SANDF chief visiting China as PLA delegation arrives in South Africa

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Chief of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), General Rudzani Maphwanya, is in Beijing where he is meeting with China’s defence minister General Li Shangfu to discuss strengthening military-to-military relations.

During the meeting on Wednesday 21 June, Li said China is willing to deepen cooperation with the SANDF particularly in relation to strategic communications, common security challenges and military-to-military exchanges.

“As an important component of bilateral relations, the mil-to-mil relationship has always been at the forefront of China’s military relations with African countries. The two sides have achieved fruitful exchanges and cooperation in fields such as joint training and exercises, academic education, medical and health care, and equipment technology,” Li is quoted by China’s defence ministry as saying.

Maphwanya said that the cornerstone of the friendship between South Africa and China lies in the struggles for national independence and liberation that both sides have gone through. “The South African side is grateful for the strong support and assistance provided by the Chinese military for a long time. The two militaries have achieved fruitful cooperative results within multilateral and bilateral frameworks,” the defence ministry stated.

Maphwanya said the SANDF is willing to continue to deepen practical exchanges and cooperation in various fields with the Chinese military, improve military-to-military relations, and contribute to building a fairer, safer and better world.

The SANDF enjoys close ties with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), something that was clearly evident in February this year when the SA Navy hosted Exercise Mosi II with the PLA Navy and Russian Navy.

More recently, the Human Resource Division of the SANDF this week welcomed the PLA’s National University of Defence Technology for a study visit. 19 June marked the first official day of the visit, led by the Chief Director Human Resource Development Major General Malungisa Sitshongaye.

The SANDF reported that the main objective is to exchange views on improving and advancing the current training programmes offered by the National University of Defence Technology to the SANDF and to share experiences within the fields of training, development and exchange of military personnel.

The Chinese delegation consists of Major General Fu Ai Guo (Head of Delegation), Major General Chen Suo Chin (Political Commissar), Senior Colonel Peng Xiaodong (Army Attaché), Senior Colonel Zeng Guang, Senior Colonel Sun Ming Bo, and Senior Colonel Mao Xiao Guang.

The National University of Defence Technology has visited the SANDF before – for example in 2019 a delegation visited the South African Naval College in Gordon’s Bay to benchmark training practices in the SA Navy.

China’s military ties with South Africa go back many decades, as China supported the African National Congress in its fight against apartheid, with the first batch of six uMkhonto weSizwe fighters being sent for military training in China in November 1961. As a consequence of this support during the liberation era, South Africa recognized the People’s Republic of China in January 1998 with the ending of formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

However, it is only in recent years that South African-China defence cooperation has notably increased. In June 2014, for example, three vessels comprising the 16th Escort Task Group of the Chinese PLA Navy visited Cape Town and subsequently numerous naval task groups have made a stop in the Cape. This culminated in the first multinational maritime exercise (known in South Africa as Exercise Mosi) between China, Russia and South Africa in November 2019.

Also in recent years, high-level PLA delegations have visited South Africa, with reciprocal visits by SANDF personnel to China as a result of the RSA/PRC Defence Committee meeting held in August 2018 in Beijing where it was agreed that China would endeavour to gain further knowledge regarding defence technology development and joint operations support training in South Africa.

The two militaries have also engaged in a number of military medical teleconferences to promote COVID-19 prevention and control and China donated medical protective gear to the SANDF during the pandemic.