South Africans endorse self-reliant development but question free trade and loan conditionalities

On the international stage, South Africa is often viewed as the gateway to Africa (Economist, 2012). The country is a relatively stable democracy with a sophisticated financial services industry that attracts global investment, making it an economic powerhouse in the region and on the continent (IOL, 2019).

South Africa’s largest trading partners are China, the United States, and Germany (International Trade Centre, 2020). China’s growing investment in Africa has prioritised other parts of the continent, but South Africa has strengthened its diplomatic ties with China and other global powers through the BRICS alliance (Trade Law Centre, 2022). The United States considers South Africa a strategic partner (U.S. Department of State, 2022), while the Soviet Union’s historical support of the armed struggle against apartheid has cemented a strong allegiance within South Africa’s ruling African National Congress party, though it has proven controversial since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (Lynd, 2022).

On a regional level, South Africa is the major economy in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and is often involved in mediation efforts to resolve political disputes in neighbouring countries (Hofmeyr, Moosa, Patel, & Murithi, 2022). South Africa’s trading relationships within Africa have improved recently, but intra-Africa trade remains limited (Trade Law Centre, 2021).

How do South Africans view the international community and its role in their country’s development? Findings from the most recent Afrobarometer survey show considerable resistance among South Africans to free movement and trade, reflecting a preference for protecting domestic industries from foreign competition.

The United States ranks first, and China second, as South Africans’ preferred development model, and citizens hold generally positive views of both countries’ political and economic influence in South Africa, although a majority believe that the government has borrowed too heavily from China. South Africans clearly value self-reliance, supporting self-funded development over external loans and rejecting loan conditionalities, which have been the subject of widespread controversy (Stubbs, Reinsberg, Kentikelenis, & King, 2020).

These findings are relevant in the context of significant financing needs in South Africa, especially considering the severe economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and recent catastrophic flooding in the province of KwaZulu-Natal.

Afrobarometer surveys

Afrobarometer is a pan-African, non-partisan survey research network that provides reliable data on African experiences and evaluations of democracy, governance, and quality of life. Eight rounds of surveys have been completed in up to 39 countries since 1999. Round 8 surveys in 2019/2021 cover 34 countries. Afrobarometer conducts face-to-face interviews in the language of the respondent’s choice with nationally representative samples.

The Afrobarometer team in South Africa, led by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation and Plus 94 Research, interviewed 1,600 adult South Africans in May-June 2021. A sample of this size yields country-level results with a margin of error of +/-2.5 percentage points at a 95% confidence level. Previous surveys were conducted in South Africa in 2000, 2002, 2006, 2008, 2011, 2015, and 2018.

Key findings

  • Fewer than half (45%) of South Africans say people in the region should be able to move freely across international borders in order to trade and work in other countries.
  • Opposition to free cross-border movement increases with respondents’ education level, reaching 56% among those with post-secondary qualifications.
  • In practice, more than four in 10 citizens (44%) say crossing international borders in Southern Africa is difficult. Only 35% say it is easy.
  • Almost half (47%) of respondents endorse restricting retail trade to South African citizens and businesses only. Only 43% favour allowing foreign-owned retail shops.
  • A majority (55%) of citizens favour protecting local producers from foreign competitors, while only 37% prefer free international trade.
  • More than six in 10 South Africans (62%) say the country should fund its development from its own resources instead of relying on foreign loans.
  • More than half (51%) of citizens reject conditionalities attached to foreign loans restricting how the funds can be spent or requiring the South African government to promote democracy and human rights.
  • The United States is the most popular development model in South Africa (cited by 37% of respondents), followed by China (20%).
  • South Africans see the economic and political influence of the United States, China, and other external powers as largely positive.
  • A majority of respondents believe that China’s economic activities have “a lot” (42%) or “some” (13%) influence on South Africa’s economy.
  • Among those who are aware that China gives loans or development assistance to South Africa, more than two-thirds (68%) say their government has borrowed too heavily from China.

An open or closed economy?

Southern Africa has a long history of regional migration and trade (Crush, Dodson, Williams, & Tevera, 2017). However, in South Africa, fewer than half (45%) of citizens say that people living in the region should be able to move freely across international borders in order to trade or work in other countries. A slim majority (51%) instead say that to protect its citizens, the government should restrict the cross-border movement of people and goods (Figure 1).

Opposition to free cross-border movement is higher in cities (54%) than in rural areas (44%) and increases with respondents’ education level, ranging from just 36% among those with no formal schooling to 56% among those with post-secondary qualifications (Figure 2). Older respondents support restrictions more than younger respondents, with the exception of those older than 65.