South African President Cyril Ramaphosa on Thursday welcomed the opening of a new Huawei Innovation Center in Johannesburg, praising the Chinese company for its “confidence in the South African economy and its potential.”
Ramaphosa said that adopting Huawei’s new technologies would help Africa “leapfrog into the Fourth Industrial Revolution.”
Huawei was sanctioned in the United States in 2019 by then-President Donald Trump over concerns that Beijing was trying to monopolize networks and possibly use them for espionage. The company, however, already has a huge digital foothold in most of Africa, much of which struggles with low connectivity.
Ramaphosa attended the center’s launch, alongside Chinese Ambassador Chen Xiaodong and the president of Huawei sub-Saharan Africa, Leo Chen.
“For South Africa, expanding digital infrastructure is one of the primary engines of economic growth. The development of information technology is key to the competitiveness of our economy,” Ramaphosa said, after touring the facility and watching presentations by Huawei employees.
Pretoria and Beijing have strong relations, with the latter having supported the fight against apartheid in South Africa. Additionally, both countries are members of the BRICS group of emerging nations. BRICS encompasses Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.
Ramaphosa quoted China’s leader in his address, saying, “President Xi Jinping described science and technology as ‘a primary productive force, talent as a primary resource, and innovation as a primary driver of growth.’ This is a sentiment that we share.”
He said the innovation hub would now focus on knowledge and skills transfer as well as cultivating local talent through various programs. He also said it would be focusing on the development of small, micro- and medium enterprises, known as SMMEs.
According to a Huawei statement, Ambassador Chen said the innovation center showed "the Chinese private business sector and players are ready to stand by South Africa's side to accelerate the 5G application."
For his part, Leo Chen said, "We've been encouraged by the South African government's strong vision for the digital economy. South Africa is becoming a role model for the continent, as well as the global stage, in fields such as 5G deployment and 5G-driven industrial digital transformation."
While South Africa is the continent’s most industrialized country, it is suffering high rates of unemployment. Ramaphosa said he hoped the Huawei Innovation Center would help launch new local information and communication technology, or ICT, enterprises to help with job creation.
The president added that he welcomed plans for Huawei to invest in data centers and cyber security industries in Africa.
Earlier this year, a group of U.S. lawmakers criticized Pretoria for its ties to Beijing, including its use of Chinese tech. Telkom, South Africa’s partly state-owned telecom operator, launched its 5G network throughout the country last year using Huawei technology.
China has been expanding its “Digital Silk Road,” a part of its wider Belt and Road infrastructure initiative, in sub-Saharan Africa, where less than 30% of people use the internet. Huawei subsidiaries own up to 70% of all 4G networks across the region.
In 2022, Ethiopia celebrated the launch of a 5G network powered by Huawei in Addis Ababa.
Washington has been playing catch-up to China in Africa, announcing last year that U.S.-backed telecom company Africell had invested to deliver a 5G network in Angola.
China’s foreign ministry has regularly criticized U.S. officials’ warnings to Africa against relying on Chinese technology.
“Chinese companies including Huawei have conducted mutually beneficial cooperation with many countries in Africa and the world beyond, contributed to the improvement and development of the countries’ communications infrastructure, provided advanced, quality, safe and affordable services for the local people and won great support,” a ministry spokesman said last year.
And earlier this year, the ministry accused the U.S. of “technological hegemony” in its bans on Huawei.
The Chinese Embassy in Pretoria did not respond to a VOA request for comment.
Iginio Gagliardone is an associate professor of media and communications at Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand and author of the book China, Africa and the Future of the Internet. The professor said he didn’t think South Africa or other African states were choosing China over the West when it came to new technologies.
Asked why South Africa and other Global South countries don’t necessarily share Washington’s aversion to Chinese tech, Gagliardone said, “Because they see any provider of technology as a way to get to a specific vision.”
Huawei recently partnered with South African company Vuma to provide higher speeds for fiber internet.