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China and the shadow of colonialism still looming over Africa

Graphic pictures of South African police firing at striking black workers protesting for a living wage at the Lonmin platinum mine last week is a tragic reminder of Africa’s neo-colonial past, that never…

A long wait: Lonmin miners - involved in a bloody clash with police with killed 34 people - are arguing for a greater share of wealth that has steadily flowed into foreign economies, most recently China. AAP

Graphic pictures of South African police firing at striking black workers protesting for a living wage at the Lonmin platinum mine last week is a tragic reminder of Africa’s neo-colonial past, that never really went away.

Lonmin is a British company with major shareholders including the giant Swiss-based Xstrata mining. This event is deeply saddening since the recent rediscovery of the richness of Africa’s resources presents the best opportunity to escape the desperate poverty, unemployment and inequality afflicting the continent since the end of colonialism.

There are indications of both real economic growth (sub-Saharan Africa is projected to grow 5.1% in 2012) and improving security across the continent, but these fragile developments will fail if they are not carefully nurtured in order that sustainable economies can emerge.

African Economic Outlook 2012, OECD

The struggles to banish corruption and secure democratic participation in African governments as an essential prerequisite for economic progress is well documented.

But there is less attention paid to the influence of the multinational corporations investing in Africa’s new resources industries.

Originally these came from Europe, then America, Russia, and now China. While it might have been hoped that Chinese corporations would exercise greater care in their investments in Africa, evidence is emerging that the Chinese corporations are even more exploitative than their predecessors.

According to researchers Philippe Gugler and Bertram Boie, unlike other multinationals which are “mostly market-seeking, resource-seeking, strategic asset seeking and efficiency-seeking,” the largest outward investments by Chinese multinationals are by state owned corporations with different motivations: “It is the PRC going global.”

All this has serious implications for Australia: firstly because many major Australian resources businesses are heavily engaged in Africa - including BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto - and their record deserves scrutiny. But also because when the clarion calls are made for the Australian resources industry to remain “competitive” with overseas miners - to what extent does this mean crudely lowering wages and health and safety standards (rather than more technological and process innovations?)


During the late 16th to 19th century mercantilist era of the transatlantic slave trade, and then also the 19th to late 20th century era of colonialism, Sub-Saharan Africa’s traditional societies were distorted to the point of becoming unrecognisable, while the social networks and social capital of Africans were dislodged and disrupted.

The region lost its autonomy and was reduced to becoming simply the main source of raw materials to boost the industrialisation of the Western economies, particularly Britain, France and America, leaving Africa impoverished and partitioned.

As history repeats itself, the most current Chinese investment and trade with the continent is seen more to favour the Chinese at the expense of the African workers, environment, resources and minerals.

Chinese neo-colonialism?

China has become Africa’s largest trading partner with two way exchange reaching $160 billion in 2009. There are now 2000 Chinese companies operating in Africa with investments exceeding $14 billion. In her tour of Africa earlier this month US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton offered a veiled warning of the role of China in Africa both politically and economically.

Is China a particularly rapacious new neo-colonialist, or is China’s economic role in Africa largely beneficial? Opinions vary markedly, and China does have some well placed defenders.

The OECD African Economic Outlook attempts a balanced approach with Mthuli Ncube, Chief Economist of the African Development Bank insisting: “Africa is growing but there are risks. Urgent attention is necessary to foster inclusive growth, to improve political accountability, and address the youth bulge”. Emmanuel Nnadozie, Director of Economic Development, UNECA emphasises “a race to attract the largest amounts of investment or aid from emerging partners at any cost should be avoided”.

But concerns persist. Researchers Kinfu Adisu, Thomas Sharkey, Sam C. Okoroafo have written about the Nigerian experience, where imported textiles from China has forced local factories to close down and resulted in significant levels of unemployment. The Chinese demand to employ their own nationals in the projects they run, has been also been a source of great concern.

In another example, questions were raised over whether Chinese deals worth $8 billion for transport infrastructure in the Democratic Republic- in return for extraction rights - was commensurate to the worth of minerals.

According to a World Bank report by Ali Zafar, Chinese corporations rely heavily on importing their own low-cost labour and do not invest in hiring, training and education of African workers.

Zafar reports that China imports mineral fuels and metals from Sub-Saharan Africa and exports cheap consumer and capital goods with little trade in intermediate goods. But without significant investment in value addition in host nations, how sustainable is this kind of relationship? There is now a significant trade deficit between China and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Finally China does not seem to care much about the level of corruption in host countries of Sub-Saharan Africa, which brings us to the question of how ethical and responsible is the China-Africa economic relationship.

What is occurring with Chinese investment is arguably another episode in the underdevelopment of Africa through resource exploitation and economic colonialism by the Chinese, camouflaged and concealed in the discourse of their state owned enterprises.

Africa, and particularly the innocent youth of Africa, deserves much better than this.

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9 Comments sorted by

  1. Bruce Moon


    Thomas and Charles

    I'm not sure the headline you selected appropriately represents the largess of your discussion.

    That said, thanks for providing an overview of this growing issue, one that gets scant attention by the US dominated media that appears to control most of that which Australians get served as 'news'.

    Your article focuses on a relatively small aspect of a larger matter - the purposeful development by China of a geopolitical corridor of influence from its western border through…

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  2. Godfree Roberts


    What a hit-piece! Dragging China which–as Dmbisa Moyo and 90% of Africans make clear–has brought great benefit to Africa into this dogfight is lazy and unscrupulous.
    Calling the Chinese 'neocolonial' is ridiculous and unfounded.

    1. Wei Ling Chua

      Freelance Journalist and Author at

      In reply to Godfree Roberts

      Fully agreed with Godfree. It is China investment in infrastructure in Africa that brought about economic development and progress in Africa. China pay for everything they imported from Africa. It is a win win arrangement. Don't understand these people mentality in calling the Chinese 'neocolonial'. Another shallow and prejudicial article written by people with big titles. More research is needed.

  3. Walter Odhiambo

    logged in via LinkedIn

    Great article and congratulations to the authors. This article touches on a topic that I have continuously incited discussions on - the matter of the role played by China in Africa's development in the recent decade. While Africa needs all well meaning development partners, limits must be clarified to avoid silently reversing the anticipated gains of any development partnership. Any time the balance of trade is not proportional, a review must be tabled to ensure Africa does not loose in the disguise…

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  4. Stephanus Cecil Barnard

    Town planner and freelance writer at Kalahariozzie

    As a boy born and raised on a farm (and no there is very little romantic in growing up on a farm) close to Rustenburg where the tragedy happened i find your article a bit of a stretch of the imagination.

    Africa has shaken of its colonial shackles a long time ago, Nigeria in 1956, and South Africa is apartheid ones in 1994. Africa can largely blame its ills on itself, its own ineptness in government (look at Nigeria for instance, rampant corruption with public servants and politicians having only self-enrichment in mind). Now calling China the bad boy on the block is a bit rich. At the last count I saw them providing infrastructure to Africans, and largely leaving their political processes alone. Which it is the way it is supposed to be. Only western arrogance thinks we have the right to push our ideas and ideals on others.
    Imagine the outcry here if China wants to push its political agenda in this country?

  5. Arthur James Egleton Robey

    Industrial Electrician

    You can't fool me. I was born and raised as a 7th generation Colonial from Rhodesia. (Remember how Bob Mugabe, your man was going to get rid of the evil racist whites and bring piece and harmony? He is your man. No doubt about that. Yours. We fought against him). Why am I so rude? Because in your collective wisdom you have condemned Africa to stillbirth.

    Africa's per capita income was small but growing each year. Now it is collapsing. Spot the difference.
    Africa has precious commodities, if the…

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  6. M. A Sifuna

    logged in via LinkedIn

    Finally; we need to talk about this. Thanks @Prof. Clarke and Dr. Okumu for starting this conversation.

    It is quite a sad state when we have an inept leadership (chosen and preferred by the West and China for their greed and corruptible minds). The second "Scramble for Africa" is on.

    This time by a more vicious plunderer, the East.

    China is reaping way more out of Africa than it is providing. Then there is the disregard for Human rights...perpetuation of corruption. China does not…

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    1. Wei Ling Chua

      Freelance Journalist and Author at

      In reply to M. A Sifuna

      Dear M.A. Sifuna, I am in total sympathy to the tragic history of Africa. The world including China has being the victim of colonialism and imperialism. Africa has been under colonial manipulation for centuries with the borders of many African's nations been drawn not by the natural tribal borders but by a straight line using a ruler on a map among 5 to 6 western colonial masters to sort out their selfish interest in Africa.

      This is the main cause of today tribal conflicts within many African…

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  7. Charo Patrick Kenga

    logged in via Facebook

    This is a good article a few things to note
    1.First of all the responsibility on African states development lies with the the African states themselves.I think neocoloniasm is strong such a term and its insultive when directed towards efforts by individual african economies exploiting development options by partnering with developed economies
    2.Where as the perfect parntnership deals have been elusive the african economies settle for what works and makes economic sense for that particular time…

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