China and Barack Obama’s Defective Offer of Equal Partnership

James N. Kariuki*

Obama with African Leaders at White House The most vivid testament of China’s sense of fellowship with Africa so far is the railway that the Chinese built in the 1970s connecting Tanzania and Zambia. Inspiration to construct the Tanzam Railway, otherwise known as TAZARA or Uhuru Railway, was drawn from several inputs but it was largely driven by political considerations.

In the early 1960’s white-ruled Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) longed for unbridled self-rule from colonial Britain in order to determine its own future. Clearly, Rhodesia’s ruling white-supremacists intended to be included in consolidating a white-ruled Southern African region composed of itself, South Africa and Portuguese Angola and Mozambique. Such an alliance would make it more manageable to resist assaults of ‘winds of change’ blowing across black Africa. To affirm their seriousness, Rhodesian white minority ultimately proclaimed Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) on 11 November 1965.

One harmful consequence of a fully independent Rhodesia was that it would threaten Zambia’s external trade routes; Zambia would be landlocked in a hostile neighborhood of unwelcoming white oligarchies. To survive as a copper-exporting state, and to continue supporting the liberation struggle against white domination in Southern Africa, Zambia needed an independent access to the sea. That choice finally focused on a railway link to Tanzania’s port of Dar es Salaam.

Presidents Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda made heroic attempts to secure funding for the proposed railway from Western sources but they were unsuccessful. They failed even after approaching Britain, World Bank, US, Russia and Japan. Invariably, the West rejected a largely political railroad on economic grounds; insisting that the undertaking was not economically viable.

In early 1965, however, Tanzania and Zambia got a pleasant surprise. The Chinese said to a visiting Nyerere, “If a railway is important to you and Zambia, we will build it for you.” On the basis of racial fellowship and shared historical experience the Chinese appreciated that the railroad was largely political and accepted that as a sufficient reason to assist. They realized that the project would be challenging and expensive, but it needed to be done in the interest of serving African nationalism and liberation of Southern Africa from white minority domination. China was indeed a ‘soul mate.’

After five years of negotiations, construction of the Tanzam Railway began in 1970 and was completed in 1975, two years ahead of schedule. The project cost about US $500 million (and 64 Chinese lives), making it the largest single foreign-aid project undertaken by the People’s Republic of China anywhere at that time.

Obama’s current ‘Partnership of Equals’ presumes that Africa will freely welcome Western companies to invest in the continent in open competition with the others, including the Chinese. According to the American President, US companies will ultimately prevail because they invest in local economies. That is vastly different from the Chinese who are only interested in exploiting African natural resources.

Obama’s comparisons are best tested against the South Africa’s experience which has been dominated by Western companies. In this regard, it is interesting to note in passing that Obama was originally driven into a political career precisely by a bid to defy wrongdoing by US companies in SA. His first political speech as a 19 year old college student sought to convince fellow Americans to push US companies to divest from SA because their investments and technology were used to support brutal apartheid system.

Yet, US business maintained the attitude of business as usual and actually neutralized 3rd world’s bid to isolate apartheid SA economically. It was only when the US imposed economic sanctions by the passage of the 1986 Comprehensive Congressional Anti-Apartheid Act that the apartheid regime started to take steps towards majority rule.

Obama has come a long way since the 1980s. As an innocent young student at Occidental College he was against the presence of American companies in SA. As the American President he was their spokesman during his 2013 African tour.  What had changed?

Prof-James-KariukiWhat about long term legacy of Western businesses in SA? It is almost a contradiction in terms that SA is the biggest economy in Africa and yet the country remains horrifically poor in absolute and relative terms. Indeed, SA overtook Brazil in 2009 as the most skewed society in the world. How to manage the poverty and narrow the offensive wealth gap has created internal political tensions and ideological divisiveness.

The current wisdom is that the SA government must sustain national economic growth to avoid threats of unemployment and political instability. To do this effectively, the country must create suitable climate for foreign infusion of capital. The presumption here is that, foreign investments are needed for national economic growth. National growth and foreign investments are either the same man or two men in alliance.

Conversely, the leftist thinkers see the stay-the-course approach is defective. It encourages economic management of the economy by outsiders, and the profits are taken out of the country. This fact deepens and perpetuates local poverty.  Additionally, the stay-the-course attitude encourages arrogance of foreign managers and facilitates traditional economic marginalization of black citizens. It is even suggested that the August 2012 Marikana Massacre where scores of miners were gunned down by the police in broad daylight was a manifestation of these built-in contradictions.

It is the view of the thinkers of left orientation that the SA government needs to take control of the commanding heights of the economy, namely, nationalizing the mines and white-owned land. By so-doing, the government will capture the necessary financial resources and redistribute the national wealth more equitably. This is said to be the most effective way to blunt the offensive inequality of wealth between white haves and black have-nots.

The concept of nationalization in SA appeals more widely than it is ordinarily acknowledged.  It attracts in part because it is seen as an intrinsically valid approach to remedy problems associated with poverty. Further, it feeds into the persuasive thinking that, given what South Africans went through to dismantle apartheid, everyone should be able to come to the party. Significantly also, the notion of nationalization is appealing because it contains a dose of anti-white sentiments.  Racial undercurrent remains a powerful force in SA body politic.

Surprisingly, aversion to excessive white wealth in an endless sea of black poverty has spread to the moderate sections of the society. Two years ago, Archbishop Desmond Tutu raised many eyebrows by proposing imposition of a white wealth tax to speed up South Africa’s economic transformation.  Tutu is hardly a firebrand radical.

The world-renowned Professor Ali Mazrui had lamented earlier that in 1994 Blacks of SA got a bad deal to the extent that abolishment of apartheid excluded economic concessions for them. In his logic, the white man said to the Black man, ‘You take the crown, we will keep the jewels.’ In this manner, economic inequality was entrenched by consent.

Four years later, Thabo Mbeki was the country’s Deputy President. He noted that, regrettably,  SA had continued to evolve into two nations in one: one white and rich and the other black and poor. Mbeki knew full well that black rule had inherited a deeply fragment society as a legacy derived from historical Western economic penetration of his country.  Other SA thinkers share this view.

On balance, China’s character reference projects an entirely different image. In Sino-African relations, there has been space for the heart; the Chinese have reached out for the soul of Africa and Africans have responded positively. Tanzam Railroad attests to this claim. It is an 1860 kilometers long remarkable piece of engineering with 10 kilometers of tunnels and 300 bridges. Africans worked shoulder to shoulder with 50, 000 Chinese engineers and technicians to build it. It was a spectacular show of friendly cooperation between China and Africa. The US cannot come anywhere close to topping those sentiments. Indeed, Sino-African friendship is currently a major worry of the West.

It is extravagantly bold to think, as Barack Obama seems to, that SA would accept US companies to re-enter its political economy without relevant screening of character references. Obama’s ‘partnership of equals’ needs to revisit the drawing board. After all, American multinationals continue to resist paying reparations for apartheid victims who were wrongly injured.

**James N. Kariuki is Professor of International Relations (Emeritus) and an independent writer.  He is based in South Africa. Views expressed in the blog Global Africa are his.

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