Where ignorance fears to tread.
20 September 2014 09:45 (South Africa)
Africa

Analysis, Part I: Does Africa need China?

  • Kevin Bloom
  • Africa
china africa

In October, reports surfaced in the Zambian media that 11 miners had been shot by Chinese nationals at the Collum Coal Mine in the country’s Southern Province. Their crime, apparently, was to present a list of grievances to the mine’s managers. Given that it wasn’t the first time something like this had happened, do the advantages that come from China’s expanding presence on the continent outweigh the apparent disrespect for human life? By KEVIN BLOOM.

In their book China Safari, French journalists Serge Michel and Michel Beuret tell a story that’s about as symbolic of the Chinese advance into Africa as it’s possible to get. The journalists are in Angola, on the road back to Lobito, when they see a Chinese worker excavating a trench with a mini digger. They stop the car and wave, trying to draw the worker’s attention. But he ignores them, and guns the engine of his digger so he can’t hear the questions. A little further up the road, the journalists come upon the likely source of the worker’s reluctance to speak. A dozen Angolans, who’d been working on the same trench without the assistance of machines, are leaning on their shovels.

“Are you on a break?” the journalists ask.

“Nope,” says one. “Told to stop. Chinese guy just stepped on a mine. They’re coming to get his body. Said to wait. Said not to move. Two other guys got hurt, too.” 

A few days later, in Luanda, the journalists get some context for what they’ve been told. A mine-clearance official from a Norwegian agency confirms the total indifference of Chinese labourers to landmines, saying: “We’ve got over 2 million Angolans living next to more than 3,000 areas that we know are mined. And those areas are just the ones we know about. One day I came across a crew of Chinese workers, who were firing up their machines right in among the little red marker stones that identify a minefield. I pointed to the stones and told them what they meant. They didn’t care. They just shrugged their shoulders and got on with the job.” 

A Chinese diplomat in Luanda explains to the journalists the reason: “They’re just not scared of dying. They know that if anything happens to them, their families will be handsomely compensated. These men are not afraid of sacrifice.” The diplomat added that the family of the victim they’d heard about on the Lobito road would receive $44,000, a huge figure for people from rural China.

So what is the story symbolic of? On the surface, it’s obviously to do with the fact that Chinese workers are not at all like workers from the West (if there still is such a thing in Africa). To the Chinese, long hours and dangerous conditions mean comparatively little; they appear to place their projects – and their communities – before themselves. Second, they do have something in common with their colonial predecessors – a tendency to let the local population do the heavy lifting (taking the mechanised diggers while the Angolans take the shovels, for instance). Third, and perhaps most symbolically, there’s the building of infrastructure in areas that have been neglected for decades. The trench, as Michel and Beuret make clear, was being dug for a fibre-optic cable that would run between the Angolan towns of Benguela and Lubango. The workers were employees of Huawei, the Chinese telecom giant.

Photo: Chinese contractors walk past Congolese workers as they prepare to welcome a delegation from China Railways Engineering Company (CREC) in Kinshasa March 29, 2010. CREC is involved in the construction of the capital's main road. REUTERS/Katrina Manson.

An online debate that ran in The Economist in February 2010 asked the pivotal question: Is China’s growing involvement in Africa to be welcomed? Defending the motion was Professor Calestous Juma, a Harvard international development academic and director of the Agricultural Innovation in Africa Project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Juma’s central concern was whether Africa could negotiate better terms with China, given the relatively weak position of African governments. He tackled the issue from three perspectives.

For starters, he noted that the key lesson in the transformation of the Chinese economy was the triumph of pragmatism over ideology: “While Africa and its western partners experimented with a variety of ideological approaches to economic development, China chose to focus on practical approaches. At the centre of its model lay emphasis on building a strong technical foundation for economy growth.” Next, Juma pointed to the emergence of a new and more confident Africa: “For the first time Africa negotiated as a bloc at the 2009 Copenhagen conference on climate change. It is only a matter of time before Africa starts to negotiate with China and other players as a bloc.” Finally, he highlighted shifts in the geopolitical landscape due to the ascendancy of a range of players: “China is not the only new player in Africa. For almost every African problem there is a Brazilian solution. The same can be said about India. New alliances that include these nations offer a more confident Africa the opportunity to learn from their experiences.”

Opposing the upbeat outlook of Juma was George Ayittey, a native of Ghana and Distinguished Economist at the American University in Washington. Ayittey argued that while he was all for Chinese investment in African infrastructure, it was the nature of the deals that bothered him – such deals are secured through “secrecy, outright bribery, kickbacks and building presidential palaces and sports stadiums,” he wrote. Ayittey was also dead against absolving China just because they’re a different bunch to Africa’s previous oppressors. “If a deal smells fishy, it is rotten and Africa ought to be able to determine it,” he wrote. “This has nothing to do with the West. To analyse China's engagement with Africa through the prism of the West's historical relationship with Africa is to succumb to intellectual astigmatism. Too many can see with eagle-eyed clarity the wrongs committed by the West against Africa but are hopelessly blind to equally heinous injustices committed by other foreign entities and even African leaders against their own people. It is this intellectual astigmatism that has helped ruin Africa.”

As if to reinforce the words of Ayittey, just last week a story of Chinese atrocities surfaced in the Zambian press. On Friday 15 October an entity known as the Zambian Watchdog reported that 11 miners and an onlooker had been shot and seriously wounded by Chinese nationals at the Collum Coal Mine in Sinazongwe district in Zambia’s Southern Province. Apparently, the miners were shot while presenting a list of grievances to Chinese managers. Commenting on the report, the Africa Review – an outlet of the Nation Media Group in Kenya – observed that it wasn’t the first incident in Zambia this year: “A few months ago, local workers at a Chinese-owned copper mine went on strike demanding better working conditions. The strike turned into a riot with reports of a Chinese manager firing at the crowd and injuring people.” 

Neither was the wrongdoing restricted to Zambia. “In Niger, the local Tuareg community dubbed the SOMINA mining operation Guantanamo,” the piece stated, “whereas in Namibia, on taking issue with their ill treatment, workers were told to ‘suffer now so that future generations can enjoy’. In 2008, a Kenyan community blocked road construction works demanding that they be provided with water for domestic use and for their livestock. This was at the height of a severe drought and the Chinese contractor had denied the community access to the only borehole with water within a radius of the road work.”

Photo: A Chinese engineer supervises work at a construction site in Sudan's capital Khartoum, February 16, 2009. China's interests in Africa have multiplied in recent years, with trade rising 10-fold since 2000 to nearly $107 billion last year, and Beijing has been at pains to reassure African nations it will not desert them during the economic slowdown. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallh.

Against all this, of course, is the fact that trade between China and Africa is set to hit a record high in 2010, at an expected total of $110 billion. China, in words repeated so often in the South African press it’s now a catch-phrase, is “Africa’s largest trading partner”. China imports oil from the continent, as well as commodities like timber, copper and diamonds. It also exports vast quantities of processed foods, household products and other manufactured goods. Many African countries have seen their GDPs rise significantly on the back of such trade, and Beijing plans to add further impetus to the process by cutting tariffs on 95 percent of commodities from the least developed nations. What’s more, the preferential loans offered to Africa by China now total around $10 billion.

It’s no surprise, then, that 59 percent of respondents to The Economist’s abovementioned debate voted in favour of the motion: China’s growing involvement in Africa, according to them, “is” to be welcomed. Adam Roberts, news editor of The Economist online, summed up the voting as follows: “[A] broad view seems to be that neglect of the continent is the most terrible sin: the one thing worse than outsiders getting involved in Africa is when outsiders don't get involved. Nobody is suggesting that Africa would be better off if foreigners stayed away entirely.”

On China’s role, Roberts noted: “Could the Chinese model maybe be transferred to Africa somehow? Whatever you think lies behind the rapid growth of China's economy in the past decades, might the Chinese investors, traders and migrants in Africa help to bring some of that magic with them?”   

For its part, South Africa has defended the expanding presence of China in Africa. In August, when President Jacob Zuma led a delegation of almost 400 business executives and 11 cabinet members to the People’s Republic, Trade Minister Rob Davies told the Financial Times that the increased competition between developed and developing nations for influence on the continent “can only be a good thing”. Said Davies: "We don't have to sign on the dotted line whatever is shoved under our noses any longer; we now have alternatives and that's to our benefit.”

Davies was obviously referring to the fact that those countries which exploited Africa in the past are, in the current environment, no longer able to dictate the terms. Poignantly, though, the same FT report contrasted the view of Zuma’s administration with that of his predecessor Thabo Mbeki, who said in 2007 that Africa risked falling into a “colonial relationship” with China. Given the recent launch of his foundation, which focuses on African development by and for Africans, Mbeki would likely be a proponent of the view that while trade with China has certainly helped, GDP growth in African countries has had more to do with a burgeoning local market.

As Newsweek observed in a feature article entitled “How Africa is Becoming the New Asia” (published in February, 2010): “In the last four years, the surge in private consumption of goods and services has accounted for two thirds of Africa's GDP growth. The rapidly emerging African middle class could number as many as 300 million, out of a total population of 1 billion… While few of them have the kind of disposable income found in Asia and the West, these accountants, teachers, maids, taxi drivers, even roadside street vendors, are driving up demand for goods and services like cell phones, bank accounts, upmarket foodstuffs, and real estate. In fact, in Africa's 10 largest economies, the service sector makes up 40 percent of GDP, not too far from India's 53 percent.”

In such a context, does Africa need China? Maybe; the jury’s still out as to what legacy the Asian giant will leave. But the real issue, and the subject of next week's installment, is why China needs Africa more. DM


Read more: “Chinese investors shoot Zambian miners for complaining of working conditions,” in the Zambian Watchdog, “Afro-Chinese labour relations turn sour,” in Africa Review, “Pretoria defends China’s Africa policy,” in Financial Times, “Africa is Becoming the New Asia” in Newsweek.

Disclosure: Kevin Bloom and Canadian journalist Richard Poplak have been commissioned by Jonathan Ball Publishers in South Africa and Portobello/Granta in the UK to write a book entitled Whiteout: The Chinese Advance and the Twilight of the European in Africa. They’ll be leaving on the first leg of the research trip in December.

Main photo: The South African and Chinese national flags sit atop a table as businessmen sign contracts during the China-South Africa Business Forum in Beijing August 24, 2010. South African President Jacob Zuma called for greater investment in his country from China, as South Africa seeks to narrow its trade deficit with Beijing and bring growth to its sluggish economy. South Africa is looking for expanded trade that will help it meet its development needs, especially by improving infrastructure and livelihoods, Zuma told a forum of company executives from China and South Africa. REUTERS/David Gray.

  • Kevin Bloom
  • Africa


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