We’ve got to learn how to tell our mates from our Chinas
We’ll all look the other way when China makes demands that defy our view of ourselves as self-determined ... or will we?
For a few hours on the day before Nelson Mandela’s funeral, international heads of state were banging down at Waterkloof like Highveld hailstones. Whether we liked it or not.
A 2013 memo by the US Defense Intelligence Agency put a less meteorological, and more worrying, spin on the morning’s chaos: between 2am and 6am, it claimed, several aircraft “disregarded host nation guidance and proceeded to land at [Waterkloof] without landing clearance”.
And then the important part: “To not have to admit to allowing uncleared aircraft to land at the SAAF base‚ the South Africa Overflight office issued verbal landing clearance to [Waterkloof] as the uncleared aircraft touched down at Waterkloof.”
Of course this wasn’t the first time a dodgy arrival at Waterkloof had to be fudged to save face: earlier that year the Guptas had hijacked the airbase for a family wedding. (In retrospect, they really did show us exactly who they were, didn’t they?)
Now, older, slightly wiser, and substantially more gun-shy, we are listening to warnings that a third set of powerful visitors is en route and that our sovereignty might once again be trampled. China has “given” SA R370bn and commentators are rightly wondering about the shortness and tightness of the strings attached to that cash.
Some have even suggested that we are being stealthily colonised by China, citing instances where countries have lost chunks of territory to the People’s Republic after failing to honour debts.
I think these fears are unfounded. China is not going to colonise us. It is going to buy us, fair and square, using the age-old principle of willing buyer, desperate seller.
I’m also not sure what we’re talking about when we worry about sovereignty.
I know what we think we mean – that countries are independent entities with inviolable control over their resources and strategic infrastructure – but then I remember Waterkloof in 2013, and I wonder if sovereignty, instead of being commandments carved into granite, isn’t simply a series of temporary agreements between pragmatists.
For example: a military airbase is about as sovereign as it gets, but if five heads of state decide they’re landing without clearance, what are we going to do? Shoot them down? If Jacob Zuma’s paymasters decide they want to use it as the location of their pre-wedding drinks, are we going to scramble a Saab and turn them into festive, champagne-flavoured pink mist?
Of course not. We’re going to issue verbal clearances, blame low-level officials, and pass all sorts of bucks. Above all, we’re going to save face and avoid the terrible, unnameable fact of sovereignty that keeps nationalists in small, broke countries up at night: that the inviolability of national borders is entirely relative to who’s crossing them and why; and that if you are weak and your visitors are strong (or if you are corrupt and your visitors are rich) sovereignty simply means nodding and smiling as you follow your guests into any room or military installation or territory they want to explore.
If China gives us R370bn, and then, a few years later, leans on a provincial premier to open up local industry to Chinese workers, or quietly insists that a certain municipality would be better run by Chinese administrators, what, exactly, is the government going to do? Write a R370bn cheque to Beijing and tell them to shove it?
No. SA’s largest industry is unemployment and our most valuable export is young professionals. We need China’s money. And until you or I strike oil and make SA rich enough to be the master of its own destiny, we’ll all smile and nod and look in the other direction when China makes demands that rub up against our view of ourselves as self-determined and somehow existing outside a capitalist world based on debt.
Those heads of state were landing in 2013, whether we liked it or not. China will buy what it needs in Africa, whether we like or not. The transactions are inevitable. Which means our duty in next year’s elections becomes clear.
The ANC cannot be allowed to sell parts of SA unattended: we have to be in the room, too. That’s because the ANC is not only corrupt but fantastically cheap: all you have to do is show senior cadres a Beemer and a few bottles of Johnny Blue and they’ll sell their own mothers.
Which is why, when China slaps its money down on the counter, a weakened ANC must be flanked by more numerate, less venal sales staff representing opposition parties, making sure that it does not sell us for some plastic buttons and a night in a Dubai hotel.
He who pays the piper calls the tune. But if we’re going to dance, let’s at least try to make it worth our while.