Investment May 2010

The Next Empire

All across Africa, new tracks are being laid, highways built,ports deepened, commercial contracts signed—all on an unprecedented scale, and led by China, whose appetite for commodities seems insatiable. Do China’s grand designs promise the transformation,at last, of a star-crossed continent? Or merely its exploitation? The author travels deep into the heart of Africa, searching for answers.

“I would say this is a transformational moment for Africa,” Moyo told me from London last spring. “I see the explosive development of infrastructure. I see people producing more food and having more jobs … And besides, I don’t see how otherwise you are going to get a civil society, except by building up a middle class.”

Even taking the recent global downturn into account, this has been a hopeful time for a historically downtrodden continent. Per capita income for sub-Saharan Africa nearly doubled between 1997 and 2008, driven up by a long boom in commodities, by a decrease in the prevalence of war, and by steady improvements in governance. And while the downturn has brought commodity prices low for the time being, there is a growing sense that the world’s poorest continent has become a likely stage for globalization’s next act. To many, China—cash-rich, resource-hungry, and unfickle in its ardor—now seems the most likely agent for this change.

But of course, Africa has had hopeful moments before, notably in the early 1960s, at the start of the independence era, when many governments opted for large, state-owned economic schemes that quickly foundered, and again in the 1970s, another era of booming commodity prices, when rampant corruption, heavy debt, and armed conflict doomed any hopes of economic takeoff.

China’s burgeoning partnership with Africa raises several momentous questions: Is a hands-off approach to governmental affairs the right one? Can Chinese money and ambition succeed where Western engagement has manifestly failed? Or will China become the latest in a series of colonial and neocolonial powers in Africa, destined like the others to leave its own legacy of bitterness and disappointment? I was heading south on the Tazara—through the past and into the future, to the sites of some of China’s most ambitious efforts on the continent—to try to get some early sense of how the whole grand project was proceeding.

The call to board the train came early, and I took my place in an orderly embarkation line in the departure hall, eventually walking down the central platform and past the luridly disheveled wreckage of a long-immobilized train. On the adjacent track, my train, the Kilimanjaro Express (which, curiously, goes nowhere near Mount Kilimanjaro), looked natty by comparison, its dark-olive paint unmarred. I clambered aboard and, after a brief confusion over seating assignments, settled with my three cabinmates into a tight little space with twin bunk beds along both walls and a table in the middle.

Isaac Mpotia, a 50-year-old Tanzanian electrical engineer who had studied in Germany, sat by the window, directly across from me. He was taking the train home to Iringa, in southern Tanzania, I later learned, after a long stint doing engine work for the Tazara in Dar. He was quiet and a little somber while the train sat in the station, but as it lurched away from the platform at 3:50 p.m., right on time, he smiled. “Today,” he said, “we are operating on German time.” With a look of mischief, he added: “From here out, we can break down at any time.”

The slums on the southwestern edge of Dar, where women pounded their evening meals in mortars and half-naked children waved, quickly fell away, giving over to thickening bush. With nightfall’s approach, we would be entering the Selous Game Reserve, one of the largest in Africa. (I had heard stories of collisions with elephants causing trains to derail.) All along the way, wreckage was strewn beside the tracks—railway cars hauled from where they’d derailed or broken down, and left to decay like great, dead beasts.

As we looked out at these rusting carcasses, my cabinmates began talking about the railroad, and what it said about their societies. “This is a good train,” said Isaac, with a trace of bitterness, “but like any piece of equipment, it needs maintenance.” Daniel Simwinga, a voluble, Bible-toting Zambian, responded, “Everyone knows you can’t keep getting milk from a cow without feeding it grass.” (Daniel was bringing a shipment of auto parts and other goods south. As a commercial trader, he rides the Tazara as often as twice a month, and is well versed in its shortcomings.)

“As soon as we have problems, we ask someone else to take care of them for us,” Isaac continued. “We ask the Europeans. We ask the Americans. We ask the Chinese. We will run this train into the ground, and then we will tell the Chinese we need another one. This is not development.” I thought of the wreckage by the tracks. In China, there is no such thing as metallic waste. Armies of migrant workers scour the countryside with hammers and chisels, collecting and selling every scrap to the insatiable smelters that feed the country’s industries. Here, by contrast, was a land without industry.

The World Bank and the United Nations did surveys for a Tazara-like line in the early 1960s, and both concluded that such a railway would be neither economically feasible nor sustainable. But China built the line, between 1970 and 1975, at the behest of two African leaders: Julius Kambarage Nyerere, the first president of Tanzania, who wanted to open up the remote south of his country and bolster his pan-African credentials; and President Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, whose landlocked country was seeking an alternative to the trade routes south through white-ruled Rhodesia.

Within a decade, the line was suffering from repeated breakdowns, landslides, and management failures. Planners had envisioned running 17 trains a day, but by 1978 there were only two. Tanzanians and Zambians tend to lay the railway’s chronic operational problems at the doorstep of official corruption. Isaac and Daniel joked about this throughout the trip. For them, revenue-skimming explained every woe, from an unscheduled stop on our first night to replace a part, to an electrical short that plunged our stifling cabin into darkness after Daniel tried to turn on the cabin’s antiquated fan.

As an example of top-down, state-driven development, the Tazara had also come up short. Planners had envisioned a new agricultural corridor nearly 10 miles wide on either side of the tracks, doubling regional food production. Yet much of the land—moist black soil and extraordinary verdure—was all but empty. The government had never invested in electrification, schools, or roads near the railway, nor had it provided access to credit so that farmers could buy fertilizer or good seed. During one 90-minute stretch in northeastern Zambia, beginning at Mkushi, I did not see a single farm or village.

The unrealized value of this fallow earth seemed to pain Daniel. And he was quite aware of the opportunity that it represented to foreigners, especially with crops in rising demand worldwide. “The Chinese have already begun coming,” he said. “They covet our land. It seems there’s no space for people there.”

Chinese farmers have been trickling into Africa for years, buying small plots and working them using Chinese techniques. But China began to prioritize large-scale agricultural investment in Africa around the time of the lavish 2006 China-Africa summit in Beijing, a milestone in China’s courtship of the continent. At the time, China promised to establish 10 agricultural demonstration centers promoting Chinese farming methods, and to send experts far and wide. Last June, the Economic Observer, an independent Chinese weekly newspaper, reported that China, “faced with increasing pressure on food security,” was “planning to rent and buy land abroad to expand domestic food supply.” Beijing had earmarked $5 billion for agricultural projects in Africa in 2008, with a focus on the production of rice and other cash crops.

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Howard W. French is an associate professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He is the co-author, with Qiu Xiaolong, of Disappearing Shanghai: Photographs and Poems of an Intimate Way of Life.

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