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China, Zambia and the racist undertones of Western journalists

Posted by on 19 September 2011

Chinese worker in Zambia

Journalist Louise Redvers ran a story called “China’s stake in Zambia’s election” for BBC International. The article itself is pretty slim when it comes to concrete evidence – it’s primarily based on rumors and accusations coming from various competing politicians.

The background story of China’s involvement in Zambia is fairly straightforward. Back in the 1970s, the country benefited from Chinese foreign aid through the construction of the TAZARA railway, connecting the Tanzanian sea port of Dar es Salaam with Zambia’s Copper belt. Though a technological success, the railway never proved profitable, with many local entrepreneurs along the route preferring the traditional, colonial-based system of using the imperial roads as means of transportation for their merchandize. But ideologically, the construction of the railway was a true success story.

In the last ten years, however, China’s interests in the country rose to unprecedented levels. Redvers gives a figure which exemplifies the rapid increase in trade between the two countries. Trade between the two countries grew from 60 million dollars in 2000 to 2.8 billion dollars last year.

China’s main economic interests in the country follow the same pattern as their British counterpart during colonialism – investing in copper, cobalt and nikel mines – though the nature of the investment is quite different. Like in other parts of Africa, Chinese entrepreneurs are investing in the mines, while the Chinese government offers low-interest loans for infrastructural programs which are subsequently built by Chinese workers.

Now, the big fuss – and the main point of the article – is the allegation that the Chinese government is financially backing the incumbent presidential candidate Rupiah Banda and his party the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) in the upcoming elections against the opposition leader Michael Sata and his party, the Patriotic Front. If you may recall, four years ago, during the first confrontation between the two Zambian politicians, Sata received a stunning support from voters in the Cobalt Belt due to his anti-Chinese remarks. At the time, Sata lost the elections by only 35,000 votes.

That being said, a lot has changed in the Chinese camp and its policy towards Zambian workers. Salaries have gone up, unions were brought to the negotiation table and deals have been struck to step up the salaries and the quality of life for the miners working for Chinese companies. Has the situation improved for workers? Yes, to some degree. Is it perfect? Not by a long shot.

Now the article obliquely suggests the Chinese are interfering in Zambian affairs. That might be the case. But what pisses me off is the racist undertones of articles like this, and the complete disregard for a historical understanding of engagements between African statesmen and their foreign counterparts. Africa has a long history of convoluted affairs, with the United States, Britain, France and Russia constantly interfering in local affairs. The entire Cold War was an ideological battle between the two blocks with both the US and Russia competing for African leaders’ allegiance to them. As such, if China is backing one candidate over another, it does so by following, once again, the pattern that emerged back in the ‘60s and one which unfortunately continues to date. But when an article that this, mischievously entitled “China’s stake in Zambia’s election”, is published, uninformed readers tend to take it as is – aka China is this menacing power doing all these immoral things to Africa. In fact, it’s business as usual, but who cares, right?

Another issue that disgusts me with an article like this is the second faulty presumption – that China’s efforts are met with open arms by African leaders. In fact, during the Cold War and in the aftermath, African leaders were more often than now very astutely playing the international political game by constantly switching sides and using the world rivals in their pursuits for financial support from other developed countries and International Organizations such as the IMF and the World Bank.

At the same time, naturally, there were also leaders who indeed profiteered from one side by amassing impressive wealth at the expense of their own people (who can forget Mobutu Sese Seko for example).

However, by in large, African politicians, on all sides of the political spectrum, reached out to international actors in an attempt to support their political bids. Most likely, Sata is doing the same and if he isn’t, probably he is not the right man for the job. After all, these types of strategic partnerships are quintessential to African and world leadership. Once again, singularizing China is detrimental of a practice that is endemic in world politics. When the businessmen of a country invest in another foreign nation, they put pressure on their own governments asking them to safeguard their interests. One certainly doesn’t have to approve of this practice. But having yet another panic attack about Chinese politicians probably engaging in this practice is somewhat immature and shortsighted. Why? Because I bet no matter who wins the elections, China will remain a major player in the country.

The Chinese are there to stay.

Politicians, in Africa or elsewhere are transitory.

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5 Comments For This Post

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  2. Jmpinero ONG Senegal Africa says:

    This is an old and sad story. Africans leaders are allways involved in corruption and Chinese are taken advantage of this to make their own business
    Jmpinero ONG Senegal Africa´s last blog post ..Transformación de productos agrícolas en Oussouye

  3. Ezekiel says:

    Prophet T.B Joshua and Africa’s Ex-Leaders
    Ezekiel Fajenyo and Sunday Patrick

    The socio-political topography in Africa is littered with much uncertainty, penury, hopelessness, despair, despondency, cynicism, starvation, moral rottenness, corruption and misgovernance.
    Facts associated with this situation have been anchored, most often, on the “twin guilts” of the leaders and the followers; guilts propelled by the desire of both groups to preserve their positions of selfish satisfaction. Arguments on both sides have been pushed for instance, in Chinua Achebe’s “The Problem of Nigeria” (1983) and Abubakar Gimba’s “Letter to an Unborn Child” (2008).
    While the leaders display attitudes of indifference, pride, corruption, nepotism, and insincerity, the followers have remained mostly blind to their own fate; they are unapologetically subservient, tolerant, and engage, often in programmes which temporarily feather their own nests instead of showing interest in permanent solutions to the vast social, economic and political problems in the land. The African environment is most noted for these guilts.
    One other group which has not often been remembered for analysis is that of the ex-leaders – those who had provided leaderships for their countries in the past, but are now ‘respected’ citizens or statesmen who also do serve as political godparents. This group is made up of civilians and retired military people, who had been privileged to govern for some years, and have backlogs of experiences which should be of significance should they be called upon, in retirement, to help the process of political growth in their countries. Some of these are rich, exposed, and experienced. But while some have since withdrawn from the public area, some are still relevant as pillars of political parties, consultants to the present leaders, and or power distributors without whose voices political leadership is not complete in some places.
    However, such ex-leaders have not been known to be capable of progressively influencing political governance in the right directions. Most of the past leaders have refused to assist present leaders with the wealth of their experiences, capable of inaugurating a season of progressive governance.
    Significantly, Prophet T.B Joshua, the General Overseer, The Synagogue, Church of All Nations (SCOAN), had preached a sermon to the congregation, towards the end of 2011, on the attitude of indifference of such past but experienced leaders.
    In the opinion of the respected man of God, the African continent is politically and economically plagued today because most ex-leaders have refused to identify with new dreams anchored on people’s expectations to experience progressive leadership. This is particularly so because, though they do observe the aspects of the failings of recent leadership, such ex-leaders have not considered it sufficiently important to constitute themselves into a powerful association (Association of Ex-leaders) capable of advising present leadership in Africa on the path of progress, from political, economic and social perspectives.
    An association such as this, according to T.B Joshua, could have served to monitor elections in countries of Africa, participate in scrutinizing political agendas, and suggesting viable political choices which would return these countries to sanity and underlines, rather than the presents experience of chaos, discordance, misrule, exploitation, and greed. Though not all such past leaders actually left good records in their countries, some of these have remained of noble imprints and saliently progressive orientations. They performed well in the past, and are highly respected in the continent. They are political visioners, planners, strategists, foremost thinkers and activists, whose potentials should not remain wasted forever, but who should, as they live, continue to influence the tempo and direction of change in Africa.
    One problem with such past leaders is, said the revered prophet, that some of them did not leave behind credible legacies for which they should be remembered; but those of them who did, and are well respected, admired and responded to, have a responsibility to mobilize credible forces which would galvanize social change in these countries. They could, he said, work together with human rights organizations to actualize noble politicking in Africa. The human rights groups could link up with such an association of retired leaders, and together push the continent to a respectable status in the contemporary world, as long as such an association or organization is programmatically orchestrated through positive, value – orientation strategies. Such people should be seen to be fearless, courageous, zealous for development, focused, self – disciplined, enterprising, genuinely developmental in vision, and truly patriotic. They have to be true, unquestionable statemen with impeccable records. They are supposed to assist in promoting an atmosphere conducive for true political emancipation and economic revival in these African countries.
    The admired prophet said the association of past leaders should be such that may be confided in by Africans on what prevail in their individual countries; in other words, the past leaders should not be rigid members of any existing political party, if they wish to maintain their integrity. Belonging to the existing parties has a way of dwindling their political impact and relevance, because they could be seen as being mischievously biased or odiously jaundiced in action and performance. The coming together of these leaders, he said, could serve as reliable tool of trust among Africans, which is needed to urgently inaugurate sincere, open and trust – worthy political leadership on the continent.
    He maintained that what will give the ex-leaders credibility is their refusal to be integrally involved in political parties, which affiliate with the peculiar dreams of individuals instead of the people in general; political parties are often limited, or sectional or ethnically my opic or clannishly regional in orientation. But the association of the ex-leaders must be broad-scoped, truly national and all – embracing in objectives.
    Prophet Joshua also said that unless the ex-leaders are disconnected from the existing political parties and become true national leaders “no miracle can be performed” on the political plane. They have to join the masses to rebuild Africa.
    To him, “nobody will want to listen to the leaders affiliated to any political party”, and if they are prepared to truly work on behalf of the people, it would amount to obeying “Divine instruction”. With strong activism being shown by such leaders, they would be able to change the “fortunes” of political practice in Africa. He specifically mentioned the troubles in Libya, which by then, involved Col. Ghaddafi and the opponents of his regime, and that if such an association has been in existence, “tragedy would have been avoided; Ghaddafi would have been advised to abandon the seat of power and stop the raging fire.” If Ghaddafi had refused to listen to others, he could have listened to such credible ex-leaders who had been in power and influence before him, or been his contemporaries. The prophet even suggested that the African press men should campaign for such an association to take root urgently, in order for African countries to stop experiencing pestilentially rotten political systems and operators.
    Though some social scientists might not readily be willing to easily identify with the prophet’s suggestions, quite a lot will agree that it is high time for all past leaders in Africa to wake up from their complacency and face the challenge of leadership on the continent because things have truly fallen apart in many places.
    Ezekiel Fajenyo and Sunday Patrick are Public Policy Analysts and members of Social Engineering Research Institute (SERI)

  4. Chima Okezue says:

    Ah…Western media….It is a shame that all propaganda efforts made over the last 10 years to vilify and demonize the Chinese has failed to move most Africans. The media and governments of the Western world thought that if buzzwords like “colonialism” was thrown around long enough then Africans will get all excited, emotional and full of hatred for the Chinese and then start a South Africa-style xenophobic killing spree against Chinese residents.

    Unfortunately, Africans in majority of African nations see Chinese investments positively (even if they have certain reservations). We are under no illusions that China is there to help us per se. The Chinese are there for their own self-interest. We don’t care about that… provided we can leverage China’s desperation for natural resources to get critical infrastructure in place and increase the volume of trade. Anyone who reads the Chatham House publication on Angolan-China relations will see that African governments are tough when negotiating with Chinese investors and get to choose which project the Chinese will be allowed to invest in.

    With regards to the broad positivity with which Africans view Chinese involvement in the continent, Zambia is an exception because of the simmering racial tensions between the Zambian workers and their Chinese employers. The irony of course is that if all the Chinese companies pulled out of Zambia today, many of those Copper Mines will have to shut-down and many Zambians would be out of a job.

  5. Chima Okezue says:

    The word “unfortunate” was used in the context of bad luck coming the way of Western media propagandists. I still laugh when I recall Hilary Clinton talking of “colonialism” when she visited some African nations including Zambia. I spoke to a good number of educated Africans and the consensus was simple—-“Madam Secretary of State was just playing politics…Nobody believes a word of what she was saying…Colonialism? She is probably just having a laugh !!!…”

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