Xi Jinping’s thought through South African eyes

Recently, I was invited to read and review a new book, Xi Jinping Thought — Through South African Eyes, by Paul Tembe, a scholar of Chinese history, language and culture. The book departs from the most emphasized and long-held premise that China does not seek to prescribe, impose or encourage countries to copy its governance model/system. Instead, it encourages them to craft and improve their governance based on their respective national conditions and aspirations, because China's governance model is shaped by Chinese history and culture with Confucianism at its helm.

In our case, that is "Ubuntu". Xi's thought on governance, which Tembe seeks to see through South African eyes, reminds us that "a country's historical heritage and cultural traditions, and its level of social and economic development determine the kind of governance system best suited for a country, which is ultimately decided by that country's people".

The book is written in an accessible comparative fashion that encourages dialogue in search of our own development strategies and models to achieve inclusive prosperity and a better life for all South Africans as mandated by our Constitution to create a united, democratic and prosperous South Africa.

The book touches on various aspects of Xi's thought and China's development, and poses the question, "what can South Africa learn from China?" In this regard, Tembe proposes some radical shifts.

Encouraging dialogue to seek development models

China's rise is inspirational and what can South Africa learn from it?

To answer the question, perhaps we must attribute China's successes to two main things — its national governance system, and reform and opening-up, which have laid the foundation for China's successes. They have enabled China's economy to grow, and this growth has been used to bring benefits and happiness to the Chinese people. To sustain these successes, China has allocated huge funds to improve the education system and quality with strong emphasis on technology and innovation. These came through the pursuit of meritocracy and building strong state institutions to drive the desired development. At the center of these successes has been policy consistency and long-term planning.

While South Africa has made significant progress in setting functional state institutions that allow the prevalence of law and order under a constitutional democracy, it still remains a highly unequal society with a large percentage of the population working and living in poverty. South Africa bears the imprints of its past and seeks to build a united country with shared prosperity.

Underlying these triple challenges are the need to build state capacity, fight crime and corruption, build an inclusive economy, improve the education system, strengthen infrastructure development and energy security, and expedite land reform to undo the apartheid patterns and unlock the growth potential. The state is carrying out all these responsibilities.

But in doing so, South Africa would do better to take a leaf out of China's book on strengthening governance, deepening reform and opening-up, and improving the education system.

On governance, Tembe argues that South Africa should improve policy consistency and says, in a nuanced manner, the five-year government term as being too short to implement policy, while recommending radical policy shifts.

Since its dawn of democracy in 1994, South Africa, by architecture, has striven to be a developmental state. The shift in various plans and programs has always been necessitated by the shifting domestic and international trends, which require reform and opening-up to keep pace with a forever changing, complex and uncertain world.

South Africa is not short of progressive policies, and has demonstrated the wisdom and policy consistency to adopt different plans, from the Reconstruction and Development Programme to the current National Development Plan, to achieve the same policy vision, that is, to build a united, democratic and prosperous South Africa.

South Africa bears the imprints of the past, and its people are divided along demographic, economic and spatial lines. This has had an impact in terms of people having access to opportunities and quality services. It has also had an impact on family ties.

It has been argued by many scholars and leaders that for governments to succeed, the public sector should be based on meritocracy in the political and administrative spheres. Tembe, in his book, is right to recommend that South Africa should strengthen implementation capacity and long-term planning to achieve its vision. Ability to plan and execute on time, on budget and according to specifications is a key feature of meritocratic bureaucracies.

But despite changing every five years, South African governments, until now, have not radically shifted from the policy of improving the lives and livelihoods of all the people. This policy has been consistent, and the Constitution and National Development Plan remain the guiding tools to build a South Africa of shared prosperity. We need to strengthen state capacity, particularly around the diligent management of public affairs and implementation capacity.

On the economy, the book reminds us that it was during the leadership of Deng Xiaoping when the four-modernization bid resulted in China's rapid economic growth through an open market system. At the time, appreciating that national and international realities demand that China launch reform and opening-up, Deng, in order to bring prosperity and happiness to the Chinese people, said, "it doesn't matter whether the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice".

This quote is sometimes mistakenly attributed to former South African president Nelson Mandela in South Africa in order to promote the best strategies to build a prosperous and inclusive South Africa. China's reform and opening-up inspired South Africa to search for the best plans to implement its policies to build an inclusive society of shared prosperity as evidenced from the Reconstruction and Development Programme, the Growth, Employment and Redistribution plan, Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative for South Africa, to name a few, and the National Development Plan.

China's growth is attributed to the practice of socialism with Chinese characteristics. Socialism with Chinese characteristics promotes a market economy with Chinese characteristics. And Xi, Tembe says, has reaffirmed that commitment to developing public and non-public sectors in order to realize common prosperity for all.

Most important, what South Africa can learn from China is the upholding of public ownership while allowing various forms of ownership to develop side by side to leverage the critical role of the public sector in advancing common prosperity. This is the leaf the South African government could take out from Xi's thought and put into practice to achieve success in South Africa.

The book identifies South Africa's implementation capacity as being weak. This means the implementation capacity needs to be strengthened by building a capable state through long-term planning and drawing from the lessons of the National Development Plan, South Africa's first long-term plan to ensure consistency, confidence and continuity.

Family bond also important for societies

The book asserts that education is the backbone of every society, which is true. It attributes China's successes to its education system, and asks what South Africa can learn from it. And it cites one of the most unique features of Chinese society: the centrality of the family.

This is an interesting take when one would contrast it with South African society. As I mentioned earlier, South Africa still bears the imprints of its apartheid past. Apartheid colonialism broke family bonds through its spatial configuration and the creation of the migrant labor system.

The breakdown of the family unit has had serious ramifications in terms of a functional society, and a family environment conducive to encouraging learning. Some scholars argue that it even leads to various forms of violence. In some instances, children drop out of school to look for work or care for their younger siblings. Despite various incentives such as school nutrition, transport for students, a strong family bond is important to keep children at school and achieve the required throughput.

What we can learn from China is to reconfigure geographies to build and strengthen family ties to instill values, so as to help develop responsible citizens who would respect others and the laws of the country, as well as participate in building a united and prosperous South Africa. South Africa therefore needs to strengthen social cohesion to foster nation building and patriotism.

In today's world characterized by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, there is a need to strengthen the education system across all levels and include innovation and vocational training to build people's skills for present and future jobs in line with the needs of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. After all, innovation separates successful countries from the unsuccessful and not-so-successful ones

Innovation is an essential element of a country's economic standing, and the capacity to come up with new ideas and technologies, as well as the ability to address and overcome crises. The technical and vocational education and training colleges have a role to play in this.

However, it should be noted that the family unit in China has been playing a significant role in education outputs, and China's education system enables high-end quality development. Hence, the need to strengthen the family bond in South Africa is critical to creating an environment conducive to learning.

The book also discusses how China has handled the COVID-19 pandemic. It also emphasizes that there was no industrial-scale embezzling or misappropriation of public funds in China. This is a good case for South Africa to learn from. While the South African government did well in containing the spread of the novel coronavirus, it can take a leaf out of China's management and containment policies to control the pandemic.

Consistent with building a world of shared prosperity, which is in line with South Africa's foreign policy, China rejected vaccine nationalism and pledged solidarity with many African countries in the manufacturing and distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines, thus upholding the principle of leaving no one behind!

The release of Tembe's book was timely, not least because it coincided with the significant 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, which further elaborated on the vision of building a global community with shared prosperity. Interestingly, the report of the Congress retains the principle of building a humanity with the shared future as China's international relations ideological posture. This is well canvassed by Tembe who is a scholar of Chinese history, language and culture.

The author is principal of the National School of Government of South Africa and an exchange scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

The views don't necessarily reflect those of China Daily.