A large chunk of the trade between the two partners has been facilitated by the Chinese government, which helped Chinese firms explore investment opportunities in Africa, open up new markets by establishing either joint ventures or in most instances wholly-owned Chinese subsidiaries in various African countries. In recent years, these trade networks have also been complemented by China’s cultural diplomacy with the rollout of Confucius centres in a number of African countries. These formal government supported business and cultural networks in Africa also co-exist with swathes of Chinese informal traders who have set-up parallel business and cultural networks. Both these business (formal and informal) and cultural diplomatic processes are not only transforming the socio-economic landscape in African countries, but are also changing the sociology of African cities, towns and rural areas, with an estimated 1 million or more Chinese citizens living in Africa.
Overwhelmingly, Africans and Chinese in Dakar and in Windhoek are interacting in unprecedented ways, co-constituting each other’s social geographies within these spaces. If this grassroots relationship and interaction has become ambivalent and ambiguous, the high-level political conversation has been punctuated since the roll out of FOCAC in 2000 by the good story of China’s benevolence, and a relationship based on mutual respect and trust. This has of course been argued by continental political elites to contrast sharply with ghastly European engagement in Africa – which framed Africa for decades as a liability and not necessarily an opportunity. Such simplistic framing of Europe in Africa compared with China in Africa has not been helpful in crafting a consistent Africa-driven developmental agenda. However, with discontent in African countries rising about China’s investment and labour practices and the dislocation of small businesses, a new conversation with China has started to emerge from the bottom-up. This conversation has found echo in political circles and also found its way into some of the speeches delivered by African leaders at the Fifth FOCAC Ministerial held last week in Beijing.
It was therefore encouraging when President Jacob Zuma of South Africa expressed the view that Africa should become cautious with new trade partners in light of its historical experience with Europe. Notwithstanding a generally upbeat perspective of the Sino-Africa relationship, the crucial message by President Zuma about caution with regard to China was not lost. As a consequence, there is a window of opportunity with regard to engaging China on a slightly different template. Crucially, going forward with the next FOCAC meeting to be hosted by South Africa in 2015, African states must work on creating a relationship that is based on an African-centred developmental agenda. Thus far, China’s engagement in Africa has been very much driven by China’s domestic priorities and preferences. Therefore, Africa must start the process of re-calibrating the skewed trade-relationship that has characterised Sino-Africa engagement over the past decade or more. In order to anchor the low-politics of trade, which have enjoyed emphasis on the part of China, Africa must now seek to align China’s engagement with the continent on the basis of the key challenges facing Africa - peace, security and development. Africa as a collective has certain advantages that it must put on the table when it engages China on these issues.
Bar the many pitfalls, Africa is trying to constitute itself as a democratic space. This suggests that a Sino-Africa agenda should also be driven by Africa’s democratic aspirations, of which good governance is an essential pillar. China’s insistence on the norm of non-interference in the domestic affairs of states has enabled it to engage African states in different forms and this has in some instances fuelled predatory practices, including corruption and political instability. The net-effect of these corrosive practices originating in the domestic environment of African countries has been slow progress with regard to the implementation of the African Union’s normative commitments as enshrined in its Constitutive Act of 2002. With externally generated corruption and China’s relative indifference with regard to issues of good governance and democracy, the regional and continental agenda will be retarded. Admittedly, there has been slight movement in Beijing on these concerns. Still, African leaders, notably South Africa and the relatively stable democratic states (Namibia, Senegal, Botswana etc.) should include in a coherent package good governance and democracy as crucial component for the stability of African countries. With an eye on the next FOCAC fête in South Africa in 2015, these essential pillars in Africa’s continental agenda should anchor the Sino-African dialogue.
* Alfredo Tjiurimo Hengari is Head of the South African Foreign Policy and African Drivers Programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs, based at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.