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Chinese Investment Forays Into Africa: Blessing Or Curse?


In the last two decades, Chinese investments in Africa have grown exponentially prompting some commentators, especially from the West, to assert that China was "re-colonising" Africa. During her four country African tour in 2010, former United States Secretary of State, Hilary Rodham Clinton had also re-echoed this sentiment. In fact she had intimated in one speech that China was on the verge of re-colonising Africa. This assertion was again reiterated in the Africa-Europe Summit of the same year. Such sentiments may not be misplaced, from a self-interest point of view, as European nations had monopolised trade with Africa, due to the colonial heritage. In the last decade, China's investment forays into Africa have not only been significant but also very bold.

What makes the West jittery about China's presence in Africa? For those who are not acquainted with Africa's history, especially its fight against colonialism, they might find China's presence in Africa as a novelty. But for those who have followed Africa's socio-political and economic evolution will probably know that China was described by African liberation movements, among other fraternal allies in the Eastern Bloc, as an "all weather friend".

Sino-Africa relations: A brief history

Perhaps it is imperative that we start from the beginning. When Africans wanted to be free from the colonial yoke through armed rebellion, they had very few sympathisers in the West. Thus many turned to the Eastern Bloc for help, especially in the area of weapons that were used in guerrilla insurgencies across Africa, against colonial powers. In the late 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, China has supported the less prestigious of the liberation forces that were fighting to dismantle colonial rule, namely:

§ FRELIMO - Frente de libertação de Moçambique or the Liberation Front of Mozambique which was headed by Samora Machel and which also led the country to independence in 1975;

§ Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe National People's Union (ZANU) which won the polls of 1980 to facilitate Zimbabwe's independence;

§ National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (or União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola in Portuguese) (UNITA) of the late Jonas Savimbi, which would later be classified as a terrorist organisation by some African states, during the protracted Angolan civil war, especially from the mid-1980s to early 1990s;

§ Pan Africanist Congress (NYSE:PAC) of South Africa; and

§ COREMO or the Mozambique Revolutionary Committee - Comité Revolucionário de Moçambique - a small FRELIMO splinter group.

What is of critical importance here is that there was no Western power that was willing to help Africans liberate themselves from colonial bondage. The only Western nations that were generous and genuine in this regard, albeit not militarily, were the Scandinavian countries. Therefore it should not boggle the minds of the West now that Africans easily gravitate towards China in respect of investment, notwithstanding human rights issues and lack of transparency - in regard to both parties.

Bilateral aid

Over and above the military aid that was provided to African liberation movements, China funded development projects in Africa which were again not deemed economically viable by Western financial institutions such as the World Bank. The Tanzania-Zambia railway project is a case-in-point. In 1967 an agreement was concluded by the Chinese government to build the Tanzania-Zambia Railway with the governments of Zambia and Tanzania. This was China's largest foreign aid project and had amounted to close to US$600 million. It was also a concessionary loan to the two countries. The one thousand eight hundred and sixty kilometres long rail line was constructed between 1970 and 1975 to link Zambia to the Indian Ocean port of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. The railway was jointly owned and administered by the two country's agency, the Tanzania-Zambia Railway Authority - TAZARA. Also, the two countries completed the erection of an oil pipeline from Dar es Salaam in 1968 (Noyoo, 2013). TAZARA was necessitated by Rhodesia's (Zimbabwe's) announcement of its Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) on 11 November 1965 - just one year after Zambia's independence. This effectively put Zambia in a precarious position as her trade routes were linked to those of the white minority regimes of Rhodesia and South Africa - a legacy of colonialism. In addition, China was instrumental in training African students at various universities in a wide array of fields such as: agriculture, engineering, medicine, etc.

Strategic engagement

In spite of the disquiet which has found expression in sentiments that China is "re-colonising" Africa, this author, on the contrary, is of the view that the Chinese incursion into Africa is a blessing and can only be a curse if African countries, especially their leaders, do not rise to the occasion by strategically engaging this economic power house. Africans should shape the investment agenda with China and determine what is good for the continent's advancement. For instance, such a stance could allow Africans to call for the banning of unskilled Chinese labour in the building of infrastructure on the continent and call for the employment of local labour, instead. But this can only transpire if Africa has astute and visionary leaders and not the current crop which is at most useless and remains clueless in regard to raising the stakes of Africa's development trajectory vis-à-vis globalisation and Foreign Direct Investment (NYSE:FDI). The case of Zambia is instructive. After Michael Sata became Zambia's fifth president in 2011 (ironically, on a campaign of "chasing away" the Chinese once voted into power), he was unable to strategically engage with them after he discovered that they were a formidable force in Zambia's development equation. Instead, Sata appointed 88 year old Kenneth Kaunda (who was the first president of Zambia) as a special envoy to China. Thereafter, the Vice President, Guy Scott, visited China to "formalise" ties between the Patriotic Front (NYSE:PF) government and that country's Communist Party. However, sending Kaunda to the Chinese on behalf of the Zambian people just shows how out of touch Sata is. The Chinese that Kaunda knew and had interacted with in the 1960s and 1970s, such as Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, are long gone and are of a by-gone era. The current crop, are modern, young and business-savvy Chinese. They are not the ideologues of old. It may be true that Kaunda and Mao were ideological bedfellows, but this new group of Chinese hardly know Kaunda. The Chinese have moved on to higher and advanced levels, whilst Zambian politicians continue to be clueless on how to raise the stakes in regard to Zambia's development. But more importantly, the issue about China is merely about having sharp negotiating skills and knowing how to strategically prod this economic giant, in Zambia's favour.


Zambia and indeed the rest of Africa should be tactical in approach, regarding this economic giant, and know how to leverage their trade in the light of the West, and carve out a new niche for themselves in the global economy. This writer firmly believes that China's fast-paced development is an opportunity for Zambia, as well as Africa, to diversify not only their economies, but their investment portfolios (Noyoo, 2013).


Noyoo, N., (2013). Social Welfare in Zambia: The Search for a Transformative Agenda. London: Adonis and Abbey