South Africa

Resilient
Avenues of Influence
High
38 85
Resilience and Response
Very High
58 85
Scores are based on a scale of 0 (least influence) to 85 (most influence)

header1 Key findings

  • Decreased influence efforts: The Chinese party-state’s efforts at influencing media in South Africa appear to have slowed compared to before 2019, with the most important gains achieved in earlier years, although some new social media accounts have been launched. Chinese state media in South Africa generally relies on promoting positive narratives and building ties with elites instead of more covert or coercive tactics.
  • Limited public opinion impact: Available data show that South African public opinion has shifted away from perceiving the Chinese government as a positive influence and model. South Africans as a whole—including journalists—display a high degree of skepticism of Chinese state narratives, though there is low public awareness of how the Chinese state media apparatus works (see Impact).
  • Strong ties to ruling party and major media group: Chinese state media has succeeded in pursuing close ties with the incumbent African National Congress and major media company Independent Media, whose shareholders include two Chinese-state owned companies. This has led to increased pro-Beijing coverage of China and circulation of content from Xinhua news agency via the media group’s syndication service. Coverage of China in South African media remains overall diverse, however, and often critical of the Chinese government (see Propaganda).
  • Chinese state media targets elites: The Chinese government’s media strategy appears elite-driven, targeting English speakers and political and business leaders. State media and diplomatic accounts do not publish in languages other than English and Chinese, despite the fact that approximately 83 percent of South Africans do not speak either language as a first language. China Radio International and People’s Daily both have South African Facebook accounts with followings of over 775,000, although engagement from authentic users appears low. The People’s Daily runs paid features in both the print and online editions of the business paper Business Day, with a focus on promoting bilateral economic relations (see Propaganda).
  • Diplomatic outreach and inauthentic amplification: China’s ambassadors and other diplomats to South Africa have been active commentators in media, publishing dozens of op-eds in recent years. Chinese diplomats publicly push back on unfavorable coverage, but rarely exert pressure against specific individuals. No targeted disinformation campaigns were detected but the Twitter account of the Chinese ambassador to South Africa was found to be among the biggest beneficiaries of a network of fake accounts retweeting posts from diplomatic accounts (see Propaganda).
  • StarTimes makes inroads into television: Beijing-based StarTimes Group, a private company with links to the Chinese Communist Party, has made a twenty percent investment into popular satellite provider StarSat. The cheapest packages offered by StarSat include a variety of international channels in addition to Chinese state media channels (see Control over content).
  • Strong influence on diaspora media: Chinese-language media serving the estimated 300,000 Chinese in South Africa is dominated by pro-Beijing content. The diaspora has had a more visible and potentially vulnerable profile following the 2021 appointment by the African National Congress of a local Chinese-South African businesswoman to parliament, which coincided with xenophobic media reports about her (see Diaspora media).
  • Diverse sources for coverage of China: South Africa’s pluralistic media offers substantial resilience against Chinese state influence. News outlets perform investigative reporting related to China and republish foreign news wires, contributing to varied and critical coverage alongside access to foreign news channels. South African academia also has independent expertise on bilateral relations and Chinese influence to help inform coverage. Nevertheless, the lack of Chinese language research and original reporting on China could serve as limiting factors in the future, especially if the Chinese Communist Party decides to expand its influence efforts (see Resilience and response).
  • Robust regulatory framework: South Africa has a relatively strong and well-defined legal infrastructure governing press freedom, including limits on foreign and cross-ownership in the media. In 2021, a court dismissed a defamation case filed by a mining company against community activists, accepting public interest as a defense and strengthening protections for free expression (see Resilience and response).
  • Press freedom limits and gaps in transparency: The African National Congress has pressured the public broadcaster in recent years to avoid negative coverage of the party, and there are reports of partisan reporting and self-censorship in other media outlets. This political encroachment into the media space could in the future lead to greater censorship and self-censorship of China-related topics among domestic media outlets, considering the ruling party’s close ties to the Chinese government (see Resilience and response).

header2 Background

South Africa is a constitutional democracy and is rated Free in Freedom in the World 2022, the latest edition of Freedom House’s annual study of political rights and civil liberties.1 The country is rated Free in the 2021 edition of Freedom on the Net, Freedom House’s annual study of internet freedom.2 . South Africa has one of the most diverse and independent media ecosystems in Africa.3 The COVID-19 pandemic has led to many media companies, especially community and daily newspapers, facing financial difficulties,4 and print media’s dominance as a source of news declining rapidly.5 In recent years, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party has been accused of undermining institutions including the media to protect corrupt officials and preserve its power as its support base began to wane.6

Television and radio are the most popular sources of news, each serving over 75 percent of the population, followed by the internet and social media,7 with print newspapers read by less than half the population.8 In this regard, public media entity South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) continues to play an influential role through its television and radio services,9 including indigenous language content.10 The commercial media landscape in South Africa is concentrated in the hands of a few large conglomerates, namely Naspers, Independent Media, Caxton Publishers, and Arena Holdings. 11 With 64 percent of the population active on the internet, news media have embraced digital publishing. Most newspapers and magazines have online versions, with some news publications—like Vrye Weekblad—existing exclusively online. WhatsApp and YouTube are the most frequently used social media platforms, followed by Facebook, and to a much smaller degree, Twitter. 12 Over the past two years, Instagram and TikTok have also grown in popularity, especially among the youth.13 However, a low proportion of the population reports trusting social media as a credible source of news relative to other sources.14

The People's Republic of China (PRC) and South Africa established diplomatic relations in 1998 when South Africa cut ties with Taiwan. The two countries have politically and commercially close ties. South Africa joined the BRICS community in 2010 on Beijing’s invitation15 and the Belt and Road Initiative in 2015.16 In 2015, then-president Jacob Zuma and Chinese president Xi Jinping signed 25 business agreements worth $16.5 billion at the Forum on China–Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) held in Johannesburg.17 In 2018, the South African government received a controversial $25.8 billion loan from the China Development bank.18 China is South Africa’s largest export market and its largest source of imports,19 and South Africa was among the top five African destinations of Chinese foreign direct investment in 2019.20 Recently, however, there has been some local resistance to BRI-linked infrastructural projects.21

South Africa maintains a positive relationship with China at the highest levels. Former president Jacob Zuma and current president Cyril Ramaphosa both led delegations to attend party-to-party exchanges in China prior to becoming president.22 Frequent exchanges between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the South African government under the ANC, especially after Zuma entered office in 2009, have facilitated the South African government’s support of the CCP’s political objectives, such as repeatedly denying the Dalai Lama a visa.23 South Africa's growing Chinese immigrant population creates a foundation for public diplomacy between the two countries: South Africa is home to an estimated 300,000 ethnic Chinese, most being recent arrivals and making up about half of Africa’s Chinese population.24

header3 Beijing’s Media Influence Efforts

Propaganda and promotion of favored narratives

Key narratives

Chinese state narratives in South Africa follow the standard Chinese propaganda package: a mixture of rapport building; positive promotion of China and the Chinese governance model; as well as counternarratives to criticism. Chinese state media emphasize the “profound, win-win friendship” between South Africa and China, with diplomats drawing the link between China’s vision of building a shared future for mankind and ubuntu philosophy (an African collaborative communitarian worldview that celebrates mutual recognition and cooperation across difference).1

Since early 2020, Chinese officials have showcased the PRC government’s support for Africa’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, affirming Chinese support for African countries’ business development and debt issues.2 They continually reaffirm Chinese willingness to increase COVID-19-related support for South Africa.3 The Chinese government portrays itself as an alternative model for development, industrialization, and human rights while rebutting criticism related to Hong Kong prodemocracy protests, the initial handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in Wuhan, human rights violations in Xinjiang, and the US-China trade war.4 Specifically, Chinese state media calls for learning from the experiences of the CCP and the ideology and teachings of Chinese president Xi Jinping.5 Chinese media and officials in South Africa also regularly criticize the United States government.6

Key avenues of content dissemination

Chinese state media content reaches audiences in South Africa via a variety of channels, sometimes directly and other times filtered through local actors. Perhaps the most significant in terms of audience and potential impact is through Independent Media, one of the country’s largest media conglomerates. Most of the content disseminated is in English, a language spoken by business, educational, and political elites. While English is only spoken by approximately 17 percent of the national population, reaching English-speaking elites may have trickle-down effects on the population.7 Indeed, the lack of effort on diversifying reach may be due to the fact that the CCP already has strong ties with the incumbent ruling party ANC (which has been in power since 1994) and thus does not have much incentive to invest in reaching the broader population.

  • Partnership with and partial ownership of Independent Media group: China has made inroads into one of South Africa’s biggest media companies, Independent Media. In August 2013, a Chinese consortium whose shareholders include state media company China International Television Corporation and the state policy bank China Africa Development Fund, acquired a 20 percent stake in Independent Media.8 It was reported that South African executives had approached Beijing for financial help.9 In 2015, Independent Media’s news syndication service Africa News Agency (ANA) signed a content sharing agreement with Chinese state news agency Xinhua to source content directly from Xinhua.10 During the coverage period (2019-21), the agency regularly republished Xinhua.11 In 2017, Independent Media’s executive director Iqbal Survé helped organize the “China-Africa Media Dialogue” with China’s State Council Information Office, which involved journalists from across Africa.12 Survé has made several trips to China over his tenure with Independent Media, and in 2019 was given the “top honor” of being appointed to the First Council of the Belt and Road News Network (BRNN), a media association headquartered in Beijing and chaired by People’s Daily.13 As of 2021, Survé continues to maintain a positive relationship with his Chinese counterparts, sending a congratulatory message to Chinese president Xi Jinping on the CCP’s centennial stating that he had seen for himself “the technological advancement and the infrastructure development” in China.14  Independent Media publishes over 20 papers throughout South Africa, including English-language outlets The Star, Cape Times, and Pretoria News, as well as Zulu-language outlets Isolezwe and Ilanga. During this study’s coverage period, Independent Media regularly published Chinese state perspectives, and none of its outlets carry much negative commentary on China—if they carry any commentary at all.15 From 2020-21, Independent Media published at least 16 articles, interviews, and speeches by Chinese ambassador Chen Xiaodong and various Chinese consul generals.16 These outlets also give voice to South African academics and political figures who support the Chinese government line. For instance, the director of the Centre for Africa-China Studies at the University of Johannesburg’s Confucius Institute wrote articles calling for Africa to emulate the Chinese model.17 There is some evidence of editorial alignment with Chinese state narratives. In September 2021, a foreign editor at Independent Media wrote an op-ed pushing the Chinese government’s false claim that COVID-19 may have originated at the US military’s biological laboratory facility at Fort Detrick.18 Some original reporting by local journalists is also influenced by the Chinese state. An Independent Media freelancer shared that while their articles are edited very lightly before publication, the topics of their articles and supporting links are sometimes provided directly by the Chinese embassy.19  Independent Media journalists are the only South African journalists documented to have attended journalist junkets to China.20 At least four journalists belonging to the Independent Media network have taken part in the 10-month China Africa Press Centre program organized by Renmin University in Beijing, which began in 2017. One attendee from 2019, Wendyl Martin, published seven pieces on China during his time there, including one repeating Chinese propaganda lines on Hong Kong.21 Martin also participated in state broadcaster China Global Television Network (CGTN) videos showcasing Chinese culture and history by making cultural references targeted to South Africans.22 After his trip, he reflected that South Africa “would do well to learn lessons from China,” and that the trip showed him the cosmopolitanism and economic prowess of China.23 Although not the largest or most prominent media company in the country, Independent Media outlets are nevertheless influential and widely read. Its digital version Independent Online (IOL) is the second most read news site in South Arica.24 In 2020, a survey of English-speaking internet users in South Africa found 60 percent of respondents trusted IOL and its main daily newspaper The Star.25 This is in spite of the company publishing dubious content in recent years, resulting in a loss of respect from the South African journalism community.26 Independent Media outlets consistently perform lower on brand trust than outlets from other major media companies in South Africa.27
  • Chinese state traditional media presence: Chinese state media is available in South Africa on cable television and print newspapers. CGTN is available on the dominant paid television provider MultiChoice, and regularly produces news videos and documentaries on South Africa.28 China Daily, an English-language daily owned by the CCP, has a local distribution network of thousands in the country.29 ChinAfrica Magazine, overssen by a CCP-owned foreign-language publishing organization, has a Johanessberg office and acirculation of under 30,000.30 Chinese state news agency Xinhua has bureaus in Johannesburg and Cape Town and a local correspondent based in the country.31
  • Chinese state media on social media: Two avenues through which Chinese state media appear to reach a relatively large audience are the South African Facebook accounts of China Radio International (CRI) and the People’s Daily, both founded before 2019 and with followings of over 775,000 as of December 2021.32 While the People’s Daily account appears to attract substantial user engagement, a casual review of the “likes” on posts reveals that many of them are likely bots.33 The Facebook accounts of CRI and of ChinAfrica Magazine have very low visible engagement from users. To appeal directly to a South African audience, CRI hired South African journalist Zanele Buthelezi,34 who produces social media content in her “Xinjiang Journal” that extols the cultural diversity of Xinjiang without mentioning the ongoing repression of Uyghurs.35 There is also not much Chinese state presence on YouTube, despite the platform’s popularity in South Africa.
  • Chinese diplomats’ media activity: Chinese diplomats to South Africa have been active in the media, publishing dozens of op-eds in recent years in a range of publications and commenting frequently on social media.36 Lin Songtian, ambassador to South Africa from 2017 to 2020, was very outspoken on the Chinese embassy’s Twitter account.37 The account was founded in September 2019 and had 13,600 followers as of December 2021. Ambassador Chen Xiaodong, who joined in September 2020, appears slightly less outspoken but has continued the tradition by remaining active. There appeared to be a deliberate effort to improve social media presence. Upon arriving in 2019, Chinese Consul General in Johannesburg Tang Zhongdong instructed his staff to build a Twitter account to rival that of the embassy.38 As of December 2021, the account only had 455 followers.39 The Consulate-General in Cape Town also has a Twitter account, but only had 7,121 followers as of December 2021.40
  • Advertorials in business publication: Chinese state media has had advertorials published in at least one major South African paper since 2019, continuing a trend from before this study’s coverage period.41 People’s Daily has been running paid features for years in both the print and online editions of Business Day. The advertorials tend to cover economic relations and bilateral ties between South Africa and China. In November 2019, Business Day published a 12-page supplement celebrating Mao Zedong’s revolution.42
  • Local political leaders: In recent years, the CCP has expended effort in spreading its talking points to South African political leaders at various forums. Many leaders at the highest levels of South Africa, including current and former presidents, have made statements commending the CCP’s “internationalist policies” and policies on anti-corruption.43 The ANC consistently expounds positive rhetoric on China, usually following official events with the CCP. In June 2021, its current acting secretary general proclaimed that the CCP was an “inspiration for the world.”44 The Economic Freedom Fighters, another major political party, has also called for continuing “to draw inspiration from the [CCP] and its leadership,” noting in July 2021 that the CCP played an important role in modeling and fostering alternative paths to development.45

Disinformation campaigns

For the purposes of this report, disinformation is the intentional dissemination of false or misleading content, especially by engaging in inauthentic activity—via fake accounts, for example—on global social media platforms. Chinese state-affiliated actors in South Africa have openly promoted falsehoods, such as by suggesting that COVID-19 may have originated at Fort Detrick in the United States.46 Chinese officials in South Africa have also had their propaganda boosted through inauthentic behavior. In May 2021, the Associated Press published the findings of a seven-month investigation which found that fake accounts have retweeted Chinese diplomats and state media tens of thousands of times. Chinese diplomatic accounts in South Africa were among the biggest beneficiaries of this concentrated bulk engagement.47 This type of amplification also appeared to happen on Facebook, with some evidence of bot-like Vietnamese accounts driving up engagement statistics on South African versions of Chinese state media accounts including the People’s Daily.48 There is no evidence yet of a CCP-linked disinformation campaign specifically targeting South African audiences.

Censorship and Intimidation

Chinese officials in South Africa have publicly intimidated local media outlets and pressured academics over their work on China in incidents that also occurred prior to this study’s coverage period. In February 2021, after Business Day republished a report critical of Xi Jinping by US business news outlet Bloomberg, the Embassy stated that it “sincerely hope[d] that Business Day and other local media can show real professionalism in their China-related reports, instead of being used as a mouthpiece for disinformation.”49 A similar message was repeated via email in March 2021, after Business Day republished another Bloomberg article on COVID-19 origins being possibly linked to a Wuhan lab.50

In 2018, Ross Anthony, the former director of the University of Stellenbosch’s Center for China Studies (CCS), was told by the Chinese embassy that he would not be provided with an entry visa due to his lecture content on China.51 The Chinese embassy had raised issues with some of the center’s reports. In September 2018, after Anthony published an article calling for greater scrutiny on Chinese donations, the embassy wrote to the university stating that it was “shocked to read a groundless report smearing China and China-Africa relations.” 52 When Anthony published an article about these pressures, the embassy then proceeded to use media conglomerate Naspers to put additional pressure on the university to “deal with” Anthony, apparently under the false impression that CCS was funded by Naspers.53 (Naspers has close financial ties to China, including owning a 29 percent share in Chinese technology giant Tencent, which has recently been put under scrutiny by the Chinese government.54 ) Anthony left the center in 2018, after which it became dormant.55

There have also been incidents of censorship conducted by local South African media outlets over content that criticizes the Chinese government. The most prominent example emerged at Independent Media before the coverage period of this study. In 2018, Azad Essa, a long-standing IOL columnist, was abruptly let go after he wrote a piece critical of China’s treatment of Uyghurs and Islam.56 Another example is Naspers, which has approached China reporting cautiously, avoiding strident or explicitly critical coverage.57 Self-censorship pressures are also present. In November 2021, a freelancer for Independent Media stated that while they feel free to use sources from various countries, the fact that the Chinese embassy is so closely involved with Independent Media creates a pressure that they do not feel with other outlets.58

Control over content distribution infrastructure

Television is a major news source for most South Africans. Controlling how information is disseminated through television thus has great potential for impact. Since 2002, Beijing-based StarTimes Group—a privately owned company that benefits from particularly strong ties to the CCP59 —has become one of Africa’s most important media companies with 10 million subscribers across 30 countries, including in South Africa.60 The pay television company is leading the continent’s transition from analog to digital television with some of the world’s most affordable packages for as low as $4 per month.61 In addition to dozens of local African channels, there is a wide selection of Chinese state news, entertainment, and sports programming, including content dubbed in English.62 According to a researcher familiar with the programming, the selection of shows is carefully curated to showcase “an urban China, a growing China, a noncontroversial view of China.”63

In 2013, StarTimes made a 20 percent investment in South Africa’s On Digital Media, which had been facing financial difficulties. On Digital Media owns the satellite provider StarSat, which was the first company to compete directly with Naspers’ Multichoice in South Africa. 2019 figures say that StarSat has a subscriber base of almost 1.3 million across Africa.64 A March 2022 review of the packages available on StarSat revealed they all include international channels like Al Jazeera, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), and MSNBC, in addition to Chinese state-affiliated channels. 65 StarTimes is projected to increase its subscriber level to be competitive with Multichoice in the rest of Africa by 2025.66

Other commonly used China-based technologies increase South Africa’s vulnerability to Chinese media influence. In 2021, TikTok, a global subsidiary of the Beijing-based social media company ByteDance, was the second most downloaded app in South Africa.67 There have been some documented cases around the world in recent years of TikTok removing or downplaying politically sensitive content, including content that violates domestic Chinese censorship guidelines, although the company has subsequently reported correcting errors.68 A media report from June 2022 based on leaked TikTok meetings raised concern that statements made by ByteDance regarding data privacy of US users were false, and more broadly called into question other statements the company has made regarding its policies.69 Huawei, a PRC-based company with close CCP ties and a record of building censorship and surveillance systems in China and abroad, controls almost 29 percent of the mobile market in South Africa and almost the entirety of South Africa’s fourth and fifth generation (4G) and (5G) network infrastructure.70 During the coverage period, there was no evidence in South Africa of political censorship or content manipulation on TikTok or devices using Huawei technology.

Dissemination of CCP media norms, tactics, or governance models

China has been providing South African officials training in politics, communications, and maintaining “party loyalty” and public support, mostly in the context of inter-party relations between the CCP and the ANC. In June 2018, upon returning from an official trip to China, ANC General Secretary Ace Magashule announced at an election communications strategy meeting that the ANC would be depending on PRC lessons to win the upcoming 2019 elections. According to an anonymous official in attendance: “He said we could learn a lot from the Chinese on issues of strategy and propaganda; that is why they are bringing officials from the [CCP] to South Africa.”71 ANC spokesman Pule Mabe later explained that the ANC could learn from many countries.72

In 2015, Communications Minister Faith Muthambi – an ally of then-president Zuma – attended the Ministerial Workshop on Development and TV Media for Developing Countries in Changsha, China. Upon her return to South Africa, Muthambi stated that “We expect our media to play their roles by reporting accurate and balanced stories ... stories that will promote our mutual understanding and friendship, stories that deepen our cooperation.”73 Professor Obert Maguvhe, Chair of the SABC and a member of Muthambi’s delegation to China, said that during the visit the delegation had learned that radio and television in China serve as the mouthpiece of both government and the ruling party. It is unclear whether these lessons were internalized by the South Africans, given the controversial legacy of state-controlled media in apartheid South Africa, and given as Professor Maguvhe noted, South Africans “do things differently.”74

Chinese diaspora media

In recent years, the Chinese government has increasingly viewed members of the Chinese expatriate and diaspora population as viable targets of influence.75 Given that South Africans of Chinese descent have increasingly become involved in local government and politics, Chinese influence on diaspora media can potentially have a significant impact on local government.76

The Chinese diaspora in South Africa consumes news via the internet, and to a much lesser extent, newspapers. One popular website is news and events aggregator Nanfei8.com. Diaspora print papers in South Africa include African Times,77 Africa Eye News,78 and The Africa Oriental Post,79 the last of which is explicitly affiliated with the People’s Daily. These newspapers are commonly made available at Chinese malls, supermarkets, and hotels, with African Times appearing to have the largest circulation.80

While some of these outlets were established independently of the Chinese state, they largely echo and republish Chinese state media and diplomatic content in addition to producing their own content and translations of local English media reports.81 Stories on sensitive topics like Xinjiang, Tibet, and Taiwan repeat the Chinese state line. For instance, an Africa Times article from April 2021 accused Western sources of spreading lies about the situation in Xinjiang.82 Journalists from these outlets will also attend and report on all the major events put on by the Chinese embassy and consulates in South Africa. Africa Times journalists occasionally travel to China to attend events such as China’s legislative sessions, and its Chinese employees maintain strong links with mainland China.83 Most of the African Times leadership is involved in local associations with strong links to mainland government institutions, such as the Johannesburg branch of the All-Africa Association for Peaceful Reunification of China.

The Chinese diaspora in South Africa regularly use WeChat, which is owned by Tencent, a PRC-based technology with close ties to the CCP. A Freedom House review of eight WeChat accounts targeted to South African audiences active as of December 2021 reveal pro-Beijing inclinations.84

header4 Local resilience + response

Underlying media resilience

 

  • Media capacity and self-regulation: Media professionalism is high in South Africa. Influential outlets in South Africa generally have the expertise, skills, and resources to conduct investigative reporting.1 Institutions like the Press Council serve as self-regulatory bodies, guiding ethical practices and offering complaint mechanisms for media consumers and journalists. Current guidelines from both the Press Council and the statutory Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa address independence and transparency, discouraging “commercial, political, personal or other non-professional considerations to influence reporting” and encouraging labeling of “opinions” and sponsors of content.2 There is, however, no explicit language regarding foreign influence.
  • Robust legislation on foreign investment, partisan ownership, and cross-ownership in media: South Africa has a relatively robust and well-defined legal infrastructure governing foreign investments in the media. According to the Electronic Communications Act of 2005, foreigners cannot exercise control over or have a financial interest in a commercial broadcasting license exceeding 20 percent, and no more than 20 percent of the directors may be foreigners.3 Digital media licensing regulations require applicants to indicate ownership and control at both shareholding and management levels for all broadcasting licensees.4 In 2019, the Competition Amendment Act introduced a screening mechanism for foreign investments, requiring the establishment of a special committee to assess whether a merger involving a foreign acquiring firm may have an adverse effect on South Africa’s national security interests.5 As of February 2022, the committee and screening mechanism has not yet been implemented, as the government has not published relevant regulations.6 However, given the existing regulations on foreign ownership of broadcasters, media can be expected to be covered by the new national security regulations. To prevent artificial suppression of competitors, the Electronic Communications Act also states that “no person who controls a newspaper may acquire or retain financial control of a commercial broadcasting service license in both the television broadcasting service and sound broadcasting service.”7 Similarly, the act prevents political parties from holding broadcasting licenses.8 Finally, corporate governance standards in South Africa recommend (and mandate in the case of companies publicly traded by the Johannesburg Stock Exchange) a separation of roles between shareholders, management, and editors.9
  • Anti-SLAPP legal decision: South African law limits some abuse of process for lawsuits under the Vexatious Proceedings Act 3 of 1956 though there are no specific legislative mechanisms that limit the scope of SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) suits. In 2021, a historic decision by the Western Cape High Court led to the dismissal of a defamation case brought by Australian mining company Mineral Sands Resources Limited against three community activists, thus recognizing that a SLAPP defense may be raised in defamation cases.10 There are also a number of regulatory bodies in place, including the South African Human Rights Commission, that allow victims alleging infringement of freedom of speech to seek redress.
  • Disinformation initiatives and vibrant press freedom community: South Africa has a vibrant NGO environment that includes press freedom advocacy organizations and watchdogs like the Campaign for Free Expression, Freedom of Expression Institute South Africa, and Media Monitoring Africa (MMA), as well as disinformation-focused organizations like Africa Check. MMA has been particularly active in cross-sectoral collaboration in addressing disinformation.11 In October 2021, MMA launched an initiative with the Independent Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) and technology companies like Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok to fight the spread of disinformation around the November 2021 municipal elections.12 There have also been multiple calls by politicians for Facebook to be summoned to parliament to discuss combating misinformation on its platforms.13 In the press freedom research and journalist training spaces, the South African National Editors Forum (SANEF) and the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism have been particularly active.14 While these organizations do not current work specifically on issues related to CCP influence, they contribute to strengthening underlying media freedom and could potentially integrate CCP interference training and monitoring into their work.

China-specific media resilience

  • Investigative reporting related to China and party-state influence in South Africa: There are some local investigative journalists who have garnered specific expertise on China: editors like John Bailey of eNCA and Simon Allison, previously at Daily Maverick and Mail & Guardian, both of whom spent time learning in and travelling through China;15 and reporters like Kevin Bloom and Richard Poplak who have investigated China’s actions across Africa.16 In 2017, South Africa’s most prestigious award for investigative journalism—the Taco Kuiper Award—was won by a project which investigated the role of two Chinese state companies in public corruption.17 South African media have historically been very attentive to Chinese influence efforts: in 2013, the Chinese state acquisition of a 20 percent stake in Independent Media elicited negative reactions from local and foreign in-country journalists alike.18 Similarly, Naspers’ complicity in the censorship conducted by Chinese technology giant Tencent, of which it owns a large stake, were covered by the Daily Maverick in 2014, and journalist Azad Essa wrote widely on the politics involved in the termination of his IOL column in 2018.19 During the coverage period, the Daily Maverick published several long pieces discussing concerns surrounding China’s economic involvement in South Africa.20
  • Journalistic and public skepticism of Chinese state media: Journalists are generally skeptical of the Chinese government’s narrative or the ability of Chinese state media to resonate with South African audiences. Surveys conducted in 2015 and 2017 revealed that very few South African journalists used Chinese media as sources, though some journalists indicated that they would “keep an eye on Xinhua” and other Chinese state media.21 Based on recent observations of a long-time Johannesburg-based China watcher, reporting on China in South Africa tends not to be sensationalist, but rather more cautionary in nature.22 There is also a high degree of public skepticism on anything related to China, rooted partly in stereotypes of Chinese people and protectionism against Chinese economic influence. The abundant skepticism can also be linked to the South African government’s history of control over critical media.23 It is possible that because Chinese state media is not critical of African governments, South African media users may view it as having low credibility.24 As a result of this high level of skepticism, Chinese state media narratives are not usually well-received by the public. In November 2019, when Business Day ran a 12-page supplement celebrating Mao’s revolution, readers criticized the content for being misleadingly labeled.25  Recent statistics corroborate the high level of public skepticism. An online survey from April and May of 2020 reveals that only 0.4 percent of South Africans listen to CRI (compared to 35 percent for Metro FM), 0.8 percent read China Daily (compared to 35 percent for Sunday Times), and three percent watch CGTN (compared to over 60 percent for SABC).26 Another 2020 survey shows that South Africans view CGTN as less trustworthy than other international broadcasters.27
  • Diverse sources used for China coverage: While South African journalism is described as quite parochial and heavily reliant on foreign sources for international news, South African media is also very diverse.28 As a result, Independent Media’s stance does not dominate commentary on China. Coverage of sensitive issues like Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Xinjiang, as well as of China-linked disinformation efforts, have appeared in most non-Independent Media outlets like Business Day, News24, and Sunday Times, as well as the website of the public broadcaster SABC.29 Many outlets, including Independent Media ones, publish wires from news agencies like Reuters and Agence France-Presse that cast doubt on Chinese state media narratives (including on the COVID origins debate).30 Content about China is featured less on television and radio than in print, meaning that Chinese state media will not reach large swathes of the population. Moreover, international news outlets like Cable News Network (CNN) and the BBC are among the most read and most trusted outlets in South Africa, suggesting that resilience to Chinese media influence does not have to come from South African sources. 31 Their content is also often republished in South African media, including in Independent Media outlets.32
  • Local expertise on China and China-Africa relations: There is a moderate degree of high quality, independent in-country expertise on China in South Africa, mostly in the realm of China-South Africa relations and Chinese influence in South Africa. Wits University’s South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) hosts independent experts on China and regularly publishes research, such as the China-Africa Toolkit, which covers a breadth of issues related to China-Africa relations.33 Wits’ Africa-China Reporting Project (ACRP) provides facilitation and capacity building for journalists working in the China-Africa space, including those in South Africa. Herman Wasserman, Professor of Media Studies at the University of Cape Town, has produced a range of articles on China’s media engagement and influence in Africa and South Africa, some of which have been published in the popular press.34 Experts like Wasserman, Cobus van Staden, and Philani Mthembu are regularly cited or quoted in the media, and some of these researchers have previously been consulted by the South African Department of International Relations and Development.35 There is also a positive trend of additional expertise being developed, with the first academic book devoted specifically to South Africa-China relations published in 2021.36
  • Critical statements from political leaders: The stance on China among South Africa’s political elite is diverse, reflective of South Africa’s competitive political ecosystem.37 The ANC, in power since 1994, has seen their popularity wane in the past three years.38 In recent years, the current opposition party the Democratic Alliance (DA) has periodically expressed concerns about Beijing’s influence. When Communications Minister Faith Muthambi led a delegation to China in 2015, the DA Shadow Minister of Communications Gavin Davis stated, “One can only wonder what knowledge our Communications Minister hopes to acquire from a one-party state that was ranked 176 out of 180 countries in the 2015 World Press Freedom Index…”39 The DA made similar comments when South Africa voted against a United Nations resolution for internet freedom in 2016.40 There are also dissenting voices within the ANC itself. In 2018, ANC elections head Fikile Mbalula said the ANC was looking only to geopolitical positioning and could learn nothing from the CPC in terms of propaganda and strategy: “Why would we look to China for propaganda when they are an undemocratic state? Our relationship with China is about strengthening ties in building a new world order.”41
  • Advocacy regarding Chinese investments: Environmental advocacy has increasingly focused on Chinese investment, recently regarding the Limpopo Musina-Makhado Special Economic Zone, which will be mainly funded and operated by a Chinese company.42 Similarly, a coalition of civic organizations called “Break the BRICS,” which calls on Chinese president Xi Jinping to end its media censorship and other controversial practices affecting South Africa,43 has been increasingly active. These initiatives serve to provide alternative viewpoints and information to the public relative to narratives promoted by Chinese state media.
  • Application of foreign investment and hate speech oversight mechanisms in China-related cases: In 2013, the foreign control clause of the Electronic Communications Act was applied in the case of Chinese investment in On Digital Media (owner of StarSat), which was limited to 20 percent.44 In 2017, the Chinese community in South Africa successfully registered a complaint of hate speech with the South African Human Rights Commission in a case involving social media comments that “incited violence and harm against Chinese people and their children” drawn from various Facebook pages, including one for an SABC television show.45 Having a strong human rights commission in South Africa provides resilience against the Chinese government’s attempts to portray itself as the only protector of overseas Chinese communities and reduces the risk of divided loyalties within the local Chinese diaspora.

Vulnerabilities

  • Press freedom limits and ANC influence: In recent years, the ANC has begun pressuring public broadcaster SABC to avoid negative coverage of the party.46 There are reports of partisan reporting and self-censorship related to local political interests at other outlets too, including popular broadcaster eNCA. 47 Such political pressure could be applied in the future to China-related reporting as well. The intersection between broader limits to media freedom and susceptibility to CCP influence is evident in the case of Independent Media Group. Journalists have attributed the lack of editorial independence at Independent Media, including with regard to China, to Survé’s relationship with the ANC, which maintains a close relationship with China’s leadership.48 Under the leadership of executive director Iqbal Survé, Independent Media left the Press Council, the Editor’s Forum, as well as the Newspaper Press Union, reducing industry oversight and avenues for the public to file any complaint against it apart from legal action.49 The group’s leadership has also previously dismissed employees for political reasons unrelated to China.50
  • Gaps in transparency and foreign influence standards: Chinese state media content sources are typically labeled, but not explicitly as tied to the Chinese government. In addition, there is sometimes China-related content attributed to names that do not have any traceable identity.51 Furthermore, not all Chinese state media are labeled by international platforms. As of January 2022, Facebook and Twitter have labeled only some pages of Chinese state outlets and officials active in South Africa. Notably the People’s Daily Online South Africa account and the Chinese Ambassador’s Twitter account were not labeled.52 Though South Africa’s media self-regulatory bodies encourage labeling of sources, they have not outlined any standards for engaging with foreign media or state entities.
  • Gaps in Chinese-language research and original reporting on China: Despite available expertise on bilateral relations and Chinese influence, and the presence of six Confucius Institutes across the country, there is limited in-country expertise on domestic Chinese politics and limited research done using Chinese-language sources. Some consequences of this include little published expertise of the exact workings of the United Front Work Department (the agency responsible for coordinating foreign influence operations) or the intricacies of the Chinese diaspora in South Africa. Apart from Independent Media, prominent commentary on China in well-read sources generally does not appear frequently, and appears even less in original reporting. This may lead to a lack of nuanced local coverage, or conversely, to coverage that considers China only in the context of highly localized issues. However, capacity appears to be expanding as South Africa-based researchers collaborate increasingly with academics abroad to produce writing on China.

header5 Impact and public opinion

Over the past three years, South African public opinion has shifted away from perceiving China as a positive influence and model. According to Afrobarometer, South Africans who considered China as the best model for the future development of the country fell from 26 percent in 2015 to 20 percent in 2021, with the United States still regarded as the best model of economic development.1 From 2015 to 2021 the proportion of respondents who considered China’s economic and political influence on South Africa as “somewhat positive” or “very positive” fell by 11 points to 39.8 percent in 2021, compared to 47.5 percent for the United States. Other more specific questions shed light on these broader perceptions: in 2021, 68 percent of respondents felt that South Africa’s government had borrowed too much money from China. A 2020 online survey reveals that attitudes towards China soured after the COVID-19 outbreak. On statements ranging from “China is competently and honestly governed” to “the media in China are free and objective,” a lower percentage of South Africans surveyed responded positively in 2020 compared to 2018.2 Contrary to this trend, South Africans on social media generally favored acquiring vaccines from China or Russia,3 expressing disapproval of the government for not making deals with BRICS partner countries in this regard. This likely reflects the dire need for vaccines in South Africa, showing that practical concerns can overpower skepticism of China. Overall, it appears that China’s media influence in South Africa is relatively limited in its impact, and has decreased in effectiveness in the past three years.

Negative perceptions of China have led to problematic pushback against members of the Chinese community in South Africa by the public. Notable examples include the wave of nationalistic commentary that followed the appointment of Chinese-South African Dr. Xiaomei Havard as a Member of Parliament for the ANC in January 2021. The hashtags #NoChineseinSAPaliarment (sic) and #SARejectsXiaomeiHavard generated significant discussion, much of it focused solely on the fact that Havard was born in China and unrelated to any evidence of potential malicious influence activities on her part.

header6 Future trajectory

The following are key areas to watch for related to Beijing’s media influence in South Africa:

  • The evolution of ANC-CCP relations: Whether the relationship will expand CCP training programs for South African officials to fields such as media, propaganda, communications, managing dissent; the extent to which authoritarian media governance tactics are adopted by the ANC; and whether the changing political environment will lead China to diversify its public outreach to beyond the political and business elite.
  • Civil society responses to Chinese influence: Increasingly vocal responses by South African civil society to Chinese activities in South Africa and throughout Africa more broadly, notably in terms of environmental impact and integration with China, and how that affects the media environment and public perceptions of Chinese state influence.
  • Role of Independent Media: How Independent Media’s role as the most prominent platform for uncritical reporting on China in South Africa affects public discourse, and relatedly, developments in Naspers’ coverage given its investment in Tencent.
  • Financial troubles in media: Whether financial troubles brought on by COVID-19 will provide more opportunities for Chinese media—either in the print media industry or via the growth of StarTimes and its cheap television package offerings in Africa.

On South Africa

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  • Global Freedom Score

    79 100 free
  • Internet Freedom Score

    73 100 free