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The Chinese Communist Party as a model for its South African cousins

Even though these two don’t like each other very much, they sometimes end up in the same room together. The African National Congress (ANC) and its opponents the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) were represented at the 73rd-anniversary party of the People’s Republic of China on 28 September in Johannesburg. Both rivals share the same sympathy for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

“ANC and EFF leaders rub shoulders at Consulate celebration,” was the headline of the South African media outlet IOL’s article on the ceremony. The article was conveniently shared on the Chinese Consulate General’s Twitter account, in between two official media reports. Present were Paul Mashatile, the ANC’s treasurer general, and Floyd Shivambu, the EFF’s number two.

Praise

Inspired by Marxist-Leninist ideology, the EFF is in line with the original ideology of the CCP, which it is trying to imitate by publishing a glowing press release for the party’s 100th anniversary; retweeting government propaganda; demonstrating in the streets of Pretoria in June 2021 to demand the authorisation of Chinese vaccines, etc. “We are making efforts to deepen our relationship,” says EFF spokesperson Sinawo Thambo, who was also invited to the 28 September ceremony.

Malema’s party is fiercely anti-US and has set its sights on the regime in Beijing. “China must resolutely lead a new socialist world order, devoid of imperialism, imperialist wars and the dispossession of the weakest,” the Red Beret leader said at the EFF’s eighth anniversary in 2021. He called on China to become the guardian of world peace, to lead the industrialisation of all countries and to advocate the reform of international institutions such as the UN. Music to the CCP’s ears.

Chinese officials are fully aware of this praise. EFF leaders were received by the Chinese consul in August for a briefing on world affairs and preparations ahead of the 20th CCP Congress, which is currently taking place. Even though no EFF members travelled to China for this major event, a message was sent to Xi Jinping. “We wish them the best for their congress and for their continued development of a nation that promotes socialism and development outside the framework of Western countries and capitalism,” says Thambo.

Party-to-party diplomacy

South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa, in his capacity as ANC president, is also expected to send a message of sympathy, says Desani. The ruling party official knows the CCP well. He has travelled to China several times over the past decade for training. This ‘party-to-party diplomacy’ has existed since the 1950s between the CCP and the ANC. The Chinese Communist Party has been in solidarity with the liberation struggle against the anti-communist apartheid regime. Over the decades, CCP formations have lost sight of the ideology and focused on China’s economic emancipation since the 1978 reforms. “The way China has developed tells us how they have managed to lift ordinary people out of poverty. And that is one of the ANC’s aspirations,” says Desani.

Unlike magicians, the CCP is happy to share its tips and tricks for replicating its economic miracle. It funded the construction of the Mwalimu Julius Nyerere Leadership School, a political training school that opened in Tanzania last February. It is run by six southern African parties from former liberation movements, such as Frelimo in Mozambique, Zanu-PF in Zimbabwe and the ANC in South Africa. “We see this school as a platform to share our experiences in order to improve our people’s lives,” says Desani.

These political groups form part of Chinese soft power. “They ensure that the CCP maintains close relations with these parties through frequent exchanges,” says Lina Benabdallah, a political science professor at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. “In the long term,” she continues, “the objective could be to show developing countries in concrete terms how the Chinese model can be more successful for them and more in line with their experiences, as opposed to the IMF or international institution models.”

Insulated from criticism

Embracing the Chinese model leads to less criticism of the communist regime. “If it were a dictatorship, how would they have been able to lift over 40 million people out of poverty? Democracy is not only defined by the number of mandates, but also by the fate of the people,” says Desani. “If [the Chinese] thought they were living in a dictatorship, they would rise up. It is human nature to resist a repressive state. But so far we haven’t heard anything like that,” says Thambo.

Disoriented by the collapse of South Africa’s socio-economic model, the political class looks on enviously at Chinese growth. China has been South Africa’s biggest trading partner for the past 13 years. Beijing is also known for its commitment to the continent. “As Africans, we deeply appreciate the progressive policies that China has pursued to support our continent’s development,” said Ramaphosa on the occasion of the CCP centenary in 2021.

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