China is the leading economic partner of the African continent. But like the economist and political scientist William Gumede, more and more Africans criticize the China-Africa relationship, which they consider to be strongly in China’s interest.

An increasing number of criticisms are being raised across Africa over the trade relationship with China, which became the continent’s leading economic partner in 2009, with USD 220bn of trade in 2014. The South African political scientist William Gumede, who has worked on this issue, in particular as former economic advisor to the Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA), takes a look at this relationship, which he considers to be strongly in China’s interest.


How can China’s relationship with Africa be characterized?

We often forget that China’s interest in Africa was first of all political and dates back to the time of independence. Following the quarrel between Nikita Khrushchev and Mao Zedong in 1960, Beijing sought allies to defend “China’s path towards Socialism”. Left-wing leaders, such as Julius Nyerere in Tanzania, Sékou Touré in Guinea and Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, received his support. It was financial, with the construction of a railway in Tanzania, but mainly ideological. The leaders of the most Marxist-Leninist liberation movements, such as the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) in South Africa, the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) and Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO), received military training in China.

The trade dimension of the China-Africa relationship only really began with China’s growth in the 1990s. As a former poor country which was previously part of what was referred to as the “Third World”, China does not have the slightest complex towards Africa. Its strategy is to be a friendly and non-aggressive partner, making it a principle not to interfere in domestic policy – even if it sells arms to certain regimes, such as Sudan, or swaps credit against mineral resources. This makes all the difference with the former colonial powers in Europe and the USA, although China behaves in Africa like a neocolonial power in many respects.

Why do you make this criticism?

For several reasons. First of all, China’s preference goes to strong and autocratic African States, such as Sudan, Angola and Zimbabwe, which are perceived as being stable, where the contacts are not constantly changing. Beijing’s representatives in Africa use the same method everywhere, whether it be in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Zimbabwe or Angola: they identify the key people, in general the President of the Republic and Secretary General of the party in power, in order to try to buy them off.

Secondly, construction contracts are negotiated by China in exchange for mining concessions in Africa, as in Zambia or Zimbabwe, or loans are allocated in exchange for a share of domestic oil production, as in Angola. Chinese companies subsequently bring in their manpower and materials. Africa stands to gain absolutely nothing from this, not the slightest technology or skills transfer… Stadiums or large theatres are erected to please Heads of State and satisfy populist inclinations, with no vision of the actual long-term needs.


Does that mean that you do not see any advantage in China’s presence in Africa?

In principle, China’s presence could allow Africans to better negotiate contracts with their partners by taking advantage of competition. Our States could easily demand that China opens its market to our manufactured goods, and not only to our raw materials.

Another example is Standard Bank, one of the largest banks in South Africa. In late 2007, a Chinese bank acquired a 20% stake for USD 5.5bn. It is the largest Chinese investment ever made abroad. Standard Bank has derived no benefit from this, but the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) is now present all over Africa through its subsidiary. This is typical of the unilateral nature of trade between Africa and China: despite the presence of two heavyweights from China’s financial world on the Board of Directors of Standard Bank, it has to be noted that the South Africans have not won any new contracts in China.

Could South Africa, as a member of the BRICS group, have had a better access to China?

South African groups find it very difficult to penetrate the Chinese market. They must go through a veritable obstacle course riddled with countless restrictions, barriers and red tape. Those who manage to overcome the obstacles, such as Sasol (chemicals), Sappi (paper) or the South African Breweries (SAB-Miller), which have been established in China for a long time, are still not out of the woods. They must necessarily take on Chinese partners, with which it is sometimes difficult to establish a relationship of trust. For example, Sasol, which at the time of apartheid developed a process to transform coal into fuel that is unique in the world, fears for the security of its trade secrets.

Do Chinese leaders combine their commercial offensive with a specific political discourse?

Certain African leaders are naïve enough to believe the Chinese when they state that they are less hypocritical than the Europeans and that they want to help them. Foreign trade flows tell a very different story. How many African products are sold on the Chinese market? What useful infrastructure has been built in Africa with the support of China?

Increasingly critical discourses have been emerging in recent years among Heads of State in Africa concerning China and its investments. In order to rectify the situation and provide responses, in December 2015, the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, made an official visit to Zimbabwe and South Africa, followed by the President of the Chinese National Assembly in March 2016, who went to Zambia, Rwanda and Kenya. These countries, along with Uganda, Ethiopia and Ghana, were the staunchest defenders of China’s presence, but have become more critical. In Zambia, the relationship with China has become such an important domestic policy issue that the opponent Michael Sata won the election in 2011, due to the resentment caused by China’s presence in the country’s copper mines, with violent social conflicts.

Is this criticism also on the rise in South Africa?

South African opinion has already gone beyond the point of no return in criticism of China. Indeed, since the beginning of this relationship, which was strengthened in the early 2000s when Thabo Mbeki was President, Black trade unions have blamed this partner for the massive job losses in the country’s industries, in particular in textiles. In addition, China is perceived as a support for Jacob Zuma, which hardly makes it popular given the fact that the current President is very much contested.

People who are still sufficiently dogmatic about the West and colonialism to defend an alliance with China are now only to be found in a very limited circle of supporters of the African National Congress (ANC, in power). Concerns have been raised over Jacob Zuma using public funds via the pensions managed by the Public Investment Company (PIC) to allow a consortium led by the South African company Sekunjalo, owned by one of his relatives, to buy out the interests of the South African Independent Media group in 2013. The group includes the regional newspapers The Star, The Cape Argus and The Cape Times, owned by the Irish magnate Tony O’Reilly. China took part in this deal, which aims to extend the Government’s influence over the media, by acquiring minority shares of less than 10%. I am not very worried about the political influence that China may have in South Africa, a democracy whose checks and balances (media, justice, trade unions, lobbies) remain vigilant over everything which concerns their independence.

What is the African responsibility in this unbalanced relationship with China?

They have a large share of responsibility, as African leaders expect everything from external aid. We should ask the Chinese to invest in such or such a sector which we feel is essential, instead of letting them establish their own priorities in Africa.

Africa also bears a heavy responsibility in the way in which the revenues from trade with China are used. Very few countries have used these additional resources to diversify their economies. The bulk of the benefits ends up in the pockets of a small elite. In addition, China’s strategy, which consists of maintaining friendships with the leaders of the parties in power, simply encourages this trend. It is ultimately an aggravating factor in corruption.

The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.

I subscribe to the ID4D newsletter

Once a week, I receive the latest blog posts!