When President Xi Jinping goes to South Africa he will naturally assure Africans of China’s continued friendship, desire to invest, to trade broadly, and to assist most of the forty-nine sub-Saharan African countries with their massive new or refurbished infrastructural needs. But he could also inaugurate a strikingly new and more favorable economic relationship with Africa that reflects Africa’s paramount needs.
China will long continue to desire the oil and gas that sub-Saharan African countries have to sell, and Africa’s copper, cobalt, iron ore, ferrochrome, coltan, timber, and much more. China wants to grow robustly and Africa in turn requires the resulting Chinese demand for its myriad resources, and even for its agricultural produce, to maintain its own recent growth at about 5 percent a year, on average.
For ten years, and increasingly since 2007 or so, the China-Africa relationship has been symbiotic and mutually rewarding. China, now the world’s largest importer of petroleum, has satisfied a sizable proportion of its own energy needs from Africa, especially from the Sudan, Equatorial Guinea, Angola, and Nigeria. China is also helping to discover new oil deposits in Mozambican Indian Ocean waters.
China helps to mine manganese in Gabon, copper in the Democratic Republic of Congo, iron ore in Liberia, and diamonds in Zimbabwe. It purchases many other primary resources, and grows maize and cassava on leased land in several African countries. It owns major copper and coal mines in Zambia.
Africans in many of the forty-nine sub-Saharan African countries know that their recent bubble of prosperity builds on China’s own regular rapid economic resurgence. Zambians on the Copperbelt and in the south of the country, where coal is mined, know Chinese firms as employers. In other countries with major resources, Africans know that Chinese companies are digging for rich ores, shipping petroleum back home, or, surprisingly, engaged in large-scale fishing in countries such as Senegal.
Some Africans come into contact with Chinese-financed Confucian institutes and think tanks, travel to China on Chinese-provided bursaries, enter one of the thirty-nine Chinese embassies that now serve African-Chinese relations, or hear or read news supplied by China, especially in Kenya.
But most Africans interact with Chinese more frequently on construction projects. One-third of all of the construction in Africa is in Chinese hands. Indeed, 75 percent of all Chinese investment in Africa goes into infrastructure. That amounts to at least $50 billion being spent on the revamping of roads in Kenya, Malawi, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and on and on; on refurbishing major railways in Tanzania, Nigeria, Gabon, and many other places; on new bridges in many countries; on harbors in places such as Angola and Ghana; and on massive hydroelectric supplying dams across major rivers in Ethiopia, the Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Zambia; on coal-fired power plant installations in Botswana, on the new African Union flagship headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; on the Sudan’s pipeline; on new space age communications facilities for the Congo and Nigeria; on a military training college in Zimbabwe; and on stadia for football (soccer) and political rallies almost everywhere. The list is endless and impressive. As former British Prime Minister Tony Blair commented, “If you tell the Chinese you want a road, the next day someone is out there with a shovel.”
This is all to Africa’s good and to China’s benefit (as it purchases oil, minerals, and so on). But the striking disparity in the relationship is that Chinese enterprises and construction operations in Africa employ many fewer Africans in unskilled laboring positions than they obviously could. Earlier investors and colonial overlords never dirtied their own hands, giving jobs and transferring at least some skills to Africans. China is notorious for doing far less than it might, and for transferring very few technological or other skills to Africa. China regularly imports labor from China to perform work that Africans might, and that its peoples and its trade unions are ready to supply. Meanwhile, millions of Chinese are in Africa constructing, trading, investing, farming, and so on. Chinese soldiers guard pipelines and train pilots to fly Chinese jets.
Formal unemployment in sub-Saharan Africa now averages 40 percent or more. In some countries, such as Zimbabwe, unemployment rates range upwards to 80 percent. Even in relatively wealthy South Africa, there are massive numbers of Africans without work. And in Zambia, where there are substantial Chinese-run mining enterprises, formal wage unemployment levels are about 40 percent. (Official figures in many countries may be lower, but these numbers are often under-estimated.)
When President Xi Jinping sits down with African leaders he could gain much favor by promising to end the “employ Chinese” preference. If he fails to comes to terms with Africa’s real human needs in this way, Africans may sooner or later decide that it is in their collective interest to bargain not bilaterally with China, as the forty-nine nations now do, but multilaterally – as the African Union or, more likely as the Southern African Development Community, the East African Community, the Economic Commission of the West African States, and so on. By doing so, the nations of sub-Saharan Africa will be able to exert greater leverage, trading their oil or copper (which China wants) for greater employment as well as the massive construction that is now under way across the sub-continent.
Helping resolve Africa’s real job shortage crisis in this way would greatly boost China’s global and African standing. It would also assist in fending off African complaints that the importation of Chinese trade goods (mattresses, tee shirts, shoes, and the like) undercuts African manufacturing efforts and inhibits the development of indigenous mercantile pursuits. Several Nigerian textile plants have closed because of the availability of inexpensive cloth from China. In Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, local merchants claim that Chinese chickens are sold in the markets so cheaply that local chicken merchants cannot compete.
If Africa is to prosper and her peoples to enter the global village, China’s sustained avarice for Africa’s resources will provide the means. If China falters, Africa loses. But relations between China and Africa could also become even more mutually beneficial than they now are if China created jobs as well as royalty payments to countries and rulers, and if China supported rather than competed with embryonic African commercial entities.
Robert I. Rotberg is the inaugural Fulbright Research Chair in Political Development at the Balsillie School of International Affairs and Visiting Fulbright Scholar at CIGI. Robert is the founding director of the Program on Intrastate Conflict and Conflict Resolution at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, and was previously professor of political science at MIT, academic vice president of Tufts University and president of Lafayette College.