South Africa and China are working on a renewal of their ten-year strategic partnership in a bid to boost a commercial relationship that has been hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The bid to renew the partnership, which was last agreed in 2014, was confirmed by South African Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and Chen Xiaodong, China’s newly appointed ambassador to South Africa, in an event at the Chinese embassy in Tshwane this week.
The agreement, which the partners hope to have finalised by the end of the year, will focus on sectors including higher education, skills transfer, health, the digital economy, science and technology, according to Minister Gordhan.
China is South Africa’s largest trading partner, but business has slumped amid the global slowdown prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Trade between the two countries fell by 27,6 percent in the first half of the year, with Chinese imports from South Africa down by 32,2 percent to US$8,68 billion, according to data from China’s General Administration of Customs. Chinese exports to South Africa slumped by about a fifth to US$6,2 billion.
Total trade between the countries stood at US$43,2 billion last year.
The IMF projects that Chinese GDP will expand by 1,2 percent this year compared to 6,1 percent in 2019, while South Africa will contract by eight percent following pre-pandemic growth of 0,2 percent in 2019.
In early September, South African’s President Cyril Ramaphosa confirmed that his government was finalising another major economic plan in talks with business and labour, but businesses are aware that past plans have been left unimplemented.
While South Africa hopes that a new partnership with China will return the relationship to its commercial pre-eminence, the negotiations also offer a chance to renew diplomatic ties.
In March, outspoken Chinese Ambassador Lin Songtian – known for Twitter diatribes against the United States – was recalled from Pretoria. Ambassador Songtian had bluntly commented on the shortcomings of South Africa’s investment climate, warning that the government had to renovate its infrastructure and revitalise state-owned enterprises, including power utility Eskom, to attract investors and resuscitate the economy.
His replacement by “heavy hitter” Ambassador Chen offers a chance to strengthen ties, writes Eric Orlander, co-founder of the China-Africa project.
“Chen’s appointment to the post reaffirms Beijing’s view that South Africa remains its most important diplomatic outpost on the continent. Chen is a senior diplomat with a long resume in both Africa and Asia,” he says. - African Business