China is bridging the cultural gap between itself and Southern Africa through Confucius Institutes, the newest teaching Mandarin - simplified traditional Chinese - to students at the University of Cape Town. There are now 25 institutes across Africa, including four in South Africa, where China has become the largest trading partner.
In South Africa there are Confucius Institutes, named after China's most famous philosopher, at Rhodes University, Tshwane University of Technology and Stellenbosch University. Across Southern Africa, there are institutes at the University of Zimbabwe, the University of Botswana and the University of Antananarivo in Madagascar.
The newest institute last month began offering free Chinese classes to University of Cape Town students through an agreement between the institution and the Chinese Hanban, the Chinese Language International Office.
Professor Wu Qianlong, deputy director of the Confucius Institute at the university, said it would be involved in providing credit-bearing Chinese courses taught through the school of languages and literatures, and in promoting Chinese culture among Cape Town communities. Courses would eventually become available to the public.
Qianlong said the courses could benefit students considerably. "For those who are really committed to learning Chinese, the reward is obvious: this can give them an edge when entering the world of an economic powerhouse and exposing them to a mixture of West and East cultures," he said.
Matthew Macdonald, a research analyst with the Centre of Chinese Studies at Stellenbosch University, agreed that the teaching and learning of Chinese augured well for easier business dealings as the Asian partnership with African higher education institutions grows.
"Any education, any skills transfer that happens in between China and South Africa or anywhere in the Southern Africa Development Community, will promote progress in development," Macdonald told University World News.
China recently became South Africa's largest trading partner and South Africa is now China's second largest trade partner, according to the official Xinhau News Agency.
South African President Jacob Zuma recently returned from a visit to China with a 300-strong business delegation. Bilateral trade between the two in the first half of this year reached US$10.81 billion, up 56.1% year on year, officials reported.
In the January edition of China Monitor Professor Scarlett Cornelissen, interim director of the Centre for Chinese Studies at Stellenbosch, wrote that given China's increased economic and diplomatic presence in Africa, Confucius Institutes could "play a key complementary role to enhance collaboration, exchange and knowledge".
In a report the same bulletin Marius Vermaak, director of the Confucius Institute at Rhodes University - launched in August 2008 - said despite what cynics might think about the Chinese, space was for the development of distinctively African Confucius Institutes.
With weak higher education systems and a growing demand for university education that could not be satisfied on the continent, "for the foreseeable future many students from Africa will have to look at educational opportunities in the United States, United Kingdom, Europe, Australia and, more and more so, in China," Vermaak wrote.
A total of 25 Confucius Institutes have been opened in 18 African countries over the years. In June, Kenya's biggest universities - Nairobi and Kenyatta, which both host Confucius Institute branches - announced new courses in Korean and Chinese respectively.
The 10th International Chinese Language Teaching Seminar held in Shenyang last month revealed that worldwide Chinese was being studied at more than 300 Confucius Institutes and more than 300 Confucius Classrooms in 94 countries.
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