China is govt ministries' favourite destination
Parliamentary responses reveal numerous government officials, including ministers and deputy ministers, travelled to China during the 2014/2015 financial year.
The ministers, deputy ministers and officials who travelled to the Asian country during the specified period are from government departments such as the Department of Home Affairs, Department of Tourism, Department of Mineral Resources, Department of Science and Technology, Department of Basic Education, Department of Public Service and Administration, Department of Energy, Department of Arts and Culture, Department of Telecoms and Postal Services (DTPS), Department of Higher Education and Training, and the Department of Communications (DOC).
According to the responses, the ministers noted various reasons for travel to China, with business interests and learning from the Chinese way cited as the most common.
The ministries also state the purpose of the travel was to increase trade and investment opportunities, knowledge sharing about best practices, and ideas for improving the growth rate in South Africa's economy.
Koffi Kouakou, senior lecturer in government communications and scenario planning at the Wits School of Governance, says SA's government has made it clear it will deal with China because of its economic power.
Kouakou notes China demonstrated how the state becomes a driver of capitalism and has done well in terms of state capitalism. Monopoly capitalism has not helped SA to reduce unemployment or fight poverty. "SA's government needs to learn from China."
The most logical reason for the trips to China is to learn from the country, see and talk about their way of doing things, he says.
However, Kouakou notes there has not been much evidence of the insight gained into how China does things being funnelled into SA. There needs to be a back-to-office report system where the officials report what they learned and how they put it into action.
"The officials need to apply what they are learning in China to ensure the state-owned enterprises (SOEs) in SA are functional," he explains.
Government needs to select the best managers to run SOEs, as a good chunk of the country's SOEs are dysfunctional, which translates to a high level of corruption. "China is cracking down on corruption, and SA's government needs to do the same."
Comms ministers in China
Concerns were raised when both of the country's communications departments (DOC and DTPS) were reported to have travelled to China in recent months.
DOC minister Faith Muthambi's speech at the 2015 Ministerial Workshop on Development and TV Media for Developing Countries in Changsha City in China, in July, also raised some questions. During the speech, she stated South African and Chinese media need to do a better job of reporting what the countries have done to improve the lives of their citizens.
ICT analyst Adrian Schofield notes that although he is unsure what the DOC would gain from travelling to China, the DTPS should be looking to improve its knowledge of how technology supports the economy, how it enables service delivery, and how SA can grow its own ICT sector to leverage job creation, better health, education and social services.
Strategy Worx CEO Steven Ambrose also says from a technical standpoint, China had made huge leaps in the IT and communications industry. "These strides may well assist our departments in understanding the challenges going forward in bringing communications platforms and systems to South Africa."
Cause for concern
Schofield says China is a significant investor or partner in infrastructure creation in Africa. "We should be doing all we can to understand them better and build effective relationships with them."
According to Schofield, while its growth rate has slowed in recent months, China's economy still leads most of the world's economies in its potential for providing investment and technology transfer, as well as a market for South African products and services.
"As well as seeking business opportunities, one could imagine the ANC is interested in the political model in China, as the Chinese government appears to have a firm hold on the lives of its citizens, something the ANC is rapidly losing," says Schofield.
The cause for concern is that all these visits may create an impression that South Africa can follow a Chinese model for growth and development, says Ambrose.
"The main issue is that the South African and many of the African economies are very different in makeup, ideological background and scale to any Chinese model. A solution that may work well in the homogenous tightly controlled Chinese model may not work at all in South Africa."