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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.
  • Almost half (47%) of respondents endorse restricting retail trade to South African citizens and businesses only. Only 43% favour allowing foreign-owned retail shops.
  • 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.
  • The United States is the most popular development model in South Africa (cited by 37% of respondents), followed by China (20%).
  • A majority of respondents believe that China’s economic activities have “a lot” (42%) or “some” (13%) influence on South Africa’s economy.

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.

Asafika Mpako

Asafika is the communications coordinator for Southern Africa

Mikhail Moosa

Mikhail Moosa is a researcher.