The Role of the People’s Republic of China in South Africa’s Liberation Struggle and MK


The involvement of China in South Africa’s struggle against Apartheid occurred in two different manners. Officially China had representation in Pretoria where they protested against Apartheid. Unofficially they lent their support to liberation organisations.  By 1960, after the stage was set for a national liberation movement, the South African Communist Party(who had declared the Apartheid state as ‘colonialism of a special type’) secured the promise of support from both Russia and Beijing.

While the communist Peoples Republic of China severed economic ties with South Africa in July 1960, 1976 signalled the development of ties with Taiwan, based on a common fear of ‘communist aggression.’  Despite the cessation of official economic ties, Beijing’s involvement came in the form of support for liberation organisations. 

Thus, while earlier ties with China occurred in the form of small-scale trade, later relations were heavily informed by the Sino-Soviet split.  This divergence in Soviet and Maoist-style communism resulted in Moscow strengthening its ties with the SACP and consequently the African National Congress (ANC), while China was left with no other choice but to support the rival Pan Africanist Congress(PAC).  Tensions between China and the Soviets meant that support for the liberation struggle was essentially split into two camps; the Conferencia das OrganizaÒ«oes das Colonias Portuguesas (CONCP), established in 1961 and consisted of pro-Moscow organisations, and secondly, the Congo Alliance established between 1963 and 1964, consisting of the People’s Armed Forces for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA), the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), the Revolutionary Committee of Mozambique (COREMO) and Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU).  China’s competition with Moscow over the support of liberation movements became apparent at the Afro-Asian People’s Solidarity Organization (AAPSO) Council meeting in Moshi, Tanzania (1963), wherein AAPSO and the World Peace Council (WPC) squabbled for influence over Latin America.  While the ANC-backed Soviets proposed the establishment of a new organisation in Cairo which would absorb AAPSO, China and Cuba favoured expanding AAPSO’s influence to Latin-America by means of a liaison organisation.  This position was adopted and the Afro-Asian-Latin American People’s Solidarity Organisation (AALAPSO) was established with its base in Havana.  This was the first time China had openly called for a political split within third world movements.  However, the solidification of the ANC’s position within AALAPSO imbued the organisation with strong pro-Moscow sentiments, and the PAC – ANC’s rival – was barred from attending the 1996 tri-cameral conference in Havana.

 Sino-Soviet tensions thus severely weakened the effect of liberation movements within the third world, however, the movements continued.   By the mid-1960s China had effectively adopted an anti-Soviet policy, choosing to switch aid to liberation movements rivalling the Soviet-backed organisations. This resulted in Chinese support of the largely ineffective PAC, rival to the Moscow-supported ANC.  Prior to the split between China and Moscow, the PRC had attempted to maintain a measure of cordiality with the ANC, and a large portion of the first uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK)cadres had been sent for training in China in 1961.  Subsequent to the formation of Umkhonto we Sizwe, members of the SACP and ANC were recruited for secret (Tambohad not even been informed) training abroad, and sent to Beijing.  Upon arrival, one group was sent for training to the Shen-Yo military academy, while another was stationed in Nanjing.  They were met by Chairman Mao Zedong who questioned them about their opinions of China and Russia, as well as the terrain and general conditions in South Africa.  One account by Nandha Naidoo states that during his training in China, the Chinese had explained their position towards Soviets as one of ‘peaceful co-existence,’ however, “the West was not prepared to leave socialist societies alone and that peaceful co-existence was therefore not possible.” Nonetheless, the relationship between the PRC and the USSR grew increasingly hostile as China viewed the Soviets as a hegemonic superpower.

In South Africa, as Sino-Soviet conflict intensified, the PRC’s relationship with the increasingly pro-Moscow ANC and SACP deteriorated.  At international conferences the ANC’s criticism of China increased, leading to the collapse of aid relationships between China and the ANC.  China’s involvement in the liberation struggle was transferred to the PAC, which received financial aid (in the form of US$ 10 000 granted to Potlake Leballoupon his visit to Beijing in 1964) and military training from Chinese instructors in Tanzania and Zambia.  Chinese support of the PAC, however, was unreliable at best, and never reached the magnitude of USSR support granted to the ANC.  Preferring to support active guerrilla armies which would raise its prestige, China focused the majority of its aid on ZANU in Rhodesia.  The inactivity of the PAC in comparison to other active liberation organisations in the region led to Beijing’s disinterest in South Africa.  Thus, China’s support declined and occurred mostly in the form of rhetorical condemnations of theAapartheid regime and Soviet involvement. 

The Soweto Uprisings of 1976provided China with an opportunity to propose the notion of ‘self-liberation’ in an attempt to bypass Soviet aspirations and influence, accusing Moscow of trying to control liberation organisations through its military assistance.  In addition to ostracising itself from the ANC, China was further sidelined by the SACP who in the mid-1980s called for a rejection of Maoist and Chinese-style communism.  Criticism over China’s role in Angola spurred the SACP to accuse China of “showing its anti-African face” and tarnishing China’s credibility on the African continent.  Acutely aware of the need to bolster its image and reputation, China stepped up its anti-Apartheid rhetoric against Pretoria. This served the dual role of stemming ambitions of the two world superpowers (America and the USSR) as well as allowing China to entrench its influence and prestige in the southern African region. 

The 1980s saw a thawing of Sino-Soviet tensions and as a result, the ANC was willing to resume relations with Beijing.  In 1983 China announced a new policy in which all liberation organisations were to be treated equally without discrimination.  PAC thus lost its favoured position with China as the PRC shifted the bulk of its support to the ANC; the largest liberation organisation in South Africa.  In 1983 Oliver Tambovisited the PRC in order to re-establish ties with China.  In 1989 China began hosting delegations from liberation organisations, including the PAC and the Democratic Party, and simultaneously began exploring the possibility of renewed economic ties with South Africa. Subsequent to his release from prison, Mandelamet with the PRC ambassador to Zambia to thank China for its support of the anti-apartheid struggle.  Recognising the ANC’s potential as a primary organisation in any post-Apartheid regime, China supported the ANC’s call for the continuation of sanctions on South Africa.  

1991 saw De Klerk’s announcement of the abolition of remaining racial laws, and was met with Chinese approval.  In October of that year, for the first time, South Africa’s foreign minister visited China together with a number of delegates representing South African corporations.  In 1992 Mandela visited China to meet with Premier Li Peng and President Jiang Zemin, again thanking China for its role in the anti-Apartheid struggle.  Since South Africa’s first free and fair democratic electionsChina has continued to be a major trading partner.  

• Ellis, S. 2012. External Mission: The ANC in Exile, 1960-1990. Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball Publishers.
• Ellis, S. & Sechaba, T. 1992. Comerades Against Apartheid: The ANC and the South African Communist Party in Exile. Indiana: Indiana University Press.
• Naidoo, N. 2012. The ‘Indian Chap’: Recollections of a South African Underground Trainee in Mao’s China. South African Historical Journal, 64(3): 707-736.
• Taylor, I. 2000. The Ambiguous Commitment: The People’s Republic of China and the Anti-Apartheid Struggle in South Africa. Journal of Contemporary African Studies, 18(1): 91-106.
• Thomas, S. The Diplomacy of Liberation: The Foreign Relations of the ANC Since 1960

Last updated : 15-Dec-2014

This article was produced for South African History Online on 15-Dec-2014