Stephen Marks. Fahamu, Cape Town: Emerging Powers in Africa Programme, 113–27.
  • Park, Yoon J. 2013. ‘Perceptions of Chinese in Southern Africa: Constructions of the ‘Other’ and the Role of Memory.’ African Studies Review 56, no. 1: 131–53.
  • Reboredo, Ricardo and Frances Brill. 2019. ‘Between Global and Local: Urban Inter-referencing and the Transformation of a Sino-South African Megaproject.’ China Perspectives, 4/2019: 9–16. 

Cover Photo: Johannesburg South Africa. Credit (CC): @mediaclubsouthafrica.

Updated on 31 March 2021.


Romain Dittgen is trained as a Human Geographer and has been exploring forms of societal change in Sub-Saharan Africa. While his research interests are framed around questions of governance, as well as the interplay between shifts in the built environment and ways of living, his main empirical attention has centred on Africa-China engagements, predominantly in urban settings.