Will closer ties to China rescue South Africa’s government?

On first glance, it seems to be an unlikely friendship. But, as South Africa’s dominant African National Congress (ANC) party lost control Tuesday of economic hub Johannesburg to its main political rival – an event symptomatic of President Jacob Zuma plummeting in recent polls and expectations of a flat-lining economy – the ANC’s look to China for lessons in political dominance and economic growth is not that surprising.

In discussion documents from its 2015 national conference, the ANC described China’s economic development and leadership as “a guiding lodestar of our own struggle.”

But, just how helpful for the ANC is building ties with China?

China is South Africa’s largest single trading partner, according to the World Trade Organisation. The ANC’s 2015 discussion documents say that bilateral “trade volumes … have far surpassed the value of USD $400 billion [in that year],” and the party is keen to grow this figure.

Alison Bradley, a South African China specialist, told CNBC via telephone that the ANC sees value in the Middle Kingdom as an “economic model to emulate.”

In its 2015 discussion documents, the ANC lauds, “the rise of emerging economies led by China … herald[ing] a new dawn of hope for further possibilities of a new world order.”

Reflecting this, China and South Africa inked $6.5 billion of deals in December last year, just ahead of a China-Africa cooperation summit in Johannesburg.

Despite an enormous trade imbalance between the two countries, some South African companies have profited from investment in their Chinese counterparts. For example, South African media firm Naspers found financial success – and was catapulted to the status of largest African company by market value – by investing in Chinese internet sensation Tencent.

“China views South Africa as an entry way into the continent,” says Bradley, adding that “to understand their relationship, you have to look at all of Africa. It’s not a bilateral, but a multilateral relationship from China’s perspective.”

For the ANC, China presents an alternative way of developing an economy and lifting people out of poverty without fracturing a political structure in the process. This is particularly pertinent considering the ANC’s disappointing local election result in early August, which is contributing to its loss of power in major cities.

China’s successful state-owned enterprise businesses model could also be of interest to ANC policymakers, who in their 2015 discussion documents accept that domestic nationalized industries have issues that need to be to be addressed “as a matter of urgency.” Ratings agencies cite South African state organisations such as energy firm Eskom and South African Airways as potential risks.

Martin Plaut, a South African fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, is skeptical, arguing that China and South Africa’s tie “isn’t a long-term, real relationship.” He describes China as a take-no-prisoners business partner, citing its decimation of South Africa’s clothing industry in the African market over the past two decades, in which “South Africa wasn’t even a competitor as China was so much better at it.”

The ANC’s relationship with China could be beneficial in both domestic and international politics.

With recent local election results revealing waning public support, the ANC would be justified in looking to the Chinese Communist Party’s more secure hold on power as a model of winning over hearts and minds. Phillip de Wet, an associate editor at South Africa’s Mail and Guardian, said in a podcast by The China Africa Project that the “greatest admiration really lies in what the ANC sees as the policy clarity of the Chinese Communist Party … and [how it can] really harness the country behind [its plans.]”

On the international stage, the ANC is supportive of China, for example endorsing the latter’s position on the South China Sea territorial dispute. In its 2015 discussion documents, the ANC describes China as “gradually redefining the world towards a multi-polar order.”

This rhetoric can be contrasted with the ANC’s accusations of the U.S.’ use of “aggressive foreign policy to advance its national interests.”

But, any overt moves to emulate China’s authoritarian rule would ultimately undermine the bedrock on which modern South Africa rests: its constitutional support of democracy. Plaut says, “the ANC, and the population of South Africa, is deeply wedded to the democratic process.”

Links between the two countries should not be overplayed, as both Bradley and Plaut agree that South Africa still looks to Europe and the United States as key cultural influencers.

Plaut’s analysis of the ANC’s foreign policy is that the party “is fed up with the West wagging a finger at them.” He adds, “Zuma likes the Chinese. He considers them good people to do business with and they don’t lecture [him].”

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