Saturday, 8 January 2011

South Africa: Why again China is bad for Africa


Just over two weeks ago, I wrote a blog based on WikiLeaks cables [1] about Chinese influence in Nigeria which ended with the conclusion that in the broad scheme of things, China is probably bad for Africa.

Now, from a South African perspective, the influence of China again drives one to the same conclusions that despite the investment coming in from China, there is no discernable concern on the part of the Chinese for the general populace of Africa, they might well be trampled upon by their leaders just as a majority of Chinese are acquiescently trampled upon in China.

A brick for the BRIC

China’s charm offensive in Africa [2] continues apace like a juggernaut hurtling down a steep incline without brakes.

Having built a presence in 40 African countries in their quest for resources and by extension influence they have carted in about 1 million Chinese to our tropical climes and have thrown a brick through the window of economic norms by flattering South Africa with a leap-frog over the larger economies of Turkey, Indonesia and Mexico with the proposed membership of the Goldman Sachs BRIC construct of countries to form BRICS or CRIBS.

There are lots of ways in which China’s investments in Africa are lifting up the African profile in the global context of things and at the level there are probably benefits but the subtext to all this is how it affects Africans who are not part of the elite that the Chinese strike deals with.

Chinese not aiding African good governance

The first issue that jumps out of the news article is this – “Even the government of democratic South Africa is fascinated by the perspectives of growth and prosperity in China under an authoritarian regime.”

This is as ominous as it is dangerous, whilst growth and prosperity is probably the goal of every good African government, the means by which that is created, maintained and improved upon is still under flux.

Our democracies which are fledgling at best are still working on building strong independent institutions that honour the separation of powers, the rule of law, the security of enterprise and the accountability of leadership to all stakeholders within their countries and the relationships they have internationally, the Chinese model of government does not provide example to buttress these young democracies as it is authoritarian.

Accountability not authoritarianism

Many African countries have suffered under typically “China's centralised planned economy and forced domestic peace”, with military regimes and we have wholesale decided such authoritarianism does not augur well for both development and the protection of human rights which supposedly comes hand-in-hand with democracies of accountability.

If democracies are to roll back their frontiers to the Chinese way of doing things, the elite and leaders might have manifesto promises to make but never be bound to keep them; the entrenched incumbency that plagues those who on the taste power cannot face relinquishing their perch would not become a thing of the past.

Such countries as Zimbabwe, Angola, Mozambique and Congo which once had democratic antecedents that have turned authoritarian have been the more fertile grounds for the Chinese influx; the Chinese have come to some grief in those that have a thriving democratic discourse like Zambia or Nigeria.

Ruling party restraint

The concern is where the ruling party has such control over instruments of power that it can be persuaded to discard the constraints of democratic scrutiny for a more authoritarian slant; in countries like South Africa with the ANC and Nigeria with the PDP; their resistance can be weakened by access to attractive solutions and funds provided by China without political demands.

China is after good business deals and is little interested in how African leaders treat their own people or minorities.”

Leaders who are ready to sell out their people for pecuniary advantage should not be in leadership and one good reference is found in the WikiLeaks revelations about China in Nigeria for oil resources where one respondent said if the military were in charge the Chinese and Russians would have gained more control of those resources than they have now.

Bent on isolating the leaders from leadership

We should not allow ourselves to be sweet-talked by the Chinese, with the platitude, “China's aide to Africa is oriented towards Africa's needs without political pre-conditions being set.”

There are still aspects of African governance that need mentoring, guidance and urging towards improving human rights and compliance to international law – China has consistently failed to apply pressure on Khartoum with regards to the genocide in Darfur in the face of glaring evidence that the situation there is untenable, the same can be said in their not reining the pariah state of North Korea.

This is not to say that they should assume an imperialist posture with international diplomacy but China within its own borders has festering discontent amongst minorities that has extended to Chinese of no significant power whose rights are abrogated by the egregious “eminent domain” type powers that displace people for development without adequate compensation or redress.

The West should not throw in the towel

This is why the West needs to return to compete in Africa for the sake of Africans in general whilst continually holding the leaders up to scrutiny, the additional expansionist drive of India and Russia in Africa along the lines of Chinese-led indifference does not augur well at all, one can only hope that Brazil would take the course of the West with better negotiated compromises of engagement and development.

Whilst the Chinese are involved in some image management drive, the fact is the Chinese are not integrating into Africa, like they do in the West by learning the local languages and adapting to the norms and values of their host environments rather they gather in isolated enclaves almost like Sino-Ghettoes.

They are no doubt bad for Africa

They are doubly unpopular for dumping their cheap goods in African markets destroying local industry; working conditions in Chinese operations are miserable; they are involved in smuggling, poaching and over-fishing in many places that for all the investment they have made in Africa, the signs are obvious that China is bad for Africa until we change the way we engage with them whilst striving for a freer and accountable value system in all areas of government, economic and social development.

The postscript to this news article is the one about the ANC Youth League sending representatives to North Korea and according Kim Jong Il the accolade of "great guardian" for peace. Obviously, any communist or socialist slant must not take root in Africa or the people would suffer a lot more than they are suffering now.


[1] Akin Akintayo: Nigeria: NaijaLeaks and why China is bad for Africa

[2] Mail & Guardian Online | Chinese wooing in Africa: Boom without democracy