Diplomatic relations between the Republic of China and South Africa were established in 1949, when the Nationalist government had to retreat to the island of Taiwan and one year after apartheid was institutionalized.
The South Africans first opened a Consulate in Taipei in 1967, which in 1970 was upgraded to a Consulate General. In 1976, in times when the international community treated both countries as pariah states which shared strong anticommunist views, it gained full Embassy status in.
Before being elected President of South Africa in late April 1994, African National Congress (ANC) Nelson Mandela made an official visit to Taiwan, beginning on July 30th, 1993. He met with Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui and Prime Minister Lien Chan from the Kuomintang (KMT) for talks on improving cooperation efforts under an expected future black ANC government.
Following the worldwide trend, Soochow University in Taipei took the chance to award him Mandela an honorary doctoral degree in law for his dedication to abolishing racial segregation, eradicating poverty among Blacks and promoting a harmonious society in his native land.
At that time Mandela himself openly favored a ‘Two Chinas’ solution, in stark contrast to Beijing’s ‘One China Policy’, according to which Taiwan is only a renegade Chinese province. He tried to balance what he would soon inherit from the period of white minority rule, expressing full confidence that both sides of the Taiwan Strait would be able to resolve their representation issues.
Taiwan in the 1990s was South Africa’s sixth largest trading partner and a major investor. While attending Mandela’s inauguration in May 1994, President Lee and his Foreign Minister Fredrick F. Chien expressed eagerness to provide further economic assistance, “provided diplomatic ties remain intact”.
Mandela called it “a donation and not a bribe” when Taiwan’s National Security Bureau (NSB) paid half of the debt of 20 million US dollars that the ANC had incurred during its election campaign, and China the rest, former Ambassador Loh I-cheng admitted in March 2002.
The newly elected South African government hoped to simultaneously improve its standing with the People’s Republic of China, and deepen its friendship with the Republic of China (Taiwan). Mandela believed that he couldn’t just dump friends after receiving so much help from them.
This sense of loyalty, combined with lucrative offers, persuaded Mandela to continue with Taiwan. At the same time, despite Taiwan’s fragility and growing isolation, the Soviet Union’s unexpected collapse left him thinking about China’s longevity.
After a fact-finding mission in March 1996, ordered at Mandela’s behest, Foreign Minister Alfred Nzo reported that “the Chinese leadership had made it patently clear that they will never accept dual recognition”.
The ANC’s National Executive Committee (NEC), the party’s highest decision making body between national conferences also rejected this concept. The NEC forced the president to accept its decision, evoking “democracy”.
Shortly before the switch became a reality, Nzo expressed deep concern that the relationship with the Red Mandarins had deteriorated to new lows, as they were seriously considering to rescind South Africa’s most favored nation trading status to enforce their demands.
China had expected a quick switch and got impatient, even angry, when Mandela still dared to refer to Taiwan as a country in August 1996, precipitating open criticism in communist media.
After two and half years of attempting dual recognition, Mandela finally announced on November 27th, 1996 that Pretoria would switch relations from Taipei to Peking. Taiwan promptly cancelled all bilateral projects.
Mandela’s widespread popularity, his almost hero-like status and the great respect he enjoyed were not enough to overcome China’s global influence and importance. He couldn’t force through some kind of rapprochement and eventually realpolitik prevailed.
South Africa didn’t achieve either what no other country in the world had: formal relations with both Chinas. Mandela agonized over the painful decision, but ultimately South Africa’s future laid with China because of its growing economy and political status.
P.D: Since early 1998, the Taipei Liaison Office in the Republic of South Africa and its counterpart, the Liaison Office of the Republic of South Africa in Taipei, serve as de facto Embassies.