South Africa is struggling to recapture the imagination of investors after a decade of driving its economy into a ditch. This week, 100 delegates from China’s Zhejiang province visited the country for a trade and investment roadshow weeks after a similar event in Shanghai. The events are a direct response to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s campaign to gather $100 billion in investment. Ramaphosa’s investment drive plays well in the local press, but he’s facing a different China-Africa landscape than his predecessor, Jacob Zuma.
The Zuma years overlapped with the peak of China’s engagement with Africa – when trade and investment kept climbing on the back of a global commodities boom, and certain commentators breathlessly predicted mass Chinese migration to the continent. During this era, South African foreign policy was frequently criticised for lacking direction, especially in contrast to the Mandela and Mbeki eras. However, one direction was clear: a closer relationship with China. His tenure was a boom time for political and party-to-party relationships. Yet South Africa still has a large trade deficit with China: 16.4% of South African imports come from China, while China only buys 9.8% of its total exports, and Chinese investment has not lessened the country’s alarming youth unemployment rate of 52%.
South Africa is coming out of its Zuma torpor into a very different China-Africa landscape. SA used to market itself as the ‘Gateway to Africa.’ That was before the Belt and Road Initiative and East Africa’s ascent as a new continental development hub. Ramaphosa-era SA might have to get used to being less gateway and more backyard.