The vast sprawling machinery of South Africa’s second-biggest steel factory is sitting idle these days. After decades of noise and dust and smoke, the factory quietly shut its doors this month, sending its last 1,800 workers home.
The once-busy highway outside the factory is now silent and empty, aside from a few prostitutes who patrol the road, raising their skirts desperately to the occasional passing motorist.
Evraz Highveld Steel and Vanadium, one of the world’s 15 biggest steel makers less than a decade ago, has fallen victim to a flood of cheap Chinese steel imports and a slowdown in demand from the Chinese economy. The entire South African steel industry has plunged into a deep crisis, with an estimated 50,000 jobs in jeopardy, despite last-ditch government efforts to protect the industry by imposing tariffs on cheap Chinese imports.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. For years, South Africa has been aggressively courting China’s support, seeing Beijing as its economic and political saviour. The ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), thought it was a smart bet. China, after all, had rapidly surpassed all of South Africa’s other trading associates, becoming the country’s biggest partner by 2010, and the Chinese appetite for African resources seemed insatiable.
To reinforce these economic bonds, the ANC heaped praise on the Chinese political model. It sent delegations to Beijing to study the Chinese system. It drafted plans to emulate the “central party school” of the Chinese Communist Party. It even dutifully bowed to China’s insistence that it block any visits by Beijing’s most loathed nemesis, the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.
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