South Africa Faces a Balancing Act with China over its Digital Transformation

Gift Mwonzora
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South Africa wants to pursue the fourth industrial revolution and digitalise its economy. Partnering with China offers a great opportunity, but as Gift Mwonzora and Bei Wang write, it is not a simple win-win proposition.

Beijing’s presence is palpable in many African capitals. For Africa’s political elites, China is seen as a reliable ally and trade partner, dubbed an “all-weather friend”. However, there are growing concerns about the imbalance in Sino-Africa relations. Some view China as a pragmatic investor in Africa, while others criticise its extractive approach, which benefits itself more than its partners. China’s influential role in Africa sparks debate over potential dependency but the partnership is pivotal for the continent’s digital transformation.

Whether China’s increasing trade in new digital technologies is driven by profit seeking motives or by charitable and benign intentions of cooperation is a subject of contention. It is, however, important to contextualise Sino-Africa cooperation and South Africa offers an excellent example. Given the intertwined ambitions of South Africa and China in the digital realm, mapping China’s footprint on South Africa’s digital transformation is nuanced.


South Africa’s digital transformation: Is China the answer?

South Africa is an African leader when it comes to digitalisation. The International Telecommunication Union ranks the country’s ICT development index at 4.96 out of 10, ranked at number 92 out of 176 countries. It boasts the highest mobile phone – 84 per cent – and internet penetration – 53 per cent – rates in Africa. The African National Congress-led government has established a Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, an area many believe the country can benefit from its connections with China to leapfrog its infrastructure gap.

China has enjoyed what is termed domestically as a ‘Golden Era of Internet’. Underpinned by research and development, innovation, and entrepreneurship in digital technologies, it has occurred at a breakneck speed. Consequently, China is now not only a pioneer in Artificial Intelligence, big data and the Internet of Things, but also a global force in the evolving international digital economy. China’s tech innovation, notably in digital areas and advanced 4G and 5G networks, is expanding globally, especially in Africa.

China’s digital transformation did not just happen overnight. In addition to significant government investment, its digital advancements can be attributed to some unique socio-cultural factors. The user-centricity and market-driven approach of Chinese tech founders have been essential, with tech leaders pushing the boundaries in highly competitive environments. This pragmatic drive is matched by a highly adaptive population, quick to embrace new technologies and digital services, which in return has created a dynamic market for tech companies to grow.

Chinese tech giants like Huawei and ZTE are major players in the South African market. Despite the presence of these two digital giants, South Africa’s digital connectivity still lags with several rural schools, public health institutions and communities remain unconnected. The rollout of 4G and 5G in rural areas is proceeding at a snail’s pace. This is despite Chinese companies like Huawei partnering with telecommunications operators like Vodacom and MTN to deploy 4G and 5G networks. Yet these digital infrastructures are still to diminish the existing digital divide between rural and urban areas.

South Africa should be able to leverage Huawei’s skill set, prowess and capacity to effectively build sound digital infrastructure. But that is not happening.

The country still has numerous opportunities to harness the expertise, technical know-how, and infrastructure from its ally. Considering China’s keen interest in South Africa’s natural resources, its ICT and clean energy markets, the outlook isn’t entirely negative. The launch of China’s Huawei Innovation Centre in 2023 is one milestone development hailed by the South African government as aiding not only South Africa but the continent to leapfrog into the Fourth Industrial Revolution. While this is welcome, South Africa and the rest of the continent still suffer from foundational challenges that mitigate against the full realisation of digitalisation, such as limited access to electricity and the internet, particularly in rural areas. Economic disparities have also widened the digital divide and digital literacy gap, especially affecting underserved communities.


South Africa’s failure

While partnerships with Chinese tech giants have increased, South Africa’s economy remains largely un-digitalised, even as it adopts Beijing’s advanced digital and communication technologies.

For example, South African firm Telkom and Huawei have made joint efforts to upgrade South Africa’s telecoms, including fibre optics. Yet the country’s connectivity issues persist, challenging its commitment to the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Nation-states guard, protect and prioritise their own interests jealously. Both China and South Africa engage in digital cooperation based on mutual benefits. However, global power dynamics add complexity to their technological investments. The US is concerned. Its deepening agitation with China’s increasing influence in Africa which seeks to dwarf the West’s grip on the continent is palpable. The US is pressuring African countries, including South Africa, to ditch Huawei’s Chinese digital technology and network.

Faced with the hard choice of being pro-East or pro-West, South Africa is at the cusp of redefining and picking partners and allies that can help push the country’s digital transformation. Understanding South Africa’s local adoption levels provides a more accurate assessment of the internal readiness for digitisation. This nuanced understanding is essential for formulating strategies and actions, which may entail neither looking East or West but looking in all directions to the benefit of South African citizens.


Riding China for digital innovation

South Africa can take a cue from the late Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping who famously stated that “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.” Only then, and coupled with strong political will, the right policies, requisite technology, full implementation, and efficient partnerships can South Africa fully embark on a major digital transformation undergirded by the existing Sino-Africa cooperation.


This blog initially was published on Africa at LSE.

About the Authors

Bei Wang is a PhD candidate at Utrecht University, the Netherlands. Her research focuses on global tech discourses and tech narratives in China and the Global South

Dr. Gift Mwonzora

Dr. Gift Mwonzora is a Research Fellow in the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy at the University of Erfurt, Germany. He researches on digitalisation, politics and the future of work in Middle-Income Countries. His areas of Research include development policy, digitalisation, governance, democracy, human rights, social justice.

~ The views represented in this blog post do not necessarily represent those of the Brandt School. ~

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