CHINA has progressed from a poor, backward country less than half a century ago to a superpower that rivals the US in terms of its economy, military power and technology.
Analyst and consultant JP Landman recently visited China. His observations, which he writes about in this edition, are insightful.
Landman is particularly impressed with modern China's social organisation, infrastructure, pragmatism, nurturing of entrepreneurs and meritocratic civil service.
These are exactly the areas where South Africa falls short.
China was a desperately poor country 45 years ago; today, most citizens are in the middle class.
South Africa is, in some respects, worse off now, 30 years after the ANC took over the government, than during apartheid, excluding basic human rights. We have made almost no dent in crippling poverty and inequality, while public health and education are in extremely poor condition and infrastructure is crumbling.
Just this week, Harvard University's Growth Lab, led by a friend of South Africa, Prof Ricardo Hausmann, said in a report that South Africa's “collapsing state" is the main reason our economy is performing so poorly — weaker than almost everyone in our peer group.
I believe the only explanation is that the ANC wants to learn ideological lessons from China, not lessons in governance and the economy.
The ANC has close ties with the Communist Party of China (CCP), which governs the country with an iron fist. President Xi Jinping was treated almost like a messiah by the ANC during his recent state visit.
In June, a delegation of 20 senior ANC leaders, led by secretary-general Fikile Mbalula, visited China on an extensive tour as guests of the CCP.
ANC and Youth League groups regularly visit China. Just before the 2019 election, 300 cadres were sent to the CCP's training academy to be taught “party discipline and loyalty". Many ANC leaders have attended courses at the Executive Leadership Academy in Shanghai.
And then there is the Mwalimu Julius Nyerere Leadership School in Kibaha, Tanzania. It is a joint project of the CCP and the six former liberation movements of Southern Africa still in power: the ANC, Swapo of Namibia, Frelimo of Mozambique, Zanu-PF of Zimbabwe, MPLA of Angola and Tanzania's Chama Cha Mapinduzi.
The school was built by China, is financed by it, and many of the lecturers are Chinese. The CCP flag flies at the entrance alongside the flag of the ANC and the national flags of the five other participating countries. Only cadres from the ruling parties are welcome.
At the opening of the school in February 2022, Xi spoke of the “urgent need for China and African countries to strengthen solidarity, common development, and exchange of Chinese experience and mutual understanding in governance".
Critics of the school say students are taught that the ruling party is above the courts and other institutions, that the party is the state, as in China. There is reportedly a focus on how ruling parties should prepare for attacks — the Chinese concept of weiwen, maintaining stability or regime survival.
The Danish newspaper Politiken recently said the school is the strongest evidence yet that Beijing wants to export its governance model in its attempt to challenge Western dominance of the world order.
The Chinese model that equates the state with the ruling party is attractive to ideological elements in the ANC and especially the South African Communist Party, also because it was the model of the former Soviet Union, the ANC's ideological master before 1994.
It is essential to remember that the national democratic revolution is still official ANC policy and is indeed occasionally recalled in speeches. It is a compendium of ideologies advocating a socialist state led by the “leaders of the masses" with the ANC as the “vanguard party".
Central to this is the ANC's declared principle of democratic centralism: the core leadership makes the decisions and supporters must follow.
It is from this ideological foundation that harmful cadre deployment, corruption, the use of parliament to protect the ruling party, hostility towards the private sector and indeed state capture have emerged.
The Xi regime is brutal; there is little personal freedom or freedom of speech in China, and citizens are extensively monitored.
But it is also true that Xi is a diligent and effective fighter against corruption. Corrupt officials and businessmen are dealt with quickly and ruthlessly. State enterprises struggling with corruption and inefficiency are quickly whipped back into shape, sometimes summarily abolished.
Landman notes that the Chinese model of political control, centralisation and economic pragmatism is unique and cannot be imitated.
The Chinese political model is, of course, the antithesis of South Africa's constitution and the principle of a constitutional democracy.
It is fitting that South Africa strengthens its ties with China. It is in South Africa's economic interest and aligns with the doctrines of non-alignment — as long as ties with the West do not suffer too much in the process.
But it is in everyone's interest that the ANC learns lessons from China about economic growth, corruption, efficiency and the eradication of poverty, not about how to undermine a democracy.
♦ VWB ♦
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