Broader approach to Africa welcome

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 July, 2012, 12:00am


Africa generally has not had happy post-colonial economic relationships with its former masters. This was echoed in comments by South African Prime Minister Jacob Zuma about the dominance of infrastructure and raw materials projects in the burgeoning trade links between China and the continent. He told the China-Africa forum in Beijing this pattern was unsustainable in the long term and should be altered. He said that after the continent's experience with Europe, which had tried to influence African countries for its own benefit, it should be cautious in developing partnerships with other countries.

Zuma was clearly serving notice on Beijing that concerns that China is exploiting Africa for its energy resources are being taken seriously and that they should be addressed. He apparently stuck to prepared remarks, even though the Chinese side had effectively anticipated him. Earlier, at a ceremonial opening of the forum, President Hu Jintao pledged US$20 billion in fresh loans to Africa over the next three years, double the amount pledged three years earlier. More significantly, he said the assistance would be broadly targeted, which counters past criticism that it has been focused on infrastructure that supports China's access to raw materials to fuel its economic growth. As well as supporting the continuing need for infrastructure, it would also be aimed at developing agriculture, manufacturing and the small-to-medium-size business sector, which is critical to sustainable economic activity and job creation.

Generally, Zuma champions China's role in Africa. He rightly acknowledged the benefits of its commitment. On the positive side, China has contributed to a decade of strong growth not only in building infrastructure, financing and debt relief, but through the export of cheap manufactured goods that are affordable to poor consumers. Trade flows have grown to US$166 billion a year, driven by raw material exports such as crude oil and copper. At the same time, however, debate over China's investment drive has simmered, with Western claims that Beijing overlooks human rights abuses, corruption and environmental degradation as it pursues 'cheque-book diplomacy' and does not hire enough locals.

While the trade relationship may remain unbalanced, China's infrastructure investments have made a critical contribution to the economic progress of the resource-rich, but underdeveloped continent. Given that China's need for resources security gives them bargaining power, African leaders can help themselves by creating a positive environment for diversified investment through raising standards of governance, building strong institutions and expanding the provision of basic services like housing, health and education.