Chinese leader Xi Jinping said in 2014, “We should increase China’s soft power, give a good Chinese narrative, and better communicate China’s message to the world.”
Soft power, a term coined by Harvard University scholar Joseph S. Nye Jr. in 1990s, is the means by which a country gets other countries to “want what it wants.” Soft power is being interpreted from different perspectives.
China’s Confucius Institutes (CI) – government-funded centers for research and language teaching run by state agency Hanban – are leading China’s cultural diplomacy in dozens of African countries through Chinese language and cultural studies programs aimed at shaping public opinion and strengthening South-South cooperation. The actual impact of these efforts on some Africans’ views of China is being questioned.
Generally, South Africans are eager to learn Mandarin. They believe that it is a contribution to globalisation. And so it will also deepen their country’s relations with China.
On the other hand, they are skeptical about the manner and form it is being introduced. Like the teachers’ union, views gathered suggest that parents should make the choice. There is a fear that prioritizing Mandarin over other languages could amount to another round of colonialism and imperialism in South Africa.
Views of South Africans suggest the need for the government to place more emphasis on people-to-people contacts in order to generate more inputs from all stakeholders. South Africa is already plagued by language and cultural differences in the aftermath of apartheid and colonialism.
John Bailey, an experienced and senior journalist at eNCA in South Africa, says the introduction of Mandarin is a fine idea because it will enable South Africans to interface with nearly 1.4 billion Chinese people. But Bailey contends that government’s failure to consult relevant stakeholders in the process appears as if it is China that is imposing things on them.
“The problem is not China. It is our leaders’ way of doing things. They fight for their own interest and whatsoever is discussed, they run with the implementation. So it is difficult to rule out the communication gap between the government and the people,” Bailey observes.
He sees China’s soft power working, using various platforms such as BRICS, G20 and One Belt One Road as well as increasing its trade with South Africa. What needs to be done is for South Africa and other African countries to demonstrate patriotism, he says.
On the matter of making Mandarin compulsory in schools, Bailey rules out the possibility. He says doing so would put other students at a disadvantage. “While many South Africans support Mandarin in schools, it will remain optional.”
This article was based on fieldwork in South Africa, supported by the Africa-China Reporting Project at the Journalism Department of the University of the Witwatersrand. Phillip de Wet, an associate editor of the Mail & Guardian newspaper in Johannesburg, mentored this fieldwork.