The most recurring one claims that Africa is madly in love with China, but that it needs to ‘get real’ and to ‘wake up’ from this unsustainable ‘romance’. The second asserts that Africans are actually allergic to Chinese presence on the continent and that they prefer to stay away from this exploitative partner. Well, frankly both stories are getting a bit old.
The Africa of today is neither heads over heals for China, nor does it have an aversion to it. It is in fact increasingly looking at the partnership pragmatically as it tries to define what China and other courters have to offer. A keen observer of African affairs over the past couple of years would quickly note that the African tradition of Mwolu – a Luo word meaning handling strangers with care – has been dropped for a more outspoken stance regarding the continent’s international partnerships in general and China in particular.
To mention only four recent examples: the statement of Botswana President, Ian Khama, on the need to limit the number of public contracts being granted to Chinese companies due to poor service quality; South Africa’s President, Jacob Zuma’s statement at the last China-Africa Summit in Beijing in 2012 noting that Africa’s trade relations with China are ‘unsustainable’ and that China needs to work towards a more equal partnership to stay relevant; the fact that a number of Chinese companies have been convicted of corruption charges in Algeria; or even the fact that the Zambian president, Michael Sata, came to power using a populist anti-china agenda.
These are but some indications that Africa is not blind to the risks of a Chinese dominance and that there is a degree of awareness of the danger of creating new dependencies in a fast changing geopolitical context.
We need a new story about Africa’s relationship with China. In fact we need a new narrative about Africa’s international relations altogether; a story that looks first and foremost at geopolitics and interests. To start with, one should not ignore the interests at play at country level. Certain African leaders would be looking for quick deliverables to win elections and maintain popular support for their positions, which they might not be able to secure before a lengthy political dialogue with traditional partners. Others would be looking at sustaining the cycle of corruption, with Chinese companies being new players who join those who were traditionally operating on the continent.
But most importantly, Africa is now looking at its partnerships with a more critical, pragmatic business lens as it seeks to build partnerships that deliver on concrete, timely needs. As the world changes, it is expected that a continent looking for solutions to its multiple crises goes windowshopping for the right partner before buying. Never in its independent history has Africa had the opportunity of choosing and working with multiple partners in order to deliver on its own agenda.
There is an awareness that the continent now can pick and choose; that each international partner needs to show added value if it is to remain relevant in Africa. It is about Carpe Diem: seizing the opportunity to be able to get the most out of international partners. Whether that partner is a traditional partner (the EU, the US) or a so-called emerging partner (China, India, Brazil, Turkey, etc.), it will need to compete for space.
As Rwanda’s Paul Kagame stated in 2010, “it is not a question of whether China or the West has more honest intentions with us. It is about something else. Why don’t we talk about how we can get on our feet on our own? We do not always want to be the victims and to serve as a battleground for foreign interests.”
This blog post features the author’s personal views and does not represent the view of ECDPM.