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African history Asian history

20 years ago: Jiang Zemin the first Chinese leader to visit South Africa

The long-lasting triangle relationship between South Africa, China and Taiwan ended when Peking and Pretoria established diplomatic relations in 1998.

Arriving in South Africa on the 24th of April 2000 for a four-day state visit, Jiang Zemin became the first Chinese leader to visit the so-called Rainbow Nation, a flowery term coined by Archbishop and Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu after the end of apartheid in 1994.

This historical event only took place because on the 1st of January 1998, after almost 50 years, South Africa had finally severed official ties with Taiwan and established diplomatic relations with China. Before being elected in April 1994, former President and fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela had unsuccessfully advocated for a ‘Two China’ solution, a position starkly at odds with Peking’s ‘One China Policy’. According to one of the core principles of Chinese diplomacy, Taiwan is just a renegade province and therefore an unalienable part of the People’s Republic. In reality, after being separated from the mainland since the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, it has been a de facto independent state ever since.

One of the reasons why Mandela hesitated so long to switch, apart from giving a very important foreign investor enough time to prepare for the new situation, was a donation of US$ 10 million to the first ANC election campaign he had received when he visited the island in 1993. But amidst hard lobbying from members of his own cabinet and the South African Communist Party, whose strong ties to their Chinese counterparts dated back decades, Mandela in November 1996 announced that he would accept Peking’s claim of sole legitimate representation for all of China, including Taiwan. Pretoria’s embassy in Taipei was downgraded to a Liaison Office, but actually retained 95% of its functions, and vice versa. Later, when Mandela visited China for the second time in May 1999 as part of his farewell tour, he praised the “unwavering political, diplomatic and material support of the Chinese people and government for South Africa’s struggle for liberation.”

Less than a year later, among expectations that “China would become a partner in the rebirth of Africa”, Jiang Zemin exchanged viewpoints with Mandela’s successor Thabo Mbeki about the constant political instability in Africa, and the poaching of endangered species like rhinoceros, whose parts are often used illegally in traditional medicine in China. Another topic was the selling of locally built sports cars, although it took another twelve years before the first BMWs from the suburbs of Pretoria would be exported to the Asian giant.

20 years ago, South Africa already was China’s most important trading partner on the continent. Ten years later, China had overtaken the US to become South Africa’s single largest trading partner. While the Chinese up to this day are interested in purchasing metals like iron and chrome ore, gold, copper and manganese as well as other natural resources like wool, tobacco and granite, the South Africans need textiles, light electronics, television sets and capital equipment, among others.

Jiang visited Cape Town and Robben Island, where Mandela spent 18 years behind bars for terrorism. Not only to express support for his fight against white minority rule, by also to honor him as the father of the good Sino-South African relationship, which grew considerably closer under his successor Jacob Zuma. While Zuma was in China in August 2010, both sides announced that in the future there would be a “comprehensive strategic partnership”.

Peking supports Pretoria unconditionally and continues to pour lots of cash into one of its most important African allies’ infrastructure projects. Unfortunately, that hasn’t prevented the constant decline of a country with enormous potential. Governance there got worse and worse over the years, and not even mighty China has the power nor the will to change that.

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