China loves Africa

The Scramble for Africa in the 21st Century: A View from the South

by Harry Stephan, Michael Power, Angus Fane Hervey and Raymond Steenkamp Fonesca

(Renaissance Press)

It has long been suggested by hopefuls around the world that the hegemonic rule of the United States cannot last and that, like Rome before it, Washington too will fail to hold on to the inordinate amount of power and influence that it currently wields. But what will a shift in global power look like? And what will it mean for the African continent?

The authors of this book, drawing on the theory and paradigm of international relations, argue that a shift from a unipolar world order to a new multi-polar system is inevitable. The two potential “pillars of power” that they anticipate arising to challenge US dominance are the European Union and China.
It is the implications for Africa of China’s rising power that constitute the focus of this book.

Just as the Cold War witnessed the ideological courtship and favouring of African countries by both superpowers, we are now beginning to see a similar kind of courtship occurring between China and African countries. The difference, the authors posit, is that the courtship of the US and the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was “ideological and political” as opposed to the purely economic intentions of China.

This is an interesting but problematic point, because surely the ideological and political implications of becoming enmeshed with China cannot be separated from the pure economics of it? This is not something that is adequately addressed in a book that concentrates on the mechanics of the world economy and the potential opportunities offered to Africa by a free-market relationship with China.

Much has been made recently of the relationship between Zimbabwe and China and, although the transactions between these two states are technically economic, the political implications demand greater attention.

Rumours that China is responsible for providing Zimbabwe with riot control equipment and surveillance equipment used for bugging cellphones are rife, and in 2005 Zimbabwe’s Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa was quoted as saying: “The Chinese have a fairly advanced prison system, and we would want to tap into that expertise.”

Questions about China’s economic influence in Africa cannot be answered without some consideration of their political influence. This is not to say that Western economic investments in Africa have ever been value-free, far from it, as the often bloody history reveals, but it is a mistake to assume that China’s investments are any less value-laden.

The authors correctly point out that, unlike Europe, China does not have the historically fraught relationship with African countries “characterised by exploitation”, and can claim credit for supporting various resistance movements in the drive for independence. This is true, but the jury is still out on whether China’s interest in Africa represents a new imperialism that will prioritise economic gain over human rights issues or environmental concerns, or whether it symbolises a re-emergence of solidarity within the periphery.

These ideological and political questions aside, this book is an important synthesis of theory and case studies (for example, De Beers and Gillette), and will certainly contribute significantly to the debates currently raging about the relationship between China and Africa.

A strong focus on the role of South Africa and, more specifically, the controversial succession debate within the ANC, makes this particularly pertinent reading for South Africans interested in our place in the shifting landscape of the global economy.

The authors have great faith in the principles of Nepad to secure a brighter economic future for Africa. They discuss the succession debate in terms of the power of the ANC leadership to ensure that the ideals of Nepad are successfully acted upon after Mbeki has stepped down. The authors confidently predict that Ramaphosa will take the hot-seat, backed by the powerful influence of Nelson Mandela—and that drawing on his experience of the market, he will be more than adept at helping Africa to embrace free market economic policies. Whether this will be a good thing or not is, of course, up for debate.

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