Cape town: Friend or foe? Comrade or colonizer?
Business and political leaders attending an annual conference meant to focus entrepreneurial attention on Africa hailed China’ and India’ huge appetite for raw materials as a powerful driving force to move the African economy up a gear.
But the discussion at the World Economic Forum’s annual conference on Africa, which ended Friday, was tinged with a now familiar note of anxiety that the two giants would exploit Africa’s resources and leave the continent empty handed.
“It’s an opportunity of a lifetime for a continent such as Africa to have such great attention and increasing demand for its resources from two countries both having populations of more than 1 billion,” said Tokyo Sexwale, a South African business tycoon who is a potential candidate to be the country’s next president.
But he said that the big challenge for China would be to prove to Western critics that it was not motivated by the same financial imperialism of which the West stood accused in the past.
China has found a seemingly limitless market in Africa for its cheap goods. And oil-rich countries such as Nigeria and Angola provide the natural resources China needs to sustain its rapid growth.
The Chinese economy is growing by about 10%. Much of Africa’s estimated 5.5% economic growth last year -- well ahead of the global average -- was attributed to China’s near-insatiable demand for the continent’s oil, gas, timber, copper and other natural resources.
“China is growing. China has a voracious appetite for many things. They are buying anything under the sun to support a growth that has taken off,” said South African trade and industry minister Mandisi Mpahlwa. “Should we stop them? Should we say they should not buy from us because it’s only raw materials they are buying?”
He said China’s goal of doubling its rate of growth by 2020 offered boundless opportunities for Africa to benefit from the boom.
Africa has become a crucial part of China’s growth strategy. Two-way trade soared 40% to US$55.5 billion last year, and Beijing says it believes that figure will rise to $100 billion by 2020. At a Sino-African summit in Beijing late last year, Chinese entrepreneurs signed deals worth $1.9 billion (euro1.45 billion) with African governments and firms.
China’s former foreign minister, Li Zhaoxing illustrated the extent of the ties: China had 900 projects in Africa; more than 800 Chinese companies are operating in Africa; it has sent 16,000 medical personnel to the continent; offered scholarships to 20,000 African students and trained 17,000 African professionals. And so the list went on.
China’s relationship with Africa was based on “friendship and equality,” said Li, who made a point of greeting African delegates in their native languages.
Not everyone agreed.
“We cannot develop industries if within China itself, people see successful stories in Africa and make cheap copies. It doesn’t matter how much aid they give us because they are killing our capability,” Kenyan businessman Chris Kirubi said to ringing applause, reflecting widespread concern about cheap Chinese counterfeit products.
Despite the sustained economic growth in Africa, the continent still lags behind the rest of the world. A UN report last week said not a single country in sub-Saharan Africa is on target to meet UN goals of cutting extreme poverty by half, ensuring universal primary education and stemming the AIDS pandemic by 2015. Malnutrition rates and child mortality are rising and African leaders continuously berate developed countries for reneging on promises of aid and debt relief.
Much of the theme at the World Economic Forum conference was about Africa taking control of its own destiny and boosting its own performance.
At Friday’s closing ceremony, South African President Thabo Mbeki said one of the biggest problems was fragmentation _ the continent’s countries often impose high trade barriers against each other’s products.
“Everybody recognizes its necessary to break down barriers and increase trade among ourselves,” he said. “The challenge arises in doing all of these things.”
Indian science and technology minister Kapil Sibal voiced impatience with the African complaints.
“This has nothing to do with China, India and Africa,” he said. “Africa must empower itself. They must design their future, they must empower their future.”
He said Africa should take note of the example set by India, which lowered its barriers to Chinese imports.
“Chinese goods flowed into India and once they flow its a tsunami,” he said. But he said that Indian businesses adjusted by raising the quality of their products and thrived on the challenge.
Sexwale, the South African businessman, appealed to the Chinese to allow African finished products, and not just raw materials, on to its markets.
“As for tsunamis, we ask you to keep them Asian, don’t send them to Africa,” he said.