EDUCATIONAL ENGAGEMENT: China, Africa and South Africa

Dr Ke Yu

The role China plays in South Africa is different from that performed in other African countries. Dr Ke Yu examines the engagement between South Africa and China on an educational level.

Sino-African educational engagement can be divided into three phases: 1950–1980; the 1990s and the post-2000 period. The first two periods were characterised by increasing small-scale exchanges and co-operation. The third phase was marked by the first Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) ministerial conference in 2000, when the collaboration modalities further diversified and expanded on a much more remarkable scale.

FOCAC 2003 also saw the emergence of the setting of educational targets. One notable observation from the FOCAC pledges was their cross-sectoral nature. Gu Jainxin from the Zhejiang Normal University in China observed: ‘The integrated cross-sectoral approach of co-operation is both practical and strategic in that it makes educational endeavours relevant to other development goals and in that it makes educational co-operation sustainable under a structure’.

Beyond FOCAC, most of China’s major investments in Africa have a human resource development (HRD) component. In addition, other enterprise-based scholarships, local government scholarships and university scholarships are also in operation.

However, attempts to quantify numbers of the Sino-African educational engagement are futile. Chinese reports routinely exclude the full costs for foreign students studying in China.

Kenneth King from the University of Edinburgh notes that apart from Confucius Institutes, there is little publicly available information on any other engagement modalities. Similar data scarcity is also observed in data provided by the State Council, other publications, and China’s AidData website. In an item by item comparison, it is found that:

•    Germany runs the largest scholarship programme worldwide, but statistics only illustrate the total number of scholarships provided, not the number of African scholarships specifically. China’s offering (5 710 in 2010) is comparable to available figures from France (4 500 in 2009) and is much larger than those from India (1 500 in 2011);
 •    China’s target of 10 000 scholarships as listed in its 2013 FOCAC action plan, is comparable to that of Japan (8 000 annually) – one of the two largest short-term training providers in the world (training figures for Germany, the other largest short-term training provider, are not known);
•    China’s school-building project in Africa (50 in its 2009 pledge) is small compared to that of Japan – the largest provider of school buildings in Africa (2 600 schools between 2007 and 2012); and
•    China’s volunteer programme (300 in its 2006 pledge) is also small compared to other volunteer schemes, such as the Peace Corps or South Korea’s 1 000 aid volunteers in 2009. The impact of these engagements is largely unknown. Besides public records on the delivery of the pledged targets and some commentary by individual Chinese universities that are responsible for certain training courses, there is little public evaluation of these programmes or studies examining, recording and exploring African students’ experiences in China.

South Africa’s strategic position in Sino-South African educational engagement

South Africa is the only African country that has substantive investments in China. It is one of the few African countries that has hosted Chinese immigrants for many years and currently has the largest community of Chinese immigrants on the continent.
China’s presence in South Africa is vastly different from that in many of its African neighbours. Where China has massive infrastructure projects in many African countries, this is not the case in South Africa. China’s direct investments in particular are not necessarily visible to ordinary South Africans. A case in point is the 20% share the Industrial and Commercial
Bank of China bought in Standard Bank of South Africa for approximately US$5.5 billion – one of the largest instances of Chinese foreign direct investment in the continent.

In terms of the educational arena, external aid agencies have traditionally played a determinative role in many African countries but only a facilitative role in South Africa, as South Africa largely does not rely on external direct budget support.

South Africa is one of only two countries on the continent that hosts Chinese educational, and science and technology, counsellors¹. The other country is Egypt, which enjoys one of China’s longest African diplomatic relationships. South Africa also hosts the only active Chinese research centre on the continent in the Chinese Study Centre in Stellenbosch.

History of HRD assistance in South Africa

Despite this, China does not feature in any available discussions of South Africa’s experience of foreign aid in education. The country’s experience with educational donors is similar to that of many of its African neighbours, where Europe ‘is the partner we know best and who knows us best’, stated Jean-Pierre Ezin Onvêhoun, past rector of the University of Benin in 2009. The main players that have provided external support to higher education in Africa since the 1950s include development aid agencies in Britain, France, the US and the former Soviet Union as well as the Ford, Rockefeller, Kellogg and Carnegie private philanthropic organisations.

In South Africa, non-state institutions, again mostly of Western origin, have also played important roles in bridging foreign donor and domestic policy designs, particularly in the late 1980s. Although, during the 1990s, many Western donors shifted their technical educational support from high and vocational training to basic education. Similarly, aid originally directed towards staff training and institutional development dwindled and often became more directly linked to particular projects, especially on the HRD front.

Sino-South African educational engagement

There is a great paucity of details on Sino-South African educational engagement. All Sino-African educational engagement modalities are apparently applicable to South Africa too, but details on the scale and impact thereof are almost non-existent. Similarly, available accounts on Sino-South African educational engagement remain sketchy – many only point to plans, events, memoranda of agreements (MoUs) or co-operation principles.

Even in King’s seminal book, China’s Aid and Soft Power in Africa: The Case of Education and Training (2013), which reports on 90 interviews held within South Africa, reference to South Africa remains scarce. The only specific training opportunity mentioned is a short course in aquaculture linked with the Gariep Dam in the Free State, with no information on what the course entails. In another passage, King mentions one South African student’s experience in terms of China’s influence on his attitude towards time management. A search on the AidData database yields only one additional result of artisan training for South African students at Tshwane University of Technology in 2007.

However, one particular instance has been referred to by a number of scholars. This is the RMB250 million development grant made during the Chinese president’s visit to South Africa in 2007. The grant was originally aimed at building skills in the South African textile industry, but the project evolved from the request for a new technical college to the renovation of several established colleges. King states that South Africa wanted to be sure that the materials and the human resources deployed on the project would be sourced within South Africa. The outcome, however, was that a full three years after the offer of assistance in 2007, there has been very little action on the money offered.


This article shows the multi-faceted nature of the Sino-African educational engagement. Mainly due to the challenge of a lack of data, however, the actual value and impact of such engagement cannot be established. Similarly, although South Africa apparently holds a strategic position in China’s overall Sino-African educational engagement framework, the paucity of data and implied lack of interest from scholars, makes the Sino-South African educational engagement scenario not only elusive, but also intriguing, calling for further explanation.

Author: Dr Ke Yu, post-doctoral fellow, Democracy, Governance and Service Delivery programme, HSRC.

This article is based on a chapter in Perspectives on South Africa-China Relations at 15 Years, edited by Yazini April and Garth Shelton, AISA Publications, incorporated into the HSRC.
The presence of the education counsellor in South Africa is not to facilitate educational co-operation between the two countries, but to facilitate the process for Chinese students who wish to study in South Africa.