Beware of foreigners bearing gifts

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Governments in Africa, including Botswana, came to a standstill last week as nearly 50 of the continent’s presidents and prime minsters flocked to Beijing, China for the 7th Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC).
Botswana’s delegation is reported to have been over 120 as ministers, senior Government officials, leaders of state-owned entities and the private sector who queued up to vie for a slice of the $60 billion investment funds on offer.
This has been the biggest meeting of African leaders on record with more heads of state congregating in Beijing than any meeting of the African Union in Addis Ababa. It reflects the growing geo-political role that China is forging to woo the continent into its sphere of interest, as interest from traditional investors from Europe and the United States declines.
This is not the first time that Africa has become a pawn in global geo-political wars. In 1894, European powers carved up the continent at the so-called Berlin Conference drawing artificial lines of spheres of interest when set the boundaries of today’s 54 countries. In the 1960s and 70s, the United States and Russia fought proxy wars on the Continent during the liberation struggles as part of the global cold war between Capitalism and Communism.
We are now caught up in another global struggle and if we have learnt anything from history, Africa will not emerge as winners whichever side wins the crusade for global dominance.
Botswana’s experience with Chinese investment is indicative of what is happening across the continent. Over the past 10 years, China has been the world’s biggest investor in Africa, primarily in funding and building major infrastructure projects. In Botswana this has included the Sir Seretse Khama International Airport, the ill-fated Morupule B Power Station and multiple schools and public buildings throughout the country. Most of the cranes towering over Gaborone’s Central Business District (CBD), advertise Chinese state -owned building contractors posing as private enterprises. The dominance of China in our construction sector has effectively killed off our domestic building industry which cannot compete against the state backed Chinese behemoths.
In addition to stifling the local (and regional) construction industry, there are other costs – also reflected in throughout Africa. Questionable quality has emerged as a recurring theme, of which Morupule is a classic example. The power station has been plagued with technical problems and will probably cost Botswana twice the contract price before it provides reliable power at prices we can afford. SSKI Airport was plagued by delays to such an extent that the contract with the Chinese contractor was cancelled and a new contractor – at an additional cost – had to be brought in to finish the international gateway to the Capital.
Another cost must be the retail sector, where Chinese stores have gradually emerged to dominate the small and medium size retail clothing, furniture and building supplies outlets; capitalizing on their supply chain purchasing power to mainland China.
However, the Chinese are not doing anything that has not happened before during centuries of rape of Africa. Traders including slave traders – followed the furrows ploughed by missionaries such as David Livingstone who boasted openly that European traders would “civilize” the dark continent.
Let’s hope that Botswana, and the other African countries fawning in China have read their history and, unlike the Trojans, will beware of foreigners bearing gifts.