An African model for Beijing

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 July, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 July, 2005, 12:00am

China's leaders watching the Group of Eight meeting in Scotland last week could have been forgiven a flush of pride. Unlike most of Africa, they no longer need their begging bowls to be filled by the planet's rich countries, thanks to economic reforms of the past 25 years. Mothers the world over have stopped admonishing children finish their dinner with: 'Don't you know there are millions of starving children in China?'

Yet, if Politburo members were to direct their gaze to the southern tip of Africa, they might find much to learn. South Africa provides a fascinating study of the potential that can be unleashed in Africa by the careful application of investment and cultural sensitivity, within a stable, democratic framework. Admittedly, South Africa has woes unimaginable in China. On top of the pile are a 40 per cent unemployment rate and a 30 per cent HIV infection rate. It is nevertheless making progress in ways that would be equally unimaginable in the mainland.

Foremost is the battle against corruption. South Africa's deputy president, Jacob Zuma, was recently fired by President Thabo Mbeki after an official investigation produced evidence of his receiving kickbacks from an arms deal. A woman, Pumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, has replaced him. It is hard to imagine how the mainland would deal with the after-effects of a bribery scandal that reached as high as the Politburo.

It would also be hard to imagine a politician of Mr Mbeki's stature in the mainland being able to quickly and publicly reverse an utterly wrong-headed national policy. The South African government is now distributing anti-retroviral drugs after years of trying to deny that HIV was the source of Aids. Could Beijing make a similar U-turn tomorrow, and declare that the one-child policy has created a ticking time bomb, which will go off when its greying population demands a pension? Or when the gender imbalance reaches three men for every two women?

It is in its cultural development where South Africa is perhaps making its greatest strides. Rather than pounding the drum of historic, traditional pride, it is focused on celebrating the vitality of the present. For instance, the government trumpets the diversity of South Africa's nine indigenous languages. This is not merely spin: it also encourages the kings of local tribes to maintain their ethnic power bases.

It does all of this while Mr Mbeki's party, the African National Congress, keeps an unchallengeable grip on political power through the ballot box. Is this political food for thought in the linguistically diverse, provincially minded mainland?

Beyond its borders, South Africa is driving the grand concept of an 'African Renaissance'. Yes, it has been too tolerant of President Robert Mugabe's abuses in Zimbabwe. But Mozambique would not be such a success story - from the continent's worst basket case to one of its brightest spots within five years - without South Africa's help.

Beijing's tolerance of regimes in North Korea and Myanmar is well known; but what of its efforts to help other neighbours trying to go straight, such as Cambodia?

To be fair, Beijing does lay more emphasis these days on a developing-world approach to solving developing-world problems. Premier Wen Jiabao , in particular, has been breaking political moulds by hugging Aids sufferers and mending fences with China's neighbours.

But the ultimate reason why South Africa is succeeding where the rest of the continent is struggling is not because of leaders like Mr Mbeki and his predecessor, Nelson Mandela. It is because of one reason: power rests with its people.

Anthony Lawrance is the Post's special projects editor