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December 16, 2018

South African and African agency towards China

The following speech was delivered by Dr Philani Mthembu, Executive Director, Institute for Global Dialogue, University of South Africa (UNISA), at the Second South Africa-China Dialogue 2018: 20 Years of South Africa-China Engagements – Past, Present & Future on 8 November 2018 at the University of the Witwatersrand, Senate Room, Solomon Mahlangu Building.

Dr Philani Mthembu.

Firstly let me just contextualise where some of my inputs are coming from. They come from work that has stemmed from the time of my PhD where I looked at the rise of emerging powers as sources of development cooperation in Africa during a comparative analysis of China and India’s development cooperation in Africa. That research was then converted into a book entitled China and India’s Development Cooperation in Africa: The Rise of Southern Powers. What I did there was basically collect about 1,000 projects that China and India had been involved in within the African continent, trying to ascertain essentially what the key characteristics are of the countries within Africa where China was giving more development cooperation than others.

So I think this really forms the basis of some of my inputs, and the reason I emphasize this is because often what one senses is that sometimes anybody can become a China expert based on an opinion that is not founded in research, and in particular methodologies actually analysing how you arrive at certain findings. I give you an example, at the recent Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) Summit China pledged US$60 billion over the next three years and almost the next day you get headlines in very influential newspapers saying “China pledges US$60 billion in aid to Africa”. That is factually incorrect. Factually, it is not about whether somebody believes or does not believe that, but it is factually incorrect, because what you are failing to do is to break down that US$60 billion, what it is actually composed of.

Probably about US$15 billion of that US$60 billion was actually low-interest loans and concessional finance. You have in that US$60 billion items such as export credits and buyers credits; you have funds for businesses and so on and so forth. But if you fail to analyse what it is actually composed of then you are doing a disservice to actually understanding China’s engagement with the African continent.

I think within the academy we have been very lazy. For example, we look at aid from traditional donors in Europe and so forth, and often we don’t have a problem in conceptualising some of their commitments as aid, and others which they conceptualise as other official flows, which are for instance credits that come from the European Investment Bank and so forth. But we don’t lump it together with what we consider aid. Yet when it comes to China what we have often tended to do is to say that all of what China provides is aid, but that perpetuates the kind of aid narrative that is actually not the reality of China-Africa relations.

My talk is essentially on African agency, and often what you will find in the narrative is that the assumption is often that African countries are passive bystanders of any international partnerships. You will find that also permeating into the relationship we have with China. Therefore much of the narrative we might say is about China as the neo-colonial power in Africa, as though African countries are simply bystanders in global politics and have no actual agency in determining their own fates.

That is a mistake because even as we go back to modern relations between Africa and China, we need to acknowledge Africa’s leading role for instance in the push for the People’s Republic of China to take the United Nations (UN) seat over the Republic of China or Taiwan. That was a demonstration of agency from the African side to actually push within the UN framework for Mainland China to be the representative of China. That was not an imposition, Tanzania for instance played quite a key role in that regard.

Another key point is the role of African countries in the establishment of FOCAC and the shaping of priorities in 2015 especially and 2018 at the FOCAC Summit. To do that I think it is important to acknowledge the year in which FOCAC was founded. In 2000 The Economist magazine came out with a headline which said, “Africa the hopeless continent”. That was the year 2000, “the hopeless continent”. That same year FOCAC was established. What was it that China was seeing in Africa where others were seeing hopelessness?

From 2000 until 2010 six of the fastest ten growing economies in the world were African countries. Between 2011 and 2015 seven of the fastest growing global economies were African. We can discuss the distributional effects and all of that, but the point of the matter is that from the year 2000 till 2015 at least six and seven of the fastest growing economies were actually African. This was not because of some imposition from the outside. It was because African countries understood that they needed to actually undergo certain changes within their own countries because they are dealing with socio-economic challenges and pressures from their own people to get governance issues right. Some of those countries were doing exactly that, some of them were not. But some countries were essentially doing that to such an extent that you started having an Africa Rising narrative that started to permeate the global discourse.

What that does is it attracts countries, it attracts attention. To such an extent that the same magazine which had said “the hopeless continent” around 2015 then suddenly put out an editorial saying “Africa Rising”. That means that their attention had suddenly been focusing on Africa not just on Africa as what was once said as the scar on the world’s conscience and looking at the continent as a place to help and to aid, to do charity and so forth, rather than to do business because you actually recognise the business potential in those places. That is a key point about African agency, it is because of African agency that China actually notices the opportunities within the continent.

When China engages in Africa it is not because they are some exceptional country with a good heart and is wanting to just give, give, give. No, when China says win-win, they mean that. So they are there to win, but they are also saying, what do YOU want to win? When you look at it this way, the onus is on the country itself to draw out the key issues it wants to achieve in its engagement with China. I think that is what we need to be particularly focusing on.

China has been central to some of African countries’ aims at diversifying their global partnerships. We often talk about China as though China is the sole actor on the African continent, not actually realising how influential countries from the West continue to be in the African political economy. So you take a country like South Africa where 70% or more of foreign investment comes from countries in the European Union; it’s obvious that such a country would want to diversify its partnerships, and especially in a global context where everyone is diversifying their partnerships. So if you are listening to other actors you might hear people sounding warning bells about engaging with China, yet those very countries, their most important trading partner is China.

So I think the key thing here is to not get caught up in the noise, and that’s where the role of understanding agency beyond just the nation state and state-to-state relations must go. Because we are in an academic institution, and scholars have a role to play not in pushing a particular narrative whether good or bad, but actually in doing empirical research that forms opinions based on empirical work. Because if we don’t do that, we will be caught up in a situation where we remain consumers of knowledge either from the West or from the East.

In closing, the importance and the challenge for the African scholar and actually taking into account that you have multiple tracks of diplomacy opening up at BRICS, FOCAC and all engagements at the G20 and so forth, think tanks are playing a role in that space; academics are playing a role in that space. But they can only play a role in shaping the narrative if they themselves are doing empirical work and allowing that work to then shape the discourse. In that way you develop and you enhance African agency, and you enhance Africa’s voice in that. So that Africans are looking at their global partnerships from an African perspective and from an African-driven perspective, and are not being treated like children, which is sometimes how the patronising nature of the discourse can become, almost as though one is not able to enter into a partnership with China without being exploited, as though there is some secret agenda behind it.

What I often say is that the agenda is clear, if China says win-win, they are saying they are here to win, there’s no hidden agenda there, they are here to win. But the challenge in shaping the agency lies with African countries in shaping that agenda. We have just heard that in the 2015 and 2018 FOCACs there was a much larger role for South Africa and African countries in actually shaping the agenda-setting within FOCAC. But that is because they themselves wanted and engaged with China as partners, and said these are our priorities. And if you look at the key 2015 and 2018 priorities, and you look at Agenda 2063 and some of the regional agendas from our regional economic blocs, you do see that there is a convergence of issue areas that are becoming essential in the relationship between Africa and China, and those are being shaped from the African continent.

Our task is now as scholars to continue to focus on those things, do empirical work, and understand whether we are continuing to shape those partnerships so that we are finding those bankable projects that have a broader benefit for the rest of society. I think that is really the key in bridging agency on a state-to-state level, but also in ensuring agency beyond the nation state. Thank you.

LISTEN: Dr Philani Mthembu on African Agency

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