"Is the political discipline in China a recipe for economic success?" So asks South African President Jacob Zuma, currently on an official visit to the Asian nation.
Is Zuma just being polite to his Chinese hosts? Or is he taking advantage of his visit to tweak the West's nose? Certainly African leaders do get tired of the conditions and lectures attached to Western aid compared to the typically unconditional offers from China. So a little teasing of Western donors is understandable. Or is it something more ominous?
South Africa is currently beleaguered by labour strife. Strikes by public service workers are paralyzing the nation's cities and half of the country's young black men are unemployed. The relationship between Zuma's African National Congress (ANC) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), an ally in the anti-apartheid struggle and a kingmaker within the ANC, has sunk to a serious low. Cosatu has threatened to shut down the economy if the government doesn't agree to an 8.6% wage increase and a 1,000 rand ($144) monthly housing allowance.
Is Zuma looking at these troubles and envying the "political discipline" that China applies to its workers? The Chinese government keeps working people in line by depriving them of the freedom to associate and form strong, independent labour unions like those represented by Cosatu. And this clearly provides China with an economic advantage. Perhaps that advantage is looking good to Zuma at the moment.
Let us hope not. The Chinese leaders, despite their predilection for dictatorial discipline, do seem to keep the welfare of their people in mind. African leaders, on the other hand, have a sordid record of using any extraordinary powers they can muster to ruthlessly enhance their own interests at the expense of their people. The last thing South Africa needs is another strongman.