Africa’s friend indeed or a new coloniser?
At the World Political Parties Summit on July 6, one African leader after another spoke highly about the importance of the continent’s relationship with the Communist Party of China (CPC).
The Summit reignited debate about whether China is a genuine development partner or is an emerging neo-colonial power seeking to replace Europe and the United States when it comes to exploitation of Africa’s resources.
Presidents Felipe Nyusi (Mozambique), Hage Geingob (Namibia), Cyril Ramaphosa (South Africa), Edgar Lungu (Zambia) and Emmerson Mnangagwa (Zimbabwe) were among Southern African leaders who interfaced with China’s President Xi Jinping at this week’s Summit.
One and all, they reiterated the need for continued co-operation with China in driving people-centred development and eradicating poverty.
The meeting was held as part of the CPC’s 100th anniversary celebrations.
President Nyusi said, “The unique experience of the Communist Party of China continues to serve as an inexhaustible source of inspiration to accelerate scientific and technological innovation, intensify the culture of hard work and integrity, as paths that will lead us to overcome poverty and build peaceful and prosperous nations.
“We are witnessing today, the trajectory of a people which began in Shanghai in 1921, with changes worldwide, and has never been seen in the history of humanity.”
In his statement, Namibian President, Dr Geingob, said: “China has stood with his country since the days of the liberation struggle and the relationship between the two countries continue to blossom on in the areas of infrastructure development, technology transfer, cultural and technical co-operation.”
President Geingob (South Africa) also said, “Having fought and won the battle against racism and imperialism, it is important that our attention now turns towards the economic emancipation of our people.”
President Ramaphosa weighed in saying, “We applaud the CPC’s internationalist policies, which over the course of many decades have promoted multinationalism, understanding and peace.”
Zambian President Lungu lauded the Belt and Road Initiative and the Forum on China-Africa Co-operation, adding: “China’s success story anchored by vision, hard work and perseverance must provide serious lessons especially for the African continent.”
And Zimbabwe’s President Mnangagwa said: “(We are) indeed grateful to the CPC and the government of the People’s Republic of China for supporting Zimbabwe on its development path and national rejuvenation.
“A number of infrastructure projects have been undertaken due to Chinese support.”
In the CPC’s 100-year existence, its relationship with Africa has developed from one of supporting liberation struggles to one premised on economic co-operation.
Research by Professor Deborah Bräutigam of Johns Hopkins University in the States indicates that China lent at least US$95 billion to African countries between 2000 and 2015; a significant amount for a continent whose economies are in a shambles and in dire need of stimulus packages.
“On a continent where over 600 million Africans have no access to electricity, 40 percent of the Chinese loans paid for power generation and transmission. Another 30 percent went to modernising Africa’s crumbling transport infrastructure. … The stories of large-scale land grabbing and Chinese peasants being shipped to Africa to grow food for China turned out to be mostly myths,” says Prof Bräutigam.
China has invested heavily across Africa, and Forbes magazine has reported that: “China is now Africa’s biggest trade partner, with Sino-African trade topping US$200 billion per year. According to McKinsey, over 10,000 Chinese-owned firms are currently operating throughout the African continent, and the value of Chinese business there since 2005 amounts to more than US$2 trillion, with US$300 billion in investment currently on the table.
“Africa has also eclipsed Asia as the largest market for China’s overseas construction contracts. To keep this momentum building, Beijing recently announced a US$1 billion Belt and Road Africa infrastructure development fund and, in 2018, a whopping US$60 billion African aid package, so expect Africa to continuing swaying to the east as economic ties with China become more numerous and robust.”
Across the continent, governments have benefited immensely from co-operation with China on infrastructure development, with billions having gone into transport networks, energy, water, and health and educational institutions over the past two decades alone.
More recently, China has been at the forefront of assisting African countries to access COVID-19 vaccines
Despite facing huge domestic demand and limited supply, China has supplied more than 480 million doses of vaccines to the international community. According to the Foreign Ministry spokesperson in Beijing, Mr Wang Wenbin, this makes China largest supplier of vaccines in the world.
The World Health Organisation has included Sinopharm and Sinovac from China, and more than 30 Heads of State and Government have publicly taken the step of being the first in their respective countries to receive the jabs.
Learning from China
According to some observers, the benefits of having solid ties with China are not all about the money they are investing in Africa.
Prof Peter Kwagwanja of the Nairobi-based Africa Policy institute, said the most valuable experience is “that long-term stability of political parties is absolutely necessary for sustainable development”.
He said the CPC had united China’s 56 ethnic groups and guaranteed government safety and stability, laying the foundation for the country to become the world’s second-largest economy.
“As a result of the trinity of political stability, anti-corruption and green development, China has lifted nearly 800 million people out of poverty since its reform and opening up in 1978, a milestone hailed by the World Bank as one of the great stories in human history,” said Dr Kagwanja.
Mr Donald Rushambwa of the China-Africa Economic and Culture Exchange Research Centre in Harare recently told Chinese media that, “By first eradicating (absolute) poverty in China and then moving forward to help other countries, the CPC has played a great role in eliminating one of the greatest diseases in the world, and it should be commended for such.”
He noted that the CPC’s people-centred approach had played a huge role in China’s remarkable development, and it was something Africa needed to emulate.
Not Everyone’s Happy
While Africa’s leaders and many analysts consider China an all-weather friend, not everyone is happy and some believe Beijing is actually colonising Africa.
Periodically, reports and videos emerge of Chinese businesspeople abusing African employees.
In addition, many Western think tanks and some African researchers say the relationship with China is one-sided in favour of the Asian powerhouse, which they say is accessing the continent’s minerals for a song.
Another sore point for critics is the debt situation.
“There is no altruism in the money China is pouring into Africa. All the money and efforts are strictly for China’s interests. That is why some of the ‘benefiting’ African countries are starting to push back and taking steps to get off the ‘one-way’ street they find themselves on,” wrote Victor Oluwole for Business Insider Africa.
“China mostly invests in projects that allow it to rapaciously plunder natural resources in these countries to serve its population the raw material it needs. Africa is abundant in resources and the newly constructed railway will make it easy to transport them to the ports. Thus China says— we’ll give you a loan and build your infrastructure at unbeatable, competitive rates to jumpstart your economies. But of course, we’re not a professional charity business.”
And New African has reported that, “In 2015 China promised US$60 billion in grants and commercial loans to finance economic development projects in Africa. African leaders were eager to accept the financial assistance and as a result, China holds 14 percent of Sub-Saharan Africa’s total debt stock and is the largest owner of public debt in Africa.”
China reportedly owns 44 percent of Zambia’s debt, and such statistics give rise to fears that Beijing will ultimately use such leverage to direct the policies of African governments.
Naturally, such fears have been rebuffed.
Mr Joaquim Chissano, the former President of Mozambique and a man who was in the thick of things when China started making its economic inroads in Africa, recently told Xinhua that he had seen no evidence of Beijing trying to establish a hegemony.
“China is offering more open co-operation, which is a good vision,” he said, adding that countries must identify their own needs and benefit from multilateral co-operation without sabotaging their own interests to achieve win-win outcomes.
Reporting by Tiri Masawi in Windhoek & Leslie Chimbama in Harare