How will African nations cope with China's economic slowdown?

Mxolisi Ncube says as China's economy slows, Africa needs to build on its successes for inclusive growth

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 October, 2015, 10:30am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 October, 2015, 10:30am

One could be forgiven for believing that the economic slowdown in China may have brought some Western countries to within inches of sending a "we told you so" reaction to their former colonies.

READ MORE: South Africa takes measures to tackle fallout from China slowdown

On the flip side, it is an opportunity for African governments and industries to reaffirm the African Development Bank's transformation strategy for the decade to 2022. In the short term, they need to revisit their survival tactics and diversify from an over-reliance on the export of raw materials.

To most African governments, China and its allies offer a much better alternative to the plunder of Western imperialism

There can be no denying that China's growing ties with Africa have shaped a new economic and political narrative for a continent that has for years struggled to shake off its Western colonial hangover. Most African nations achieved political independence decades ago but, in reality, have not been entirely free from Western political meddling. Western trade and developmental aid have always come with strings attached.

African governments have had to either realign their views on democracy to those of the West or - for those that refused to toe the line, like Zimbabwe - face a barrage of criticism and economy-crippling punishment in the form of sanctions. A few less fortunate ones - like Ivory Coast and Libya - were invaded.

An over-reliance on the Bretton Woods institutions has firmly entrenched the age-old Western grip on Africa and is a major reason - along with bad governance and corruption - why most African economies are no better off now in independence than under colonial rule.

With China entering the game, that grip is slowly but inexorably losing its hold as the Asian economic powerhouse provides new options for the continent.

READ MORE: Sino-African partnership must come to a new balance based on more sustainable mutual growth

For more than a decade, a number of African economies have performed well, mainly as a result of China's own growth. It is also Africa's new economic narrative - the "Look East Policy" - that saw African countries survive the global financial crisis of 2009.

But China has its own economic challenges now and Africa has to find ways to survive - without a return to the economic bondage brought about by over-reliance on Western nations. Strategies are already being built for a sustainable economic revival in various nations, working alongside the African Development Bank's plan.

While China-Africa cooperation has underscored some solid and sustained growth for over a decade, it has been uneven and without a sufficiently firm foundation for Africa, hence the need for a new strategy. Key to that strategy is inclusive, sustainable, environmentally friendly and economically empowering growth.

READ MORE: Africa ascendant although problems linger

Governments, including the continent's economic powerhouse, South Africa, have begun to realise the need to diversify exports from the hitherto dominant commodities markets driven by mining, and focus more on services, telecoms and skills development. One key area of the new strategy is to develop infrastructure, which is expected to raise gross domestic product growth by an estimated 2 percentage points a year. Another is to push regional economic integration to allow Africa to realise its full growth potential, participate in the global economy and share the benefits of a global marketplace.

Private-sector development, key to funding public-sector growth; governance and accountability built on transparency with a crackdown on corruption (a model built on China's own); improving skills and technology; and, strengthening agriculture and food security - these are some key areas that African governments have resolved to focus on.

While some may see the strategy as overly ambitious, political goodwill can help resolve the continent's economic problems, while not completely killing China-Africa cooperation, which remains a key driver of growth, especially with the establishment of the BRICS bank.

In the short term, diversification is a key priority area for governments, especially a focus on tourism, financial services, agriculture, forestry and fisheries sectors.

It is hoped that such moves, along with the continuing trade with China and intra-Africa trade, are the tonic needed to at least survive the consequences of China's economic slowdown and prevent African countries falling back to their old dependency on Western nations.

This is part of an ongoing effort to wean Africa from incessant meddling in their political and governance affairs by former colonisers. Overall, China's attitude has been markedly different from the bullying of Western countries; Beijing has not come with regime-change agendas or strategies designed to put Africa into perpetual debt. Its involvement has largely been mutually beneficial.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, the plan to build roads in return for minerals has been welcome in a country which, despite boasting Africa's richest mineral resources, has a shocking record of merciless exploitation, cruelty and civil war.

China's heavy investment in an East African railway that will link Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and South Sudan is also welcome, greatly improving Africa's infrastructure and widening trade.

The agreement to establish a regional centre of the BRICS New Development Bank in Johannesburg will give not only South Africa, but the whole continent, alternative funding to that provided by the Bretton Woods institutions, which have tied loans to devastating structural "reforms".

To most African governments, China and its allies offer a much better alternative to the plunder of Western imperialism.

The challenge now is for African countries to emulate China by devising their own development plans and developing their economies and social infrastructure. Perhaps academic Luke Hurst, from the Australian National University, summed it up best when he argued while writing for the East Asia Forum, that China and Africa are "friends with benefits".

Mxolisi Ncube is a Zimbabwean-born journalist who lives in Johannesburg, South Africa. He writes on mainly politics, human rights and developmental issues