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Taiwan Trip Exposes Cracks in South Africa's Political Scene

Solly Msimanga waves to his supporters after being officially installed as the mayor for the City of Tshwane, South Africa, Aug. 19, 2016.

A recent visit to Taiwan by a top South African opposition party mayor has stirred debate in South Africa about relations with the self-governed Chinese territory — and has sparked a power struggle within South Africa's own government from the unlikeliest of quarters.

Until recently, most of South Africa's local government posts were held by the long-ruling African National Congress. The ANC prides itself on party discipline and cohesiveness, and as a result, held a virtual lock on policy all the way from city hall to the presidency. One of its strongest foreign policy tenets is maintaining a strong relationship with China, which says Taiwan is part of China.

This “One China” policy has led many countries — the United States and South Africa among them — to not officially recognize Taiwan.

But now that staunch policy is being shaken — and from the bottom levels of South African government at that. In last year's municipal polls, the ANC's bitter rival, the Democratic Alliance, snatched three powerful executive mayoralties — Johannesburg, Pretoria and Nelson Mandela Bay.

One of those men, Pretoria's Solly Msimanga, went to Taiwan at the end of December to meet Taipei's pro-independence mayor and to look at business opportunities. While there, he accepted a key to the city.

Line was crossed

That, says Clayson Monyela, a spokesman for South Africa's foreign ministry, is where a line was crossed. South Africa's government, he said, encourages South Africa-Taiwan trade and investment and maintains a liaison office in Taipei that, much like an embassy, provides consular services and encourages trade, investment and tourism.

But politics, he says, is never part of the discussion.

“Business people from South Africa visit Taipei to pursue trade and investment opportunities,” he told VOA. “We've also done that from government, there's nothing wrong with that, and China would not oppose that sort of thing. But when it has political undertones that seek to undermine the One China policy, that's where the difficulty arises.”

Political football

But Msimanga's party says the ANC dominated government is using this trip as a political football. Opposition parliamentarian Dean Macpherson says that when he visited Taiwan as part of a delegation of opposition MPs — a mere three weeks before Msimanga's trip — he was warmly welcomed by officials from the South African liaison office.

“I think this is nothing but hypocrisy and cheap political point-scoring at its absolute worst,” he told VOA from Cape Town. “And what it's done is, is that it has, I think correctly, opened the debate in South Africa, about who can and who can't dictate to our different spheres of government who they should be to attract investment when we have 9 million unemployed South Africans.”

When asked why the government didn't object to Macpherson's trip, Monyela said the difference is that Msimanga is an executive mayor and therefore an official representative of South Africa's government, whereas Macpherson and his delegation were only elected politicians.

Changes for Taiwan?

Researcher Rudolf du Plessis of the South African Institute of International Affairs says this debate is unlikely to change South African policy on China. But, he notes, as China continues to invest in Africa and Taiwan rapidly loses allies on the continent — most recently, the West African island of Sao Tome — Taiwan may be changing tack.

“The fact that Taiwan's traditional diplomatic footprint is growing smaller each year, it might indicate a shift on Taiwan's part to more city-to-city contact,” he said. “And I think Solly Msimanga in that case might be quite a good candidate to promote that system of diplomacy.”

If this strategy of seeking friends in low places hasn't gotten results, it certainly has gotten attention. In a stern yet vague statement, President Jacob Zuma said he had noted the controversy, and would soon convene a group of top local and provincial leaders to encourage cooperation between different levels of government.