China’s role in Africa defies conventional stereotypes

​The role of China in Africa’s development has gathered much momentum in policy, academic and media circles. Despite disagreements about the forms it should take, all are in virtual agreement that the People’s Republic of China and enterprises of Chinese origin are active role players in the continents attainment of the twinned outcomes of Industrialisation and Infrastructure development.

These were the views shared by the Centre for Africa-China Studies (CACS), in partnership with China-Africa Joint Research and Exchange at a two-day symposium at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) on 18 & 19 September 2019, on the theme ‘Africa-China Industrial and Infrastructural Cooperation: Drivers and Prospects’.

Attendees from academia, business, and the policy world discussed how China’s Belt and Road and Silk Road initiatives are creating fresh waves of road, rail, port, and energy investment in Africa, making the continent more connected internally and with the outside world, as well as concern about spontaneous lending and potential dependency on China.

In opening the conference, Dr David Monyae, Co-Director: UJ’s Confucius Institute (UJCI), emphasised that a sustainable relationship between Africa and China is good for both parties and the world at large. Dr Monyae warned against rhetoric that characterises the relationship as neocolonial, and stressed that China’s investment in Africa is multidimensional and does not just include natural resources.

“Like in any other relationship, the Africa-China industrial and infrastructural relationship is not spared of challenges. China has latterly realised that its economic progress trumped its commitment to a safe environment. Working with China’s experience, we hope that Africa will preclude the pitfalls of industrial and technological growth that come in the form of pollution.”

“It is encouraging that China’s presence in Africa has been appreciated not only by African leaders but by ordinary Africans who readily feel its impact,” added Dr Monyae.

In his keynote lecture, H.E Ambassador Lin Songtian, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the People’s Republic of China to the Republic of South Africa detailed a long history of Sino-African interaction dating back even before any European presence on the continent. Ambassador Songtian’s emphasis on the mutual respect and shared histories between China and Africa mutes the idea that China is a new coloniser.

Hon. Dr Arkebe Oqubay, Senior Minister and special advisor to the Ethiopian Prime Minister, meanwhile also emphasised that China is not new to Africa. “The relationship has been a lifetime friendship,” he said. His paper featured some of the non-tangible determinants; including the factors which attract China to the continent, as well as looked at the policy and governance environment in Africa. “As a leading Constructor in Industrialisation, China doesn’t have any conditionality”.

The conference saw the launch of the book entitled “China-Africa and an Economic Transformation”. The book examines China’s rise to explain the implications and externalities of its economic emergence in an era of globalisation; focuses on evolving China-Africa relations and institutional and policy frameworks for promoting cooperation; describes the Chinese approach to doing business in Africa and considers the impact of China on Africa’s industrialization and structural transformation.

“Economic development delayed, means poverty extended” noted UJ’s Vice-Chancellor & Principal Prof Tshilidzi Marwala, He added that “this conference is testimony to the deepening relationship not only between China and the world but between China and Africa”.

Prof Marwala’ s special address considered steering Africa’s education policies to best harness the fourth industrial revolution. “We are living in the world were automation is changing the world. Technology must become an ideology in this new era that is calling for new ideas, new visions, new behaviors and new actions.”

One strategy raised during the conference was that of African regionalism and pan-Africanism. Numerous participants noted that improving connectivity and logistics is important for promoting African goods and commodity exports, which can thereby help African countries to integrate more fully into global value chains.

The 2-day conference concluded on the note that while there are concerns about China’s interests in Africa, with criticisms often ranging from China’s self-interest to the nature of the financing relationship and increasing indebtedness of African economies. But abundant Chinese funds at a time when African countries are looking for alternative sources of development finance, and the global appetite and capacity of Chinese construction firms, could be a win-win combination for China and Africa.

Also, China’s investment in Africa in agricultural technology and training could facilitate agricultural growth in Africa. China itself has demonstrated sustainable growth in agriculture, improvement in the livelihood of small-scale farmers, and success in reducing rural poverty.

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