South Africa: ‘Who’s Xi?’ What Do South Africans Really Know About China’s Leader?

Johannesburg — During his more than nine-year-long tenure Xi Jinping, who looks set to take on a third term as head of China’s Communist Party at its party congress this week, has emphasized the importance of China-Africa relations.

In South Africa, which counts China as its biggest trade partner, not one of about a dozen South Africans interviewed by VOA at a bustling mall in Johannesburg this week knew the name of the man many consider to be among the most powerful people in the world.

Neither Gundo Dzivhani, a banker in his 30s, nor his brother Mulanga, an entrepreneur, could name the Chinese leader.

Michelle Stoltz, a 51-year-old who works in the pharmaceutical industry, did not know either. “Um, ah, his name’s on the tip of my tongue,” she said.

What most did agree on, however, was that they were happy for Xi Jinping to retain power as long as China and South Africa’s trade, investment, and economic relations remained strong.

Last year, two-way trade reached $29 billion.

Fiyin Kupolati, a 27-year-old legal analyst, noted that both countries are also members of BRICS, a group of emerging economies.

“The relationship between South Africa and China for now is good and if the president now remains in power, I think for the foreseeable future, it would still be good,” Kupolati said.

Asked if they were worried that South Africa, the continent’s foremost democracy, was such close friends with an authoritarian regime, most people interviewed thought it was fine that Pretoria maintains relations with countries with different political systems — and brushed off concerns over human rights in China.

“With such a population I’m sure they could revolt and stuff, but they seem happy, they seem to like what’s going on there,” said Gundo Dzivhani.

Aubrey Netshikweta, a 55-year-old Uber driver, said he would prefer the Chinese system. In China, he said, he believes there is order and things work well — even if Xi stays in power indefinitely as some analysts predict is his intention.

“Being the president for life, as long as everything works, then to me it doesn’t matter, because here in South Africa the problem we got, we’ve got from the leaders, from top downwards, the leaders are corrupt,” he said.

Netshikweta said it appears that in China, the president gets things done, whereas South Africa might be a democracy, but its politicians don’t care about the people.

“They remember the people only when there are elections, when they come around with these big cars, giving people these fake T-shirts, vote for our party, and then they’ll be calling people, ‘Our people, our people,’ but then after that nothing happens,” he said.

Some analysts told VOA they thought Chinese-African relations, not only economically but diplomatically, had been at their highest level ever under Xi’s tenure over the past decade and expected them to be as robust as ever heading into an expected third term.

Cobus van Staden, a China expert at the South African Institute of International Affairs, said he thought African governments would appreciate the continuity.

“I don’t think there’ll be massive complaints coming out of Africa if Xi ends up taking on a third term,” he said.

One change analysts do expect, however, is a move away from the massive infrastructure projects in Africa seen under Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative, toward a focus on other areas like information and communications technology.

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