East to West: Africa rising between devils and a deep blue sea

By Khadija Patel 18 July 2013

The narrative of the Chinese involvement in the African continent is of a marauding armada. And while Chinese soldiers are currently in Africa – in Mali on peacekeeping duty, where they will reportedly also build roads – Chinese investment in Africa is being treated with more and more suspicion. KHADIJA PATEL reflects on the growing calls for a more circumspect engagement with the likes of India and China in Africa.

Every now and again, I receive a note from a friend or acquaintance, or someone I’m not quite sure actually exists outside of social media, saying they know someone who’ll be visiting Johannesburg. Sometimes these friends simply want the assurance of knowing someone in Afri-kah when they crash during a bicycle ride on these mean streets, others would like to just chat over a cup of coffee and still others just want to be put in touch with other creatures of our species – the venomous vermin that we are.

On one such visit by the friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend, an eminent journalist who had transferred to a think tank in London, I was asked if I could by some chance connect this think tanker to other journalists who know something about the rising involvement of China in Africa. I obliged, arranging an informal meeting with two journalists I knew who’d actually be able to answer what China is doing in Africa. I joined the meeting because I am intrigued by the fervour of the discussions of the Chinese influence in Africa. And then, as a card carrying member of the vermin species, I rarely pass up an opportunity to meet the most accomplished of our ilk.

During the course of that meeting, it emerged that the think tanker had received funding that was particularly aimed at igniting debate about the role of China in Africa. Her admission, made near the conclusion of the meeting, certainly did not appear to convey her designs on thwarting Chinese influence in Africa. She had scribbled away furiously in her notebook as my venerable colleagues spoke, and at times, even debated each other on various tropes of Chinese involvement in Africa.

The reality underpinning her interest of China in Africa, however, was an example of the reception that “China in Africa” currently receives outside of the continent. There is a persistent prodding for African states to be more vigilant of the influx of Chinese – something of a collective noun for anyone who is not from the developed North and ploughing money and goods into Africa.

So it came as no surprise when Public Enterprises Minister Malusi Gigaba told Business Day this week that Africa ought to be more cautious in its shift from Western to Eastern business partners.

Gigaba said, “We need to scrutinise the value of trade, how it is changing the character of our economies and contributing to our socioeconomic development challenges.”

Gigaba compared the involvement of the Chinese and Indians in Africa to a new form of  “imperialism”.

“African governments must be cautious of shifting from over-reliance on western markets to over-reliance on eastern markets in terms of both trade and investments,” Gigaba said.

“We must trust in our own capabilities and by encouraging them and welcoming their investments, we help them to grow in order to participate in the complex supply chains.”

Western markets, however, are already feeling the pinch.

When US President Barack Obama visited the African continent last month, he had been charged by American business to facilitate openings for American businesses in Africa’s trendiest cash cow, infrastructure development projects.

“Frankly, we see Africa as one of the most important emerging regions in the world, and a place for the U.S. to significantly increase our engagement in the years to come. There are growing economic opportunities there for increased trade and investment and increased engagement by U.S. businesses,” the US Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said ahead of Obama’s trip.

“We, frankly, have heard a high demand signal from the U.S. private sector for us to play an active role in deepening our trade and investment partnerships in Africa.”

Since 2002, China has invested an estimated $75bn in Africa, second only to the United States, who have invested $90bn during the same period. The US might still hold the edge over China on investment, but the Chinese superseded the US as Africa’s biggest trade partner in 2009 already.

Speaking to Al Jazeera last month, Jendayi Frazer, former US assistant secretary of state for African Affairs, said the US would need to “pursue higher levels of engagement to effectively compete with China’s growing influence in Africa”.

“When we look at what other countries are doing in Africa, I think our only advice is make sure it’s a good deal for Africa,” Obama said during his town hall discussion with young Africans at the University of Johannesburg.

And while the likes of Obama urge Africans to be more cautious in how they sign away the rights to build infrastructure on the continent, it is not as though Africans have been blind to the pitfalls of the influx of Chinese and Indian trade and investment on the continent.

More particularly, Gigaba’s comments are not the first instance of a South African politician expressing reservations of the unbalanced trade relationship between Africa and China.

In July 2012, President Jacob Zuma himself warned that the nature of Chinese trade in Africa was untenable.

He said, “As we all agree, this trade pattern is unsustainable in the long term. Africa’s past economic experience with Europe dictates a need for caution when entering partnerships with other economies.”

And the Chinese, for their part, have tried to placate these concerns.

“China wholeheartedly and sincerely supports African countries to choose their own development path, and will… sincerely support them to raise their development ability,” former Chinese president Hu Jintao said after Zuma had made his remarks.

“Facts have shown that the new type of China-Africa strategic partnership is the result of continuous growth of the traditional friendship between the two sides.”

These assurances from the Chinese, however, have done little to assure some African leaders that they are indeed above being manipulated by Chinese trade and investment into a new imperialism.

South Africa’s cadre deployed to the African Union, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, has in her speeches in the last six months issued warnings against foreign interference into the affairs of African states – a warning that cadres deployed to the Ministry of International Relations and Co-Operation say is aimed at the likes of France, the United Kingdom and the US as it is to China and India.

When Dlamini-Zuma banished foreign diplomats and NGOs from skulking around the halls of the AU headquarters in May, she made it clear she believes foreign governments to the organisation hold too much sway over the AU. Some foreign governments were said to be livid about the ban. After all, much of the funding for the AU comes from these very same foreign agents. Even the Chinese were excluded from the AU’s deliberations – and they are the ones who built and paid for the AU’s swanky new headquarters in Addis Ababa.

Surely they’ll be wondering how their generosity is to be rewarded?  DM

Read more:

  • Measuring China’s motivations in Africa on Al Jazeera
  • US vs China: Footprints in Africa (Infographic) on Al Jazeera
  • Analysis, Part I: Does Africa need China? on Daily Maverick
  • Analysis, Part II: Why China needs Africa more on Daily Maverick

Photo: A Chinese man walks at Shanghai Hui Bo Investment Co (SHIC) for manufacturing railway cement sleepers and accessories in north Khartoum February 14, 2013. Sudan should become a transport route for some of South Sudan’s oil production once the two countries can agree an arrangement.Work to renew the rail tracks started last year when China’s Shanghai Hui Bo Investment Co (SHIC) opened a plant in north Khartoum, opposite the Sudanese capital’s main train station, and is producing 1,200 concrete sleepers a day, according to its Sudanese manager Sharaf Nasser.  REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah


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