- 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 State media and diplomatic accounts do not publish in languages other than English and Chinese, despite the fact that approximately 83 percent of South Africans do not speak either language as a first language.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).
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
- 1Score of 79/100 (0 worst, 100 best). Full methodology and explanation here: Freedom House, “South Africa,” in Freedom in the World, 2022, https://freedomhouse.org/country/south-africa/freedom-world/2022.
- 2Score of 73/100 (0 worst, 100 best). Full methodology and explanation here: Freedom House, “South Africa,” in Freedom on the Net, 2021, https://freedomhouse.org/country/south-africa/freedom-net/2021.
- 3South Africa scores a 3 out of 4 in Freedom House’s free media metric. Full methodology and explanation here: Freedom House, “South Africa,” in Freedom in the World, 2022, https://freedomhouse.org/country/south-africa/freedom-world/2022.
- 4Circulation of daily newspapers is down on average by 40 percent from Q2 of 2020 to 2021. Chris Roper, “South Africa,” in 2021 Digital News Report, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, 2021, https://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/digital-news-report/2021/sou…; Herman Wasserman, “The State of South African Media: a Space to Contest Democracy, Publizistik 65 (August 2020): 451-465, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11616-020-00594-4; “The Terrifying Collapse of Newspapers is Here,” Moneyweb, February 15, 2021, https://www.moneyweb.co.za/news/south-africa/the-terrifying-collapse-of….
- 5Chris Roper, “South Africa,” in 2021 Digital News Report, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, 2021, https://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/digital-news-report/2021/sou….
- 6Karabo Mafolo, “The ANC’s Decline Isn’t Tragic — It’s Normal, Says Political Analyst Ralph Mathekga,” Daily Maverick, August 11, 2021, https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2021-08-11-the-ancs-decline-isn…; Freedom House, “South Africa,” Freedom in the World, 2022, https://freedomhouse.org/country/south-africa/freedom-world/2022.
- 7Television is used for news by 86 percent of the population on a weekly basis and nearly 80 percent used radio. English speakers, which represent the more affluent and educated portion of the South African population, 74 percent accessed news through TV on a weekly basis but only a third used radio. See, Afrobarometer, Summary of Results for South Africa, 2021, https://afrobarometer.org/sites/default/files/publications/Summary of results/summary_of_results-south_africa_r8_26nov21.pdf; Chris Roper, “South Africa,” in 2021 Digital News Report, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, 2021, https://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/digital-news-report/2021/sou….
- 8Marketing Research Foundation, “MAPS Data Overview: Waves 1&2,” October 2021, https://mrfsa.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/MAPS-C1-C4-Presentation….
- 9South Africa National Editors’ Forum, “Inquiry into Media Ethics and Credibility,” 2021, https://sanef.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/Satchwell-Report.pdf.
- 10Herman Wasserman, “The State of South African Media: A Space to Contest Democracy, Publizistik 65 (August 2020): 451-465, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11616-020-00594-4.
- 11Naspers plays an especially large role, with its news business Media24 serving as an umbrella for a wide range of newspapers, magazines, and online news platforms, and its digital subscription service Multichoice dominating the paid television market. See Herman Wasserman, “The State of South African Media: A Space to Contest Democracy, Publizistik 65 (August 2020): 451-465, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11616-020-00594-4.
- 12“The Biggest and Most Popular Social Media Platforms in South Africa, Including TikTok,” BusinessTech, July 1, 2021, https://businesstech.co.za/news/internet/502583/the-biggest-and-most-po….
- 13“The Biggest and Most Popular Social Media Platforms in South Africa, Including TikTok,” BusinessTech, July 1, 2021, https://businesstech.co.za/news/internet/502583/the-biggest-and-most-po….
- 1429 percent of English speakers surveyed distrust social media: Chris Roper, “South Africa,” in 2021 Digital News Report, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, 2021, https://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/digital-news-report/2021/sou…. A more nationally representative survey conducted between May 2 and June 12, 2021 reveals that 73 percent of South Africans view social media users as “sometimes” or “often” intentionally spreading false information: Afrobarometer, Summary of Results for South Africa, 2021, https://afrobarometer.org/sites/default/files/publications/Summary of results/summary_of_results-south_africa_r8_26nov21.pdf.
- 15“South Africa Invited To Join BRIC Group,” Reuters, December 24, 2010, https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-bric-safrica/south-africa-invited-to….
- 16Kenny Chiu, “South Africa And China: Co-Building The Belt And Road,” China Business Law Journal, October 11, 2018, https://law.asia/south-africa-and-china-co-building-the-belt-and-road/.
- 17South Africa Government News, “Africa, China Business Leaders Sign Billions in Investments,” AllAfrica, December 5, 2015, https://allafrica.com/stories/201512050161.html.
- 18Matuma Letsoalo, Dineo Bendile, and Tebogo Tshwane, “China Gifts SA with R370bn,” Mail and Guardian, September 14, 2018, https://mg.co.za/article/2018-09-14-00-china-gifts-sa-with-r370bn/ ; Ross Anthony, “China’s R370bn ‘Gift’ Demands Scrutiny,” Mail & Guardian, September 17, 2018, https://mg.co.za/article/2018-09-17-chinas-r370bn-gift-demands-scrutiny/.
- 19World Integrated Trade Solutions, “Trade Summary for South Africa,” accessed April 8, 2022, https://wits.worldbank.org/CountrySnapshot/en/ZAF.
- 20China-Africa Research Initiative, “Data: Chinese Investment in Africa,” accessed April 8, 2022, http://www.sais-cari.org/chinese-investment-in-africa.
- 21Some recent controversies include the Chinese Railway Rolling Stock Corporation’s alleged unaccountability in South Africa and the solar energy investments by the Chinese company Hisense in South Africa. See Dani Madrid-Morales & Herman Wasserman, “Chinese Media Engagement in South Africa,” Journalism Studies 19, no. 8 (2018): 1218-1235.
- 22Lina Benabdallah, “Power or Influence? Making Sense of China’s Evolving Party-to-Party Diplomacy in Africa,” African Studies Quarterly 19, no. 3-4 (October 2020): 94-114.
- 23Associated Press, “Dalai Lama Denied South Africa Visa for Nobel Summit,” The Guardian, September 4, 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/sep/04/dalai-lama-denied-south-a….
- 24Yoon Jung Park and Anna Ying Chen, “Recent Chinese Migrants in Small Towns of Post-Apartheid South Africa,” Revue Européenne des Migrations Internationales [European Journal of International Migration] 25, no.2 (2009): 25, https://journals.openedition.org/remi/4878. Other estimates range from 250,000 to 500,000; see Yoon Park, “Living In Between: The Chinese in South Africa,” Migration Policy Institute, January 4, 2012, https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/living-between-chinese-south-af….
Propaganda and promotion of favored 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
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
- 1Chen Xiaodong, “China and Africa are Marching Forward Hand in Hand on the Road to Modernisation,” Independent Online, January 21, 2021, https://www.iol.co.za/news/opinion/china-and-africa-are-marching-forwar….
- 2Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the Republic of South Africa, “Remarks by Ambassador Chen Xiaodong at Webinar: “FOCAC: Mapping China-Africa Relations Post-COVID,” December 8, 2021, http://za.china-embassy.gov.cn/eng/dsxx/dsjh/202112/t20211208_10464212….
- 3African News Agency, “China Ready, Willing To Provide Much-Needed Covid-19 Vaccines To SA,” Independent Online, March 25, 2021, https://www.iol.co.za/pretoria-news/news/china-ready-willing-to-provide….
- 4Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the Republic of South Africa, “Remarks by H.E. Amb.Lin Songtian of China to South Africa at the Reception in Celebration of the Chinese New Year,” February 11, 2019, https://www.mfa.gov.cn/ce/cezanew/eng/sgxw/t1636807.htm; Chris Makhaye, “US Jealousy Sparked Trade Wars, Says Chinese Ambassador,” Business Day, May 21, 2019, https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/economy/2019-05-20-us-jealousy-sparke….
- 5In November 2020 Chinese Ambassador Chen Xiaodong described Xi Jinping's book as the “golden key” to better understand and interpret China's development story and said that China's success lay in the leadership commitment of the CPC. Pretoria News, “Xi's Book is 'Golden Key' to Understanding China's Success,” Independent Online, November 25, 2020, https://www.iol.co.za/pretoria-news/opinion/president-xi-jinpings-book-….
- 6Chinese Ambassador Chen Xiaodong (@ChinaAmbSA), “The US has exported chaos & disaster to the world in the name of democracy through the following 4 ways: infiltration & subversion, fanning turbulence & chaos, willfully imposing economic coercion, waging wars of aggression,” Twitter, December 22, 2021, https://twitter.com/ChinaAmbSA/status/1473565072492486656.
- 7Only 8.4 percent speak it at home, whereas 16.6 speak it outside of the home. See, “These are the Most Spoken Languages in South Africa,” Business Tech, November 18, 2015, https://businesstech.co.za/news/trending/104497/the-most-spoken-languag… and Saifaddin Galal, “Distribution Of Languages Spoken By Individuals Inside And Outside Of Households In South Africa 2018,” Statista, June 15, 2022, https://www.statista.com/statistics/1114302/distribution-of-languages-s….
- 8Paul Trewhela, “China-ANC Alliance a Threat to Media Freedom in SA,” Politics Web, March 12, 2014, https://www.politicsweb.co.za/opinion/chinaanc-alliance-a-threat-to-med….
- 9Peter Wonacott, “South African Businessman Enters Publishing With Chinese Help”, Wall Street Journal, August 21, 2013, https://www.wsj.com/articles/south-african-businessman-enters-publishin….
- 10African News Agency, “Sekunjalo Wins Sapa Assets,” Independent Online, March 13, 2015, https://www.iol.co.za/business-report/companies/sekunjalo-wins-sapa-ass….
- 11Example: Xinhua, “Survé Calls For BRICS Media To Work Together To Address Poverty, Covid-19 Challenges” Independent Online, December 2, 2020, https://www.iol.co.za/business-report/brics/surve-calls-for-brics-media…. See a full list at “Xinhua,” Independent Online, accessed August 1, 2022, https://www.iol.co.za/authors/xinhua.
- 12Dipanjan Roy Chaudhury, “Chinese Influence on African Media: Challenges for Continent’s Democracies,” Economic Times, December 11, 2021, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/international/world-news/chin….
- 13African News Agency, “Top Honour for Survé in China,” Independent Online, April 24, 2019, https://www.iol.co.za/business-report/companies/top-honour-for-surve-in….
- 14Joniyasi Maromo, “Dr Survé Says Independent Media and ANA Will Tell the Story of China’s Rise,” Independent Online, June 21, 2021, https://www.iol.co.za/news/south-africa/dr-surve-says-independent-media….
- 15Independent Media has 14 major newspapers and 13 community papers. Based on a rudimentary content analysis, its non-English language papers rarely cover China. In terms of coverage in other languages, there are occasionally exceptions to its positive coverage of China, such as with The Star, which chose to publish a piece calling for more action in Xinjiang from a reader, but then published a critical response to the reader comment days later. See “Stop China From Violating Minorities’ Rights,” The Star, October 8, 2019; and Zheng Yi, “The Ethnic Minorities in Xinjiang Fully Enjoy Stability, Prosperity and Religious Freedom,” The Star, October 15, 2019, https://www.pressreader.com/south-africa/the-star-south-africa-early-ed….
- 16Articles appear most frequently on digital platform IOL – see for example Chen Xiaodong, “Leading the Tide of Unity and Progress, Uniting the Forces of Global Development,” Independent Online, September 28, 2021, https://www.iol.co.za/news/opinion/leading-the-tide-of-unity-and-progre…; Chen Xiaodong, “Why China is Strengthening its Regulation of Tech Multinationals,” Business Day, August 23, 2021, https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/2021-08-23-more-robust-regula…; and Chen Xiaodong, “Building on an Extraordinary 50 Years, Creating Great Glories,” Independent Online, October 28, 2021, https://www.iol.co.za/news/politics/opinion/building-on-an-extraordinar…. On The Star: Consulate-General of the People’s Republic of China in Johannesburg, “Consul General Tang Zhongdong Published Signed Article to Warmly Celebrate the 72nd Anniversary of the Founding of the People's Republic of China,” October 10, 2021, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/ce/cgjb/eng/zxxx/t1912087.htm.
- 17David Monyae, “Africa Could Learn a lot From China,” Independent Online, March 13, 2019, https://www.iol.co.za/news/opinion/africa-could-learn-a-lot-from-china-…; David Monyae and Emmanuel Matambo, “Communist Party’s Policies Should be Studied,” Weekend Argus, March 13, 2021, https://www.pressreader.com/south-africa/weekend-argus-saturday-edition….
- 18Shannon Ebrahim, “Investigation of US Labs Necessary In Pursuit Of Covid Origins,” Independent Online, September 2, 2021, https://www.iol.co.za/news/politics/opinion/investigation-of-us-labs-ne….
- 19Interview with Independent Media freelancer, November 24, 2021.
- 20Since 2014, the Chinese government has increased efforts in providing training to foreign journalists, largely from Africa and Asia. Andrew McCormick, “Even if You Don’t Think You Have a Relationship With China, China Has a Relationship With you,” Columbia Journalism Review, June 20, 2019, https://www.cjr.org/special_report/china-foreign-journalists-oral-histo….
- 21Wendyl Martin, “Hong Kong Isn't Broken, Don't Fix It, says Chinese Party Spokesperson,” Weekend Argus, November 24, 2019. For a collection of Wendyl Martin’s articles on China see https://muckrack.com/wendyl-martin/articles.
- 22China Plus, “Wendyl Martin is Doing a Walkabout Around Beijing’s Favourite Art Area,” Facebook, August 7, 2019, https://www.facebook.com/chinaplussa/videos/522067118566958.
- 23Wendyl Martin, “Reflections on a Stimulating Year in China Where I Learned so Much,” Weekend Argus, December 15, 2019, https://www.pressreader.com/south-africa/weekend-argus-sunday-edition/2….
- 24“South Africa Online,” IAB South Africa, September 2021, https://www.iabsa.net/assets/Usedebbieiabsanet/Narratiive_stats,_insigh….
- 25Chris Roper, “South Africa,” 2021 Digital News Report, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, 2021, https://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/digital-news-report/2021/sou….
- 26The Independent Panel Report Inquiry into Media Ethics and Credibility (Satchwell Report) commissioned by the South African National Editors’ Forum in 2021 stated that “everyone to whom the Panel spoke, within and outside the community of journalism, deplored the ‘cronyism’ of the Independent Group,” and included many more negative appraisals of Survé and Independent Media, particularly since 2016. See Kathleen Satchwell, Nikiwe Bikitsha, Rich Mkhondo, “Inquiry into Media Ethics and Credibility,” South African National Editors’ Forum, April 2021, https://sanef.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/Satchwell-Report.pdf.
- 27Chris Roper, “South Africa,” 2021 Digital News Report, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, 2021, https://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/digital-news-report/2021/sou….
- 28“South Africa’s Mpumalanga Province to Boast World’s Highest Skywalk,” CGTN, October 2, 2021, https://news.cgtn.com/news/2021-10-02/South-Africa-s-Mpumalanga-provinc…; Robert Laurence Kuhn, “China’s Poverty Alleviation Accomplishments is a Developmental Miracle,” Independent Online, May 19, 2021, https://www.iol.co.za/business-report/ending-poverty-in-china/features/….
- 29Interview with China Daily’s Johannesburg distributor, 2021.
- 30Dani Madrid-Morales, Deniz Börekci, Dieter Löffler, and Anna Birkevich. “It Is About Their Story: How China, Turkey, and Russia Influence the Media in Africa,” Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, 2021, https://www.kas.de/documents/285576/0/How+China,+Turkey+and+Russia+infl….
- 31“派驻国 (境) 外分支机构 [Xinhua Branches Abroad],” Xinhua, accessed December 1, 2021, http://www.xinhuanet.com/xhsld/2021-02/09/c_1211019859.htm. Archived at https://archive.ph/c1N7B#selection-323.1-328.0.
- 32People's Daily Online SA, Facebook account, accessed December 15, 2021, https://www.facebook.com/Peoples-Daily-Online-SA-407987579257181; China Plus South Africa, Facebook account, accessed December 15, 2021, https://www.facebook.com/chinaplussa.
- 33Based on a review of People’s Daily Facebook page conducted on January 1, 2022, at least half of the visible engagement on every post is from an account with a Vietnamese name with approximately 50-100 other Vietnamese friends. The public posts on these accounts receive no engagement from other accounts.
- 34Zanele Buthelezi, LinkedIn account, accessed December 1, 2021, https://www.linkedin.com/in/zanele-buthelezi-5591a013b/?originalSubdoma….
- 35“Zanele Buthelezi’s Xinjiang Journal,” China Plus, accessed December 1, 2021, http://chinaplus.cri.cn/zt/Zanele-Buthelezi-Xinjiang-Journal/index.html. Archived at https://archive.ph/SR5wA.
- 36Publications have appeared in Independent Media outlets like Cape Times and IOL, and also Business Day.
- 37Cobus Van Staden, “Ambassador Lin Songtian’s Recall Signals Shifts Ahead In China-Africa Relationship,” Daily Maverick, March 30, 2020, https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/opinionista/2020-03-30-ambassador-lin-s….
- 38Meeting between local analyst and Chinese Johannesburg consulate-general officials at Wits University, January 14, 2020,
- 39Chinese Consulate General in Johannesburg (@ChnConsulateJhb), Twitter account, accessed December 15, 2021, https://twitter.com/chnconsulatejhb.
- 40Lin Jing 林静 (@CGCHINA_CPT), Twitter account, accessed December 15, 2021, https://twitter.com/CGCHINA_CPT.
- 41Examples from before coverage period: “Chinese Ambassador Briefs SA on Communist Party’s National Congress,” Sunday Times, November 27, 2021, https://www.timeslive.co.za/news/south-africa/2017-11-27-chinese-ambass…; “China-South Africa Student Dialogue Held in Capetown,” Sunday Times, September 5, 2017, https://www.timeslive.co.za/news/south-africa/2017-09-05-china-south-af….
- 42Eric Olander, “Leading South African Financial Newspaper Gets Called Out for Publishing Chinese Propaganda, China Africa Project, November 5, 2019, https://chinaafricaproject.com/2019/11/05/leading-south-african-financi….
- 43Abby Makoe, “President Ramaphosa Praises CCP for its Role in Fostering Global Peace,” SABC News, July 6, 2021, https://www.sabcnews.com/sabcnews/president-ramaphosa-praises-communist…; Nonkululeko Njilo, “We Will Follow Your Footsteps in Cleaning Up ANC, Mashatile Tells Chinese Communist Party,” Business Day, June 21, 2021, https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/politics/2021-06-21-we-will-follow-yo….
- 44Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the Republic of South Africa “The High-level Dialogue on ‘Celebrating the Century of the CPC’ Successfully Held in South Africa,” June 22, 2021, https://www.mfa.gov.cn/ce/cezanew/eng/zt/t1885806.htm/.
- 45Floyd Shivambu, “The EFF Draws Lessons From the Communist Party of China,” Independent Online, July 4, 2021, https://www.iol.co.za/sundayindependent/analysis/the-eff-draws-lessons-….
- 46Eric Olander, “China’s Ambassador to South Africa is Putting Himself in the Middle of the COVID Origin Dispute With the U.S.,” China Africa Project, August 31, 2021, https://chinaafricaproject.com/2021/08/31/chinas-ambassador-to-south-af…; “Ambassador Chen Xiaodong Hosts Press Briefing on COVID-19 Origin-tracing,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, August 31, 2021, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/wjb_663304/zwjg_665342/zwbd_665378/202….
- 47Within China’s state network on Twitter, the most referenced accounts belonged to China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its spokespeople, as well as state outlets like the People’s Daily, CGTN, China Daily, and Xinhua, with the most active amplifiers being diplomats. See Erika Kinetz, “Army of Fake Fans Boosts China’s Messaging on Twitter,” AP News, May 28, 2021, https://apnews.com/article/asia-pacific-china-europe-middle-east-govern…
- 48See Propaganda section for discussion of Vietnamese-language bots.
- 49“Responses of the Spokesperson of the Chinese Embassy in South Africa to China-related Report on Business Day,” Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the Republic of South Africa, March 2, 2021, http://za.china-embassy.org/eng/sgxw/202103/t20210302_9933644.htm [https://archive.ph/wip/ieXPT].
- 50“Letter: Chinese Embassy Opposes Report on Covid Origin,” Business Day, March 30, 2021, https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/letters/2021-03-30-letter-chi….
- 51Ross Anthony, “African Universities Need Their Own China Expertise,” University World News, September 21, 2018, https://www.universityworldnews.com/post.php?story=2018091712562488 .
- 52Interview with Ross Anthony, former director of University of Stellenbosch Center for China Studies, November 29, 2021. See Anthony’s article: Ross Anthony, “China’s R370bn ‘Gift’ Demands Scrutiny,” Mail & Guardian, September 17, 2018, https://mg.co.za/article/2018-09-17-chinas-r370bn-gift-demands-scrutiny/.
- 53Interview with Ross Anthony, former director of University of Stellenbosch Center for China Studies, November 29, 2021. See Anthony’s article: Ross Anthony, “African Universities Need Their Own China Expertise,” University World News, September 21, 2018, https://www.universityworldnews.com/post.php?story=2018091712562488/.
- 54Gavin du Venage, “Why a $200bn Stake in Tencent is a Problem for South Africa’s Naspers,” The National, September 25, 2021, https://www.thenationalnews.com/business/technology/2021/09/26/why-a-20….
- 55The Centre for Chinese Studies at Stellenbosch University, accessed June 20, 2022, http://www0.sun.ac.za/ccs/.
- 56Reporters Without Borders, “South Africa: Journalist Loses Column After Publishing an Article Critical of China,” updated September 21, 2018, https://rsf.org/en/news/south-africa-journalist-loses-column-after-publ….
- 57Based on observation by local analyst in Johannesburg, 2021.
- 58Interview with Independent Media freelancer, November 24, 2021.
- 59Dani Madrid-Morales, “StarTimes: China’s Biggest Player in the African Media Landscape,” Dani Madrid-Morales Blog, April 20, 2018, http://danimadrid.net/blog/startimes_chinas_biggest_plaeyer_in_african_….
- 60Eric Olander, “China’s StarTimes is Now One of Africa’s Most Important Media Companies,” Medium, August 26, 2017, https://medium.com/@eolander/chinas-startimes-is-now-one-of-africa-s-mo….
- 61Eric Olander, “China’s StarTimes is Now One of Africa’s Most Important Media Companies,” Medium, August 26, 2017, https://medium.com/@eolander/chinas-startimes-is-now-one-of-africa-s-mo….
- 62Since 2016, StarTimes has organized dubbing contests, including Zulu dubs, with winners of such contests offered jobs in Beijing. Example of Facebook ad enticing Zulu speakers to translate for StarTimes: https://b-m.facebook.com/STSinoDrama/photos/a.237422559933245/113834766…. There does not appear to be Zulu-dubbed Chinese programming yet.
- 63Eric Olander, “China’s StarTimes is Now One of Africa’s Most Important Media Companies,” Medium, August 26, 2017, https://medium.com/@eolander/chinas-startimes-is-now-one-of-africa-s-mo….
- 64S. O’Dea, “Leading Pay TV Operators in Africa 2019-2025,” Statista, December 6, 2021, https://www.statista.com/statistics/506996/leading-pay-tv-providers-sub…. There is no specific data for South Africa.
- 65“StarSat Packages,” StarSat, accessed April 11, 2021, https://starsat.co.za/packages/.
- 66Techloy, “The Biggest Pay TV Operators in Africa by Subscribers,” Medium, January 14, 2020, https://medium.com/techloy/the-biggest-pay-tv-operators-in-africa-by-su….
- 67Simon Kemp, “Digital 2021: South Africa,” DataReportal, February 11, 2021, https://datareportal.com/reports/digital-2021-south-africa/.
- 68Isobel Asher Hamilton, “A Senior TikTok Executive Admitted the Company Used to Censor Content Critical of China, ‘Specifically with Regard to the Uighur Situation’,” Business Insider, November 5, 2020, https://www.businessinsider.com/tiktok-censor-china-critical-content-ui….
- 69Emily Baker-White, “Leaked Audio From 80 Internal TikTok Meetings Shows That US User Data Has Been Repeatedly Accessed From China,” Buzzfeed News, June 17, 2022, https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/emilybakerwhite/tiktok-tapes-us-us….
- 70Madeline Earp, “How China’s Huawei Technology is Being Used to Censor News Halfway Across the World,” Committee to Protect Journalists, November 23, 2021, https://cpj.org/2021/11/how-chinas-huawei-technology-is-being-used-to-c…; S. O’Dea, “Mobile Vendor Market Share in South Africa 2019-2021, by Month,” Statista, July 29, 2021, https://www.statista.com/statistics/980075/market-share-held-by-mobile-…; Heidi Swart, “SA Network Operators Are Reliant On Huawei 5G Products That Are Deemed ‘Critically Vulnerable’” Daily Maverick, December 7, 2020, https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2020-12-07-sa-network-operators….
- 71Caiphus Kgosana, “ANC Looks to China for Election Strategy and Tactics,” Sunday Times, July 29, 2018, https://www.timeslive.co.za/news/2018-07-28-anc-looks-to-china-for-elec….
- 72Caiphus Kgosana, “ANC Looks to China for Election Strategy and Tactics,” Sunday Times, July 29, 2018, https://www.timeslive.co.za/news/2018-07-28-anc-looks-to-china-for-elec….
- 73Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, “Muthambi Wants Positive SA, China Coverage,” IT Web, July 27, 2015, https://www.itweb.co.za/content/3mYZRX79AbK7OgA8/.
- 74“What We Learned From China: SA Communications Minister,” Business Tech, July 27, 2015, https://businesstech.co.za/news/government/94203/what-we-learned-from-c….
- 75In recent years, the Chinese government has increasingly blurred the lines between Chinese nationals overseas and foreigners of Chinese descent. See Teresita Ang See and Carmela Ang See, “The Rise of China, New Immigrants and Changing Policies on Chinese Overseas: Impact on the Philippines,” Southeast Asian Affairs (2019): 275-294, https://www.jstor.org/stable/26939700.
- 76Examples include Sherry Chen in the Democratic Alliance (DA), Michael Sun in Johannesburg municipal politics, and Xiaomei Havard as a member of parliament.
- 77African Times was established in 2005 as an independent South African Chinese news agency and newspaper dedicated to covering South Africa’s Chinese community. The outlet employs a small number of full-time journalists and has extensive coverage of local and international news. 非洲时报 (Feizhoushibao), accessed August 18, 2022, http://africantimes2005.com/..
- 78南非华侨新闻报 (Huaqiaoxinwenbao), also translated to “China Express,” http://news.sina.com.cn/c/p/2006-05-15/10479865081.shtml, accessed August 18, 2021. The online version: Africa Eye News, accessed August 18, 2021, http://www.africaeyenews.com/.
- 79非洲华侨周报 (Feizhouhuaqiaozhoubao), accessed August 18, 2021, https://www.qiaowang.org/ ; The Africa Oriental Post, Facebook account, accessed August 18, 2021, https://www.facebook.com/%E9%9D%9E%E6%B4%B2%E8%8F%AF%E5%83%91%E9%80%B1%…
- 80Based on observation by local analyst in Johannesburg, 2021.
- 81Based on content analysis conducted by Freedom House in January 2022.
- 82“多视角展现新疆真相 总台涉疆报道引发国际舆论关注 [Truth of Xinjiang revealed from multiple perspectives, official reports attract international attention],” April 19, 2021, NetEase, https://www.163.com/dy/article/%20G7VTGHJV05129QAF.html/.
- 83Interview with South Africa-based Chinese journalists, 2020.
- 84The accounts reviewed were: 非洲华媒, 中非在线, 非常南非, 南非华人网, 非洲侨讯, 非洲时报, 南非侨网, 直通非洲.
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.
- 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.
- 1“Taco Kuiper Award for Investigative Journalism: Previous Winners,” accessed December 21, 2021, https://journalism.co.za/tacokuiper/previouswinners/.
- 2Press Council of South Africa, “Press Code of Ethics and Conduct for South African Print and Online Media,” January 1, 2020, https://presscouncil.org.za/ContentPage?code=PRESSCODE/; Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa, “BCCSA Free-to-Air Code of Conduct for Broadcasting Service Licensees 2009,” https://bccsa.co.za/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/BCCSA_Broadcasting_Code_….
- 3Republic of South Africa, Electronic Communications Act, 2005, Government Gazette, April 18, 2006, https://www.gov.za/sites/default/files/gcis_document/201409/a36-050.pdf.
- 4Z-Coms, “Trends of Ownership and Control of Media in South Africa,” Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA), 2009, https://2fd91090-9250-431b-b088-80446da9d081.filesusr.com/ugd/f97c7f_9f….
- 5United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), “South Africa Introduces a Screening Mechanism of Foreign Investment,” February 14, 2019, https://investmentpolicy.unctad.org/investment-policy-monitor/measures/….
- 6Xolani Nyali and Lital Avivi, “Merger Control in South Africa: Overview,” Thomson Reuters Practical Law, February 1, 2022, https://uk.practicallaw.thomsonreuters.com/2-504-5969?transitionType=De….
- 7Republic of South Africa, Electronic Communications Act, 2005, Government Gazette, April 18, 2006, https://www.gov.za/sites/default/files/gcis_document/201409/a36-050.pdf.
- 8Republic of South Africa, Electronic Communications Act, 2005, Government Gazette, April 18, 2006, https://www.gov.za/sites/default/files/gcis_document/201409/a36-050.pdf.
- 9The King Report is a list of management best practices and recommendations mandatory for all publicly traded businesses on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (Naspers is one such company). See Z-Coms, “Trends of Ownership and Control of Media in South Africa,” Media Development and Diversity Agency, June 15, 2009, https://2fd91090-9250-431b-b08880446da9d081.filesusr.com/ugd/f97c7f_9f0….
- 10Francois Joubert, Julia Rushton, and Onalerona Phiri, “SLAPP Defence Recognised for the First Time in South African Legal History by Western Cape High Court,” Fasken, February 17, 2021, https://www.fasken.com/en/knowledge/2021/02/17-slapp-defence-recognised…; Danisha Naidu et al., “South African Perspective on ‘SLAPP’ Suits,” Schindlers, March 25, 2021, https://www.schindlers.co.za/news/a-south-african-perspective-on-slapp-….
- 11Media Monitoring Africa, “Search Results for: disinformation,” accessed December 22, 2021, https://mediamonitoringafrica.org/?s=disinformation.
- 12South African Government, “Electoral Commission on Multi-stakeholder Partnerships to Combat Disinformation in 2021 Municipal Elections,” October 19, 2021, https://www.gov.za/speeches/electoral-commission-multi-stakeholder-part….
- 13Toby Shapshak, "Facebook To Be Summonsed Before South Africa’s Parliament Over ‘Harmful Misinformation’," Forbes, May 12, 2021, https://www.forbes.com/sites/tobyshapshak/2021/05/12/facebook-to-be-sum…; Chris Roper, "Digital News Report: South Africa," Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, June 23, 2021, https://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/digital-news-report/2021/sou….
- 14SANEF, “About Us,” accessed April 11, 2022, https://sanef.org.za/about-us/; “Institute for the Advancement of Journalism,” Facebook account, accessed December 21, 2021, https://www.facebook.com/IAJ1992/.
- 15“Meet eNCA’s Managing Editor,” eNCA, February 18, 2021, accessed April 11, 2022, https://www.enca.com/press-release/meet-encas-managing-editor/; Simon Allison, “Fixing China’s Image, One African Student At A Time,” Africa China Reporting Project, June 7, 2013, https://africachinareporting.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Trailblazer….
- 16Kevin Bloom and Richard Poplak, Continental Shift: A Journey into Africa’s Changing Fortunes (Portobello Books Ltd., 2016).
- 17University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, “#GuptaLeaks Team Wins SA’s Biggest Journalism Award,” March 19, 2018, https://www.wits.ac.za/news/latest-news/general-news/2018/2018-03/gupta…; amaBunghane and Scorpio, "#Guptaleaks: A Third Gupta-Transnet 'Kickback' Contract Unearthed," Mail and Guardian, September 18, 2017, https://mg.co.za/article/2017-09-18-guptaleaks-a-third-gupta-transnet-k….
- 18Paul Trewhela, “China-ANC Alliance a Threat to Media Freedom in SA,” Politics Web, March 12, 2014, https://www.politicsweb.co.za/opinion/chinaanc-alliance-a-threat-to-med…; Geoffrey York, “Why China is Making a Big Play to Control Africa’s Media,” Globe and Mail, September 11, 2013, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/media-agenda-china-buys-news….
- 19Simon Allison, “Tencent, WeChat and Chinese Censorship: Does Naspers Have a Free Speech Problem?” Daily Maverick, November 20, 2014, https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2014-11-20-tencent-wechat-and-c…; Azad Essa, “China Is Buying African Media’s Silence,” Foreign Policy, September 14, 2018, https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/09/14/china-is-buying-african-medias-sil….
- 20Tiara Walters, “China in Africa: Unpacking ‘Crimes’ Against the Earth,” Daily Maverick, August 16, 2021, https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2021-08-16-china-in-africa-unpa…; Kevin Bloom, “China’s ‘Belt and Road’: the Noose Around Africa’s Neck,” Daily Maverick, November 29, 2018, https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2018-11-29-chinas-belt-and-road….
- 21Herman Wasserman, “China's ‘Soft Power’ and Its Influence on Editorial Agendas in South Africa,” Chinese Journal of Communication 9, no. 1 (June 2015): 8-20, https://doi.org/10.1080/17544750.2015.1049953. A follow-up survey in 2017–featuring both journalists that regularly consume Chinese media and those that do not–confirmed the 2015 findings. See Dani Madrid-Morales & Herman Wasserman, “Chinese Media Engagement in South Africa,” Journalism Studies 19, no. 8 (2018): 1218-1235.
- 22Interview with researcher who wishes to remain anonymous, December 2021.
- 23According to the latest Afrobarometer survey conducted between, 64.5 percent of the South African population believe that the media should have the right to publish any views and ideas without government control. See Afrobarometer, “Summary of Results: Afrobarometer Round 8 Survey in South Africa, 2021,” November 2021, https://afrobarometer.org/sites/default/files/publications/Summary%20of…
- 24Dani Madrid-Morales and Herman Wasserman, “What Motivates the Sharing of Misinformation About China and Covid-19? A Study of Social Media Users in Kenya and South Africa,” Disinfo Africa, March 19, 2021, https://disinfoafrica.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/What-Motivates-The….
- 25“To describe this propaganda as ‘advertorial’ is to mislead your readers. ‘Advertorial’ implies editorial input; while extolling a product or service it offers a certain amount of objectivity too. By no stretch of the imagination do these Chinese efforts to expand the reach and influence of China in vulnerable parts of the world such as Africa meet these standards. See “China Ads Wrongly Tagged,” Business Day, November 5, 2019.
- 26Dani Madrid-Morales and Herman Wasserman, “An Audience Analysis of China’s External Communication Activities in Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa,” China’s External Communication and Relationship Building in the 21st Century, September 12, 2020, http://danimadrid.net/research/2020_audience_analysis_chinas_external_c….
- 27Dani Madrid-Morales et al., How China, Turkey and Russia Influence the Media in Africa, Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, 2021, https://www.kas.de/documents/285576/0/How+China%2C+Turkey+and+Russia+in….
- 28Interview with Anton Harber, executive director of the Campaign for Free Expression in South Africa, November 24, 2021.
- 29See, Tevya Turok Shapiro, “How China and the US Spun the Covid-19 Narrative,” Daily Maverick, September 10, 2021, https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2021-09-10-this-weekend-were-wa…; LETTER: China’s Doublespeak,” Business Day, November 26, 2019, https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/letters/2020-11-26-letter-chi….
- 30Based on Freedom House review of IOL on January 1, 2022. See example: Reuters, “China Refused To Provide Raw Data on Early Covid Cases, Says Member of WHO Wuhan Probe Team,” Independent Online, February 13, 2021, https://www.iol.co.za/news/world/china-refused-to-provide-raw-data-on-e….
- 31The BBC in fact ranks first in trustworthiness in a survey of English readers based in South Africa. See Chris Roper, “South Africa,” in 2021 Digital News Report, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, 2021, https://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/digital-news-report/2021/sou….
- 32Independent Media, for example, publishes articles from the Washington Post, per a Freedom House review in January 2022. However, it appears that its China-related articles come from news agencies like Reuters.
- 33The South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA), “Country: China,” accessed April 11, 2022, https://saiia.org.za/country/china/.
- 34“Herman Wasserman’s research while affiliated with University of Cape Town and other places,” Research Gate, accessed April 11, 2022, https://www.researchgate.net/scientific-contributions/Herman-Wasserman-….
- 35Interview with Cobus van Staden, senior researcher at South African Institute of International Affairs, November 18, 2021.
- 36The book features nine local academics covering a wide range of topics from agriculture to the Chinese diaspora. See South Africa–China Relations: A Partnership of Paradoxes, ed. Chris Alden and Yu-Shan Wu (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021).
- 37Freedom House, “South Africa,” in Freedom in the World 2021, https://freedomhouse.org/country/south-africa/freedom-world/2021.
- 38Until the latest round of local elections, the ANC always won at least 50 percent of the vote; now it’s down to about 46 percent. See Nqobile Dludla and Alexander Winning, “South Africa's ANC Support Slides Further In Worst Election Result,” Reuters, November 5, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/anc-records-worst-poll-result-admi….
- 39Gavin Davis, “What Does Faith Muthambi Hope to Learn in China?” Politics Web, July 24, 2015, https://www.politicsweb.co.za/politics/what-does-faith-muthambi-hope-to….
- 40Phumzile Van Damme, “DA Demands Answers for SA’s UN Vote,” Politics Web, July 5, 2016, https://www.politicsweb.co.za/politics/da-demands-answers-for-sas-un-vo….
- 41Caiphus Kgosana, “ANC Seeks China’s Help to Win Votes,” Sunday Times, July 29. 2018, https://www.timeslive.co.za/sunday-times/news/2018-07-28-anc-seeks--chi….
- 42Lisa Thompson, “Final Rubber Stamp For The Musina-Makhado Special Economic Zone Travesty,” Mail & Guardian, March 1, 2022, https://mg.co.za/opinion/2022-03-01-final-rubber-stamp-for-the-musina-m….
- 43Nkateko Mabasa, “Protesters Demand China’s Xi Stop Cheap Labour Policies, India’s Modi Pull Out of Kashmir – and Ramaphosa go to Jail,” Daily Maverick, July 26, 2018, https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2018-07-26-protesters-demand-ch….
- 44Geoffrey York, “Why China Is Making A Big Play To Control Africa's Media,” The Globe and Mail, September 11, 2013, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/media-agenda-china-buys-news….
- 45South African Human Rights Commission, “Media Posts Inciting Violence Against Chinese to be Probed by Human Rights Commission,” February 17, 2017, https://sahrc.org.za/index.php/sahrc-media/news/item/553-media-posts-in….
- 46“SABC CEO Quits: ‘What is Happening at the SABC is Wrong’,” Business Tech, June 27, 2016, https://businesstech.co.za/news/government/128191/sabc-ceo-quits-what-i….
- 47Television news broadcaster eNCA, for example, has tended to be pro-ANC in their coverage, and more critical of left-wing groups like the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). Based on interview with Anton Harber, executive director of the Campaign for Free Expression in South Africa, November 24, 2021.
- 48Dani Madrid-Morales & Herman Wasserman, “Chinese Media Engagement in South Africa,” Journalism Studies 19, no. 8 (2018): 1218-1235.
- 49Interview with Anton Harber, executive director of the Campaign for Free Expression in South Africa, November 24, 2021.
- 50After becoming executive director of Independent Media in 2013, Iqbal Survé started dismissing senior staff such as Cape Times editor Alide Dasnois and terminating the columns of people like labor reporter Terry Bell. See Christi Van Der Westhuizen, “Independent News Becomes an Oxymoron in South Africa,” Index on Censorship, February 25, 2014, https://www.indexoncensorship.org/2014/02/independent-news-becomes-an-o….
- 51Examples: Sheng Bingbing, “Lessons Africa Should Learn From China,” Independent Online, September 20, 2020, https://www.iol.co.za/news/opinion/lessons-africa-should-learn-from-chi…; Londo Mncube, “Africans Should Seek to Emulate and Not Vilify China,” Sowetan Live, May 6, 2020, https://www.sowetanlive.co.za/opinion/columnists/2020-05-06-africans-sh….
- 52People’s Daily Online SA, Facebook account, accessed January 1, 2022, https://www.facebook.com/Peoples-Daily-Online-SA-407987579257181; AmbCHENXiaodong (@ChinaAmbSA), Twitter account, accessed January 1, 2022, https://twitter.com/ChinaAmbSA.
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.
- 1Afrobarometer found that South African respondents who considered the US as the best model for the future development of the country remained fairly steady, rising slightly from 36 percent in 2015 to 36.7 percent in 2021. See data for both China and the US here: Afrobarometer, “Summary of Results Afrobarometer Round 6 Survey in South Africa, 2015,” 2015, https://afrobarometer.org/sites/default/files/publications/Summary%20of… and Afrobarometer, “Summary of Results: Afrobarometer Round 8 Survey in South Africa, 2021,” 2021, https://afrobarometer.org/sites/default/files/publications/Summary of results/summary_of_results-south_africa_r8_26nov21.pdf.
- 2Dani Madrid-Morales and Herman Wasserman, “An Audience Analysis of China’s External Communication Activities in Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa,” in China’s External Communication and Relationship Building in the 21st Century, September 12, 2020, http://danimadrid.net/research/2020_audience_analysis_chinas_external_c….
- 3Keyword search on Twitter in December 2021.
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 Score79 100 free
Internet Freedom Score73 100 free