In a recent speech at the University of the Witwatersrand, China’s new ambassador to South Africa, Tian Xuejun, announced that the fifth ministerial conference of the Forum on China-Africa Co-operation, which is being held in Beijing on July 19 and 20, would mark the commencement of a “new type of strategic partnership”.
With Maoist undertones, the ambassador echoed the currently fashionable hostility of his government towards the free media, stating: “Some Western politicians and media… tend to make irresponsible remarks on China-Africa relations, attempting to mess up… our co-operation”.
The honeymoon of the much praised Chinese-African friendship is over. The steel wheels of Chinese locomotives in Namibia cracked under their first load, and cannot be repaired. The Angolan government is openly worried about an official figure of just over 270 000 Chinese workers in that country. Also African farmers and artisans no longer buy tools, batteries or tyres imported from China. The quality of the products shipped to African markets is simply too poor.
In South Africa, a total of 60 bilateral agreements with China prevent us from protecting our ferrochrome steel industry by introducing an export tax on ore, which feeds Chinese steel mills. Dozens of these fairly new mills turn South African ore into high value steel. They operate with capital and labour costs that are a mere 20 percent of South African input costs.
The promise by Tian that the “new type of strategic partnership” will create jobs and stimulate manufacturing in Africa is difficult to understand. The highest paid skilled workers in private sector Chinese factories earn about e340 (R3 440) a month, on the basis of an eleven hour working day, with five days leave a year. How can any Chinese assembly or manufacturing plant in South Africa be competitive, when our skilled workers will earn at least four times the Chinese wage, working eight hours a day in decent working conditions?
No doubt, and as I argued two years ago in my piece entitled, “China is filling the gap left by Nepad’s failure”, China-African co-operation has achieved a leap in the rebuilding of essential infrastructure throughout Africa. China’s direct investment in public works in Africa is impressive. Most new railways, roads, airports, convention centres, parliamentary and government buildings, hospitals and schools are the tangible and fundamental results of Chinese credit lines, serviced with African raw materials, to pay Chinese state-owned construction companies.
Thirty-three bilateral Chinese-African investment treaties have laid a solid foundation for future trade and industrial co-operation. Most recently, China’s Sinopec outbid KBR from the US for the building of the first local megafuel refinery in Coega.
However, enforcing legitimate local content policies in co-operation with Chinese industries will become the principal challenge. China’s latest five-year plan places great emphasis on advancing a more scientific and rational, rather than ideological or pragmatic, approach to leadership and the making of decisions. In line with this new thinking, a rational and long-term vision of economic co-operation with Africa must begin to promote sustainable development on this continent.
Sustainable development in Africa cannot be achieved by continuing the current pattern of Africa exchanging its raw materials for sub-standard Chinese industrial products as a means to support the ailing state-owned Chinese industries, effectively subsidising them with the proceeds from the discounting of African minerals.
The scientific reformulation of Chinese-African co-operation must integrate a strategy for the growth of manufacturing and beneficiation in Africa. Only by investing in African employment will China be able to develop the future markets for its products. Just as Toyota eventually had to agree to build its cars in the US, so would GWM, or Suntech, for instance, be wise to consider manufacturing in Africa.
A rational policy formulation would seek inputs from many knowledge sources. This is why Chinese scientific and academic co-operation with Africa should grow into a two-way process. Supporting Chinese language tuition in Africa is paternalistic. Chinese-African friendship will be enhanced if the Chinese decision makers listened to and understood the concerns and voices coming out of Africa.