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Africa Looks East

12-Feb-2011

The great untold story of our age is the rapid deepening and broadening of ties between the African continent and China. It is the single most important geopolitical trend of the 21st century for Africa, and China's economic miracle cannot be understood without analyzing its multifarious partnerships with African countries, argues OUCAN Convenor and Co-Founder Harry Verhoeven.

The numbers speak for themselves: whereas the Africa-China trade was worth $1bn in 1990, it reached a spectacular $8bn in 2000, but nothing compared to the explosion since then- in 2008, Britain's DFID estimated that two-way imports and exports surpassed $120bn, after having been only worth half that figure in 2005. The growth in both value and quantity of commercial transactions between China and its African partners is an unprecedented phenomenon, and is outpacing global commodity price hikes as well as overall increases in world trade over the past decade.

The China-Africa relationship is more than a simple import-export story: in three years time, President Hu Jintao and PM Wen Jiabao visited 17 different African countries in a dazzling diplomatic effort, three times as often as Presidents Bush and Obama since 2005. Chinese peacekeepers patrol in Liberia, Sudan and off the Somali coast. Across Africa, Chinatowns have sprung up, as tens (hundreds?) of thousands of Chinese citizens have migrated, with populations now dwarfing white expatriates and traditional Lebanese and Greek networks in many African cities. Chinese construction firms, barefoot doctors and grocery stores have become normal features of urban life in Dakar, Addis and Johannesburg.

China is not alone in putting Africa top of its international agenda. Gone are the 1990 days of "Out of Africa" as Indian telecoms and petroleum interests invest billions to buy up African firms to gain a critical foothold in what they see as an important market for the future. Capital is flowing from Abu Dhabi, Malaysia and South Korea to obtain fertile farmland in Eastern and Southern Africa at a time of global worries about rising food prices and a resource crunch. Brazil is emerging as crucial player, with President Lula visiting Africa on no less than eleven occasions, thus deepening agricultural and industrial relations already worth $25bn and strong people-to-people ties that have existed since the Atlantic slave trade. This is no longer the forgotten continent, at least economically: in a noteworthy report (2010), McKinsey estimates that 200m Africans will shop for more and more consumer goods in the next five years. At a time of stagnating Western demand for emerging market imports, nobody wants to be left out of this potentially lucrative bonanza.

Beijing leads the way in this economic rediscovery of Africa and with good reason: it is impossible for the "Middle Kingdom" to maintain its stellar growth pace of about 9-10% annually without affordable inputs to fuel its industrial miracle. China, as the "workshop of the world", gobbles up extreme quantities of minerals and cannot do enough to secure and diversify its energy supply lines. More than three quarters of Chinese imports from Africa consist of black gold –Angola supplies more oil to China than Saudi Arabia and has become Beijing's number one source of petroleum- and Chinese farms are working hyperactively in African mines, from Niger's uranium over Guinean bauxite to Zambia's copper. This mass deployment is lead by powerful state-owned enterprises, who receive diplomatic support from ever growing embassies and trade missions, and through heavily subsidised credit lines. Increasingly though, private Chinese businesses, regional governments and individual entrepreneurs are taking initiatives independent of central Beijing policy: "China" in the African context is by no means a monolith.

The lightening expansion of Chinese interests has lead to strong criticism, particularly in Western milieus where the loss of Africa as chasse gardée is eyed jealously. Some of the allegations about Chinese misconduct are indeed not completely unfounded: working conditions in Congo's mines are horrendous, due to disastrous labour and environmental standards; the "no questions asked"-policy of Chinese diplomats means that millions end up in the dictatorial hands of Sudan's Omar Al-Bashir and Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe; and corruption scandals in Namibia have implicated the Chinese president's son. However, as many Africans point out, the truth is that the practices of Chinese companies are not all that different from European investors, whether historically or even today. The West has long used Africa as a source of cheap mineral imports, mercilessly manipulating financial relations and maintaining extremely cosy ties with all kinds of unsavoury regimes. Human rights and good governance rhetoric notwithstanding, Nigeria, Chad and Ethiopia remain solid Western allies, no matter how much violence or electoral rigging occurs in their heartland.

Interestingly, Africans themselves are remarkably divided on the pros and cons of China's presence. Many welcome the fact that they are no longer just the object of pity and victimisation ("Save Africa"), but are treated like serious economic actors, critical to the global economy. Officials have grown tired of Western lecturing –and associated hypocrisy- on governance and political reform, and welcome China's guilt-free dealings between equals. The impressive Chinese-funded expansion of infrastructure might not be as photogenic as pumping European money into hospitals and orphanages, but in real economic terms this could well lead to higher returns. At the same time, many ordinary citizens and intellectuals stress that they don't want to replace one neo-colonial power by another. The winners of investment are all too often narrow elites in the capitals, not the peasants in the villages who continue to be ignored (or lose their farmland), nor the workers in the cities who are forced to compete against ultra-cheap Chinese imports: tens of thousands of labourers in AIDS-ravaged South Africa, Swaziland and Lesotho lost their jobs in the textile industry when the free trade floodgates were opened. All too often, Africa's interactions with China lead to wealth accumulation and economic dynamism, but not to development. It sounds wonderful to build a hospital in Western Congo as part of a package deal with the government, but what is the added value when there is no money to pay for doctors, electricity or medical equipment?

The hope is that the surging interest of China, the West and a whole range of emerging countries can help emancipate the continent further. African governments should be able to play off the various suitors against each other, to obtain better conditions and more equal negotiating positions. The spectacular changes of the past years have surprised many, but they are only the beginning of a new era for Africa and the rest of the planet: that of a Post-Western world in which a multitude of actors compete for market control, creating a complex political-economic landscape. Understanding both these grand macro-dynamics, as well as the crucial local impact this has on individual families, businesses and communities, is a fascinating challenge of utmost importance. OUCAN invites you to join the effort.

Edited by: Harry Verhoeven

 

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