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.

Kalej, a dapper young technocrat in a finely tailored olive suit, welcomed me into the deep chill of his office. In polished French, he told me that Congolese desperation had enabled the worst aspects of the early Chinese copper rush. “Most of these arrangements were negotiated at a time of great difficulty for the Congo because of the war,” he said. “It was too easy for people to come, get their product, and take off.” He described the big new Chinese package as “bait,” with “terms that were a bit unconventional,” but nonetheless appealing to a war-torn and bankrupt country.

For the rest of our conversation, Kalej studiously avoided criticizing the deal, often leaning forward and rocking slightly with his hands clasped before his face as he weighed his words. In Congo it was commonly said that President Kabila had bet his presidency on relations with China; for an official to say anything critical could be career-ending, or worse.

“We’ve got to remember the expectations of the populace,” Kalej said. New roads built under the auspices of the deal will link “rural areas with urban centers. People will be able to get their goods to market. The price of produce and other goods will go down.” Such were the dreams for Tazara, too, I thought, remembering the depressing little market in Kapiri Mposhi.

There was also the nettlesome question of where the new roads would actually go. Many of the package’s details have not been released publicly. Word on the street has it that the first, 275-mile section in the long, arching route chosen for the gigantic highway project will lead from Lubumbashi to Pweto, a one-gas-station town of 20,000 people on Lake Mweru that has no industry and few natural resources. Pweto is the hometown of Augustin Katumba Mwanke, the man who negotiated the deal, and he has reportedly built a palatial residence there; with the highway in place, he’ll be able to get to it from Lubumbashi in a few hours rather than the two days or more required now.

The company that will build the highway, China Railway, has been laying down another road leading out of Lubumbashi. It stretches eastward, and a crew of dozens of Chinese is working fast to scrape the existing dirt track smooth and complete the building of drainage culverts, before laying asphalt. This one, I discovered, leads to the regional police chief’s estate, an immense domain complete with artificial lakes and luxurious guest houses, all enclosed behind a 10-foot-high electrified fence. As we passed, my driver warned nervously that the area was under electronic surveillance and stopping or slowing down would not be prudent.

A prominent Congolese lawyer who is part of a loose citizens’ network that is investigating the Chinese package said the deal will leave Congo in the same position it was in after decades of exploitation by Belgium. “We could have said, ‘You can have our copper, but we want some of it transformed here.’ We’ve negotiated for billions of dollars without determining if those investments are productive, without thinking through the sequencing of things, without thinking about the creation of a metallurgy industry. We have cheap labor and abundant electricity,” so refining would make economic sense. “But we negotiated without experts and without analysis.”

I asked whether the huge building program—the roads and schools and hospitals—would produce dividends, and he shook his head grimly. “Six billion dollars in infrastructure is not development. Schools with desks are not going to educate our population. A road is not going to develop this country … Schools require a school system, and they need teachers. In this climate, roads last only 10 years without maintenance, and the Congo has no capacity in this regard.”

Gilbert Malemba N’Sakila, a former law-school dean in Lubumbashi, expressed similar doubts: “The Chinese are not even making use of Congolese talent. They hire laborers, and that’s it.” Management and technical expertise are provided almost exclusively by Chinese workers. “When they pack up and go, the Congo will be left with nothing, not even an upgrade in our human resources. Our earth will be dug up, emptied, and left that way.”

These views echo—and are informed by—those in Zambia, Congo’s copper-rich neighbor to the south, which has a much longer record of business dealings with newly capitalist China. Zambians enthusiastically welcomed investment in 1998, when the China Non-Ferrous Metal Mining Company bought a mothballed copper mine at Chambishi, near the Congo border, for $20 million and promptly invested $100 million in its rehabilitation.

Things turned sour, though, when the new Chinese managers banned union activity and began paying Zambian employees less than the $67-a-month minimum wage. In 2005, more than 50 Zambians were killed in an accidental blast at an explosives factory that served the mine; witnesses said that Chinese staff members had fled the scene moments before the explosion, failing to warn the African employees. A year later, during protests over back pay and work conditions, a Chinese supervisor opened fire on Zambian workers with a shotgun, wounding several.

The turmoil at the Chambishi mine quickly bled into Zambian politics. Michael Sata, the leader of the Patriotic Front party, made China’s business practices and growing presence in the country big issues in the presidential election of 2006; China threatened to cut off relations with Zambia if he won. Sata, whose party was young and relatively small at the time, won 28 percent of the vote. In the 2008 election, he won 38 percent, losing the election by just two points.

Presented by

Howard W. French is the author of A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa. He teaches at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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