Friend or foe?

2011-10-12 00:00

ROBUST discussions around the office water cooler have been about what’s happening in the ANC, Julius Malema, the Youth League, transformation within the Democratic Alliance, corruption and municipalities struggling to cope. With politicians and ruling party luminaries flying off on a number of junkets to China, we also found ourselves talking about China and South Africa, and collectively confessing our ignorance in this area.

I am aware of the growing number of Chinese shops in downtown Church Street, all more or less selling the same goods, which give this once diverse and colourful area a sense of uniformity. My colleague, Stephen Coan, has been following the case of the textile workers in Chinese-run factories in Newcastle, who defied union federation Cosatu’s stance for higher wages, opting for lower wages to keep their jobs. The workers stopped police closing their factory after Cosatu won an injunction.

And Greytown Gazette editor June Litterick reminded me that long before ANC politicians were calling on China, former Umvoti mayor and IFP member Petros Ngubane made several trips to that country. So far all this small midlands town has to show for his forays is a warehouse full of solar equipment with — as yet — no South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) approval.

It is common knowledge that the world order is changing and Western countries caught up in their own financial woes are giving way to a new economic giant — China. Daily Maverick commentator Sipho Hlongwane argues that countries not developing links with this Asian Tiger are daft. He says South Africa with its growing Chinese contacts has already picked a winner.

This may well be the case, but looking at African countries north of our border, many of which have had long-standing relationships with China, a more complex picture emerges. There are states where China appears to be the new coloniser; however, there are others determined to navigate their own path.

The Economist in April this year reported that Angola has been successful in managing its relationship. The article describes Angolans as masterful negotiators. “Its president publicly told his Chinese counterpart: ‘You are not our only friend’.” The Economist says that there are many Brazilians and Portuguese in Angola, and that Angolans frequently play them off against the Chinese. Angola once banished a Chinese state oil company after a disagreement over a refinery. The company apparently came crawling back a year later, offering more money.

Then there is the case of Zambia’s new president, Michael Sata, who has always been critical of China. Deborah Brautigam, author of The Dragon’s Gift: The real story of China in Africa, in one of her blogs noted that Sata once attacked the Chinese calling them “infestors”. She says that since taking office he has become more pragmatic. Apparently, Sata’s first official appointment at State House was with the Chinese ambassador. The Zambian Economist reported that Sata emphasised that Chinese investors need to respect Zambian laws, to which the ambassador nodded.

Brautigam noted that Tanzania has since 2008 twice cracked down on Chinese informal traders operating without permits in Dar es Salaam and these crackdowns did no harm to the official ties bet­ween the two countries

However, The Economist reports that increasingly it is the Chinese who are beginning to play Africans off against each other.

It goes on to recommend growing policy co-ordination between African embassies in Beijing as a useful first step in improving African bargaining power.

The current ANC delegation visiting China is, according to the party, there on a study tour. If what I have read so far is any indication, the ruling party will have to do a whole lot more studying and research, preferably together with other African countries. In backing the winner, we have to be careful that we don’t become losers.

The Chinese are doing this. Howard French, writing in the Atlantic, says that to grasp fully China’s economic approach in Africa, one must study European imperial history, as Beijing itself is doing. French said that a Chinese delegation visited Brussels. He was told by Jonathan Holslag, head of research for the Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies, that they asked to see all the old colonial maps of the Congo. According to Holsag these were the only maps that reflect reasonably accurate surveys of Congo’s underground, and they wanted to use them for development plans. Holsag told French that if you look at the Chinese policy documents, it is very obvious that they are focused on opening the heart of the African continent. “There is clearly a long-term strategy for doing this, and it seeks to break up the north-south flow of minerals, to build east-west lines that will allow them to bypass South Africa.”

Our future lies not just in study tours, but in research, think-tanks, strategy and tactics. The same as the Chinese are doing in their planning.

• nalini@witness.co.za

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