Déjà vu as China’s rise in eco­nomic power sparks off a new Scram­ble for Africa

To avoid pre­vi­ous pit­falls, the con­ti­nent must co­op­er­ate with both the East and the West on its own terms

Sowetan - - Opinion - Sthem­biso Msomi

In the 1930s cho­ral mu­sic pioneer John Ma­siza com­posed Vukani Mawethu! (Awake, My Coun­try­men!)

The song lamented the con­di­tions of hard­ship un­der which black peo­ple lived through­out the then colonised con­ti­nent and, pre­sum­ably, in the Di­as­pora.

Its haunt­ing lyrics in­clude the fol­low­ing lines, trans­lated be­low from Isixhosa:

“Oh, for the plight of the black per­son

In Africa,

All other na­tions put us Un­der their feet

What have we done?

The fault is with us...”

Al­most eight decades since Ma­siza com­posed the song, and some 50 years af­ter most of our con­ti­nent fi­nally gained po­lit­i­cal in­de­pen­dence from Eu­ro­pean pow­ers, the cen­tral mes­sage of Vukani Mawethu re­mains painfully rel­e­vant.

That is why post-colo­nial apartheid artists such as Sim­phiwe Dana still com­pose songs like Th­wel’ubun­z­ima” (We are hav­ing it hard) and “Nz­ima”, which asks: “Sen­zeni ebusweni benkosi?” (What sin have we com­mit­ted in the eyes of the Lord?)

These songs, and many oth­ers from here all the way to the Caribbean is­lands, are a re­flec­tion of our cur­rent state as a peo­ple.

I was re­minded of Ma­siza’s com­po­si­tion dur­ing a visit to China re­cently. The East Asian su­per­power has been mak­ing its pres­ence felt all over the world, es­pe­cially on the African con­ti­nent, much to the dis­con­tent of Western pow­ers who – for over 400 years – made Africa their stamp­ing ground.

The West’s dis­com­fort with China’s rise in eco­nomic power and in­flu­ence has sparked off a new Scram­ble for Africa. This new wave, how­ever, does not come in the form of mil­i­tary in­va­sions and po­lit­i­cal con­quest.

It is mainly a pro­pa­ganda war aimed at win­ning the hearts and minds of the con­ti­nent’s pop­u­la­tion.

On the one side of the pro­pa­ganda war, we have wealthy China with its so-called cheque­book diplo­macy win­ning over African gov­ern­ments by of­fer­ing them much needed loans for in­fra­struc­ture de­vel­op­ments on terms that look far more favourable than what the West used to of­fer.

China is said to be the main in­vestor in many of Africa’s na­tions and is re­spon­si­ble for ma­jor projects such as the con­struc­tion of in­ter­na­tional air­ports, high­ways and fac­to­ries in coun­tries like Zam­bia, Ethiopia and Ghana.

Its sup­port­ers say these mega-projects, which do cre­ate much-needed jobs for the cit­i­zens of these coun­tries, would never have been pos­si­ble with­out the help of China.

On the other side are Western pow­ers and Western spon­sored think-tanks warn­ing us that China’s ac­tiv­i­ties on the con­ti­nent can only lead to the “re-coloni­sa­tion” of Africa, this time by Bei­jing.

The “un­con­di­tional aid” of­fered by China for most of the con­ti­nent’s poor na­tions is a “debt trap”, they warn, that can only re­sult in those na­tions be­ing forced to sell fam­ily jew­els to China at ridicu­lously low prices.

In Zam­bia, for in­stance, there has been a pub­lic out­cry fol­low­ing claims by an op­po­si­tion party that the gov­ern­ment was plan­ning to sell off Zesco (their ver­sion of our Eskom), the Lusaka air­port as well as the na­tional broad­caster to China be­cause of the coun­try’s in­debt­ed­ness to the Chi­nese.

How­ever, these al­le­ga­tions have been flatly de­nied by the Zam­bian gov­ern­ment.

Sim­i­lar anti-Chi­nese sen­ti­ments ap­pear to be gain­ing ground in a num­ber of other coun­tries. Are they jus­ti­fied or is the con­ti­nent be­ing hood­winked by its for­mer colonis­ers into re­ject­ing a part­ner­ship that can help Africa fi­nally over­come the sta­tus of per­ma­nent un­der­de­vel­op­ment im­posed upon it by colo­nial­ism?

This ques­tion both­ered me for much of this week, es­pe­cially af­ter lis­ten­ing to for­mer pres­i­dent Thabo Mbeki tell the story of how France still has not for­given Haiti for the suc­cess­ful 1804 Haitian rev­o­lu­tion in which slaves of African de­scent de­feated the then Eu­ro­pean su­per­power.

Ac­cord­ing to Mbeki, the South African gov­ern­ment and oth­ers who were in­volved with pre­par­ing for the bi­cen­ten­nial cel­e­bra­tions of the rev­o­lu­tion in 2004, were quite ea­ger that France be part of the fes­tiv­i­ties as Haiti had been the first black coun­try to break free from colo­nial power.

But a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the French gov­ern­ment, said Mbeki in Jo­han­nes­burg this week, told then for­eign af­fairs min­is­ter Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma that the French took a de­ci­sion not to par­take in the cel­e­bra­tions when Haiti turned 100 in 1904, and they were not pre­pared to change their stance in 2004.

If France in 2004 had not for­given a small is­land of Haiti for giv­ing it a bloody nose 200 years ago and in a just strug­gle for self-de­ter­mi­na­tion and free­dom, it is hard to be­lieve that all its warn­ings – as well as those of its part­ners – about China’s “re­coloni­sa­tion” of Africa is mo­ti­vated by gen­uine con­cern for the con­ti­nent.

This is not to say that Africa should not get into a re­la­tion­ship with China with its eyes wide open. We should be sus­pi­cious of ev­ery­one, es­pe­cially given our long his­tory of be­ing dom­i­nated and ex­ploited.

How­ever such sus­pi­cion should not stop our na­tions from en­gag­ing with any­one – whether from the East or West – who can help them es­cape the vi­cious cir­cle of un­der­de­vel­op­ment, high unem­ploy­ment and poverty.

Just over 40 years ago, China was as poor as much of our con­ti­nent. Yet to­day, fol­low­ing decades of eco­nomic re­forms and the open­ing up of its econ­omy, China is the sec­ond-big­gest econ­omy in the world. Its eco­nomic growth and de­vel­op­ment over the last four decades should serve as a re­minder to Africa that our past as well as present cir­cum­stances ought not de­fine our fu­ture as a con­ti­nent.

In seek­ing to lib­er­ate our con­ti­nent from eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal con­di­tions that lead to the com­po­si­tion of songs such as Ma­siza’s Vukani Mawethu, we must seek co­op­er­a­tion with both the East and West on our own terms. We can­not af­ford to be dic­tated to by ei­ther.


Pres­i­dent Cyril Ramaphosa toured mu­seum of the Alibaba Group – a Chi­nese con­glom­er­ate spe­cial­is­ing in re­tail, In­ter­net and tech­nol­ogy – to ex­plore in­vest­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties with China in Septem­ber.

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