Africa caught in the middle

2012-05-26 11:00

Recently, I attended a ­conference in Beijing, China, to discuss Sino-African relations and how the media portrays this relationship.

It soon became clear this is not about how Africa sees China, or vice versa; it was about the tempestuous relationship between China and the West, which for the Chinese consists almost exclusively of the US and the UK.

“The West is spreading rumours about China because they are scared China will steal Africa away from them,” was one comment by Tang Shuifu of China News Agency.

“The West thinks human rights are more important than sovereignty,” said Pi Lei from the Heibei University.

The two superpowers are fighting each other for world dominance, ­leaving Africa stuck in the middle like a child of divorcing parents.

But the child is fighting back.

Though the two giants may see ­Africa as their new site of struggle, ­Africa is ­increasingly concerned about safeguarding its own interests.

A barrage of criticism was levelled at African leaders during the opening of the R1 billion African Union ­headquarters in Addis Ababa, ­Ethiopia, which was wholly built and paid for by China.

Leaders were asked why should a symbol of African unity be built by ­foreigners? How could African ­leaders accept such a gift and not at least offer to pay some of it?

Through this criticism it became blatantly obvious that “China is a good friend of African government, not of African people”, commented Owino Opondo, editorial director for the Nation Media Group, Kenya’s largest print media outlet, at the ­conference in Beijing.

It surely is not a good friend of ­African businesspeople.

In South ­Africa, politicians and government ­officials complain that when they ­arrive in a country fresh from war like the Democratic Republic of the ­Congo, they are ready to cash in on road-building contracts and other ­infrastructure projects, but increasingly the Chinese beat them to it.

From their side, the Chinese keep a close eye on where the resources in Africa are. When it became clear the ­Sudan split would leave South Sudan the more oil-rich partner, China was quick to ditch its long-standing relations with Khartoum and invited ­Salva Kiir to Beijing.

To counter the alleged Western ­influence on African media, the ­Chinese government is investing heavily in Chinese-owned media ­outlets based in Africa. Xinhua news agency has been ­covering Africa for years, but now has a network as extensive as Reuters.

The Chinese state broadcaster, CCTV, has started broadcasting from Nairobi, Kenya, and is expected to spread its wings further into the ­continent.

Chinese national radio has also lured many ­African journalists to work for its African bureaus and ­China Daily, the biggest English newspaper in China, plans to set up shop in Johannesburg at the end of the year.

But China is finding doing business in Africa is not as straightforward as it prefers it to be.

Because of the overwhelming presence of ­state-owned enterprises, the Chinese ­government prefers government-to-government deals and tender ­processes is a ­foreign concept.

“Chinese businesses think it is very easy to just say you want certain ­business and then you get it,” said ­ambassador Bheki Langa, South ­Africa’s head of mission in Beijing.

China’s advantage – cheap labour and cheap products – is also ­becoming more expensive.

Those who come to China looking for a cheap deal – on, say, machinery – will find it, but they pay a price in the end, Beijing-based businesspeople warn.

“Doing business in China is not like doing business in Germany. The ­quality standards are not the same for ­every company, so it takes a lot of ­investment on your (the importer’s) part to ensure he gets the best value,” a local businessman said.

While there may be 2 000 suppliers of one product, all of them will not be of the same quality or the same price, which is where the role of the importer is essential.

“It’s not like in Germany where you order a product, it is shipped to you and delivered on time. A business ­person should come to China himself, go see the supplier and visit the ­facilities to check on quality control.

Then it becomes more expensive, but it means you have a smaller chance of disappointment,” he said.

As the West and China are trying to arm wrestle each other, Africa is ­trying to stake its own claim in the hope of being a major player in world ­politics, and not just a helpless child with warring parents.

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