Mandy Rossouw

China and Africa: The true price of a free lunch

2012-02-02 09:50

Ethiopia prides itself at being the only African country that was never colonised. There was apparently some small altercation with the Italians in the 1930s, but it only lasted a few years and the Ethiopians refer to it as an “invasion” rather than colonialisation.

And yes, Ethiopia is a more authentic place because of it. Nowhere is there even a semblance of something that you would ordinarily find in Europe – no Spanish architecture, no French arondissement town-planning and certainly no German technology.

Instead beautiful Coptic churches are etched against the skyline, and the food is nothing you would find anywhere except here.

This was what I thought when I visited Addis Ababa ten years ago. The infrastructure is not great, but at least whatever there is, is what Ethiopians have made for themselves.

Today there is nowhere that the Chinese influence on life in Africa is more startling than in Addis Ababa. The city is undergoing a major construction boom, where the skyline suddenly has more halfway-done high-rise buildings than ever before, and new hotels are being built at a breakneck speed.

One local Ethiopian feels the money and energy could be better used for food security, given Ethiopia’s history, but it’s easier to build on the land than to plough it.

The new African Union headquarters, built on the ruins of a maximum security prison, is the centerpiece of the Chinese influence.
Built by the Chinese, with Chinese money, for Africa, the building spans 50 000 sq metres and has more space than the AU has staff members. President after thankful president lined up at the opening of the new headquarters on Saturday to thank the Chinese for the $200 million gift. And to top it off, the Chinese gave a further $100 million for the upkeep of the building. Equatorial Guinea president Teodoro Obiang Nguema told the summit that the generous Chinese did not even blink when the AU handed over the building specifications; they just nodded and started flying in Chinese workers to get the job done in record time.

Chinese investment in Addis Ababa is bolder than anywhere else in Africa. You can’t drive for more than five minutes without seeing a massive banner in English and Mandarin celebrating the friendship between Ethiopia and China.

A taxi driver warned me when buying Ethiopian traditional materials, to look out for the fake ones from China.
“They are everywhere and the untrained eye will never spot the difference.”

When I tried to discuss the Chinese influence with an Ethiopian government official, his eyes narrowed and I was told in no uncertain terms: “The Chinese are different; they don’t want to tell us how we should be. This is not colonialism, it is different.”

It is different indeed, but not much.

The problem is not that China is investing; it is that Africans are decrying “neo-colonialism” on every platform, but have no problem accepting huge gifts from China. All this while they know, as the recent botched election of the AU commission chairperson has shown, there is no such thing as a free lunch. Countries make decisions and build relations based on national interests, not for love and charity.

And Chinese investment is not colonialism as we know it, but it works on the same principle. Give without making demands makes for unequal partnerships. And if you take something as big as a $200 million building without even attempting to negotiate that you pay part of it, the price will be the same one as colonialism – the dignity of Africa.

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