By Isaac Mwanza
Nelson Mandela was the African liberation icon jailed for 27 years by the white separatist government of South Africa for fighting for the emancipation of Black South Africans in their struggle to gain full and equal rights on their ancestral soil. After Mandela was freed from prison on 11th February, 1990, he appeared before a symposium in the United States of America, at which one fellow expressed their disappointment (as Westerners) on the quality of leaders whom Mandela had chosen to be friends with, such as the Palestinian leader, the late Yasser Arafat, late Libyan revolutionary leader, Muammar Gaddafi, late Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, among others. To this criticism, Mandela responded:
“One of the mistakes which some political analysts make, is to think that their enemies should be our enemies (applause). That is something we can’t and we will never do. We have our own struggle that we are conducting. We are grateful to the world for supporting our struggle but nevertheless we are an independent organisation with our own policy the right to develop our own attitude, as does every country; the attitude of our country towards any other country and its leaders, is determined by the attitude of that country to our struggle.”
I would suggest that Nelson Mandela’s words were re-echoed, to some extent, by the words of our own Republican President, Edgar Lungu, when he officially opened the Third Session of the 12th National Assembly. Regarding the criticism against the China-Zambia relations, President Lungu candidly asserted,
“As an independent state Zambia creates and keeps cordial relationships with its friends in the broader international community of nations. These relationships are based on mutual bilateral and multilateral considerations informed by the common goals of making better, the lives of our people. In this regard, our right to choose our friendship with one nation is not dependant on making enemies with others.
We shall choose our own friends on our own terms and that does not mean appeasing anyone with unjustified enmity with others. Our friendship with China is mutual, and no amount of reckless propaganda will deter us from entrenching this relationship for the common good of our people… China does not have that record; neither does it seek a horse and rider relationship with Zambia…”
Unfortunately, Edgar Lungu is not Nelson Mandela. Edgar Lungu was never in prison for 27 years. Therefore, Edgar Lungu did not receive a standing ovation for the same words that earned Mandela a standing ovation. Our own domestic civil activists as well as others in the region, whose strident criticism of Zambia’s close relationship with China have taken turns to quid President Lungu for his remarks.
It is, therefore, safe to suggest that these “civil activists” have just joined hands with entities in western countries who are locked in a fierce battle with China for access and control to the world’s dwindling natural resources. Our present-day “civil rights groups” are the West’s new weapon in that battle – a subtle anti-China propaganda tool since these groups are made up of local people. They are put forward as the face of “oval resistance” to creeping Chinese influence in Africa.
It seems to me that the one thing which this generation of our young Africans does not yet appreciate, is China’s huge role in helping our African nations to break the yoke of white Western colonialism. We the young people do not understand that before our countries achieved their independence, European countries who now finance our African-led civil rights movement, had complete control over Africa’s natural resources, including African land itself which traded as a commodity in Western markets.
After independence, the European countries continued to exercise control over the newly-independent African (and Asian) countries through the leaders of the independence movements, until a new cadre of African leaders arose who insisted that independence also meant that the new post-colonial government’s should assume complete control of their natural resources. Leaders such as Julius Nyerere, Kenneth Kaunda and Muammar Gaddafi, among others, followed the example of the Egyptian military leader Gamal Abdul Nasser who, in 1956, seized control of the Suez Canal from its French and British owners by nationalising it.
It seems clear that my generation, that is, Africa’s young people, lack appreciation of how Africa was colonised. In early part of the 19th century, European missionaries, agents of foreign governments and companies, explorers, merchants who included the infamous British South Africa (BSA) Company and other adventurers, criss-crossed the African continent. They came with trinkets, flags and draft instruments in their pockets, moving in all mysterious ways and by diverse routes, visiting our own African Chiefs and claiming to “negotiate” treaties with them. Of course, a negotiation requires that both or all parties should have a common understanding of the subject matter at hand, and the documents to be signed in execution of the proposed treaty.
Needless to say, our chiefs did not have even the faintest idea of the true content and intent of the documents they were asked to sign in return for a worthless trinket.
The real intentions of our colonisers were to secure tracts of land for their countries on the shores and surrounding areas of the Dark Continent. Engineers on board of the coastal vessels were kept busy cutting tin sheets and making them into colourful crowns for the heads of the deluded chiefs who were ready to sign away their territorial birth-right for a few bottles of gin and the title, “King.”
Off we sold our land just like that. Take as an example, in 1884 when the Kings and chiefs along the Wouri estuary in French South West Africa (in Cameroon) signed a treaty of cession of (Cameroun). The treaty stated:
“We, the undersigned, King and Chiefs of the territory known as Kamerun, located along the Kamerun river, between River Bimbia to the north and River Kwakwa to the South up to 4* 10’ degree north of the longitude, have this day during a meeting held in the German factor on the courtyard of King Akwa, voluntarily decided as follows:
We have this day completely surrendered rights of the sovereignty, legislation and administration over the our territory to Messrs Edward Schmidt, acting on behalf of the Woerman firm, and Johannes Voss, acting on behalf of the Jantzen and Thormanlen firm, both in Hamburg and traders for years on these rivers.
We transfer the rights of sovereignty, legislation and administration over our territory to the above –named firms, subject to the following reservations:
Article 1: The territory may not cede to a third party
Article 2: All treaties of friendship and commerce concluded with the foreign governments shall remain fully valid.
Article 3: Lands cultivated by us and occupied by our villages shall remain the property of the current possessors and their descendants
Article 4: Annual rentals shall be paid to the King and Chief as before.
Article 5: During the first phase of the establishment of an administration here our local customs shall be respected.
Kamerun, 12th July, 1884
The above is an example of how the European nations colonised African countries. Now the European former colonial powers, now commonly known as the West, are back, through our own people, to tell us that Zambia is now being colonised by the Chinese.
I disagree and I take the view advanced by the President when he said:
“We are a fully conscious nation, alive to the fact that we need to uplift the plight of our people. I want to emphasize that all forms of bilateral cooperation with China are, and will always be informed by this noble focus on the need to build a supporting infrastructure to enable our people build sound and sustainable livelihoods.”
This is exactly what I see as the role of China in Zambia. At the same time, I do not think the Chinese are here for charity but, like any other country – whether from Asia, Europe or America, they too seek our natural resources and to make profits on their contracts and investments.
WHAT IS THE BIGGER PROBLEM WITH CHINA?
China’s biggest problem with our people is not about whether or not, China has a poor human rights record in their own country as is glibly asserted by China’s opponents and competitors; it is about the ‘what and how’ their services have been rendered in our countries.
Some have argued that it is unacceptable that menial work such as bricklaying, carpentry, etc when they form part of a contract awarded to a Chinese company take the Chinese company to bring someone from China to come and do these types of work, when we have many of our own people who are capable of doing such work, but are unemployed. Others have taken issue with the fact that some of our Chinese guests have gone into such businesses as the making of ice lollipops, fritters or so-called doughnuts, and even selling live chickens in our markets.
It is this aspect of Chinese “participation” in the lower levels of the formal economy, and their active part in the informal economy which directly threatens the livelihoods of some of our households, which appear to have become unacceptable among my fellow Zambians and Africans at large.
It is my view that this is not a problem of the Chinese. Rather, it is the way we have negotiated our bilateral agreements with the Chinese, in the first place, and how we enforce the law on non-Zambian or expatriate workers, especially in the very low skills levels, as it stifles skills transfer from our Chinese guests to our own people whose future works can be executed to the same level as the Chinese contractors.
It would appear that those who have been tasked to bargain on behalf of our country region, and continent as a whole, have not done a good job because they have neglected to ensure that as Zambians or Africans see the Chinese come into our countries to make money, they too must get into gainful employment and paid well. If that were taken into account and if Zambians benefited more directly from the Chinese presence in the formal sector, I believe our people would have a different attitude towards China.
China also need to urgently review its contribution towards provision of social services such as education, which the West have done to a considerable extent after independence when there was a great need to train human resources to manage and administer the new states. Indeed, western or colonial masters of African countries went to great lengths to offer training and skills acquisition to former colonial subjects to help establish the new local cadre of public officers, and the training offered in the coloniser’s country helped to change the attitudes of the new middle-class towards their former oppressors. And oppressors they had been; there can be no question about that.
But the cordial relations which developed between former coloniser (oppressors) and former subject in the period immediately following independence, based on high quality education and training as well as skills transfer, went a very long way in softening the attitudes of the former colonial subjects as they were now treated as partners or at least as capable learners and were, therefore, accorded a measure of respect.
A key factor in the transformation of attitudes by the former colonial subjects towards their former colonial masters, was the experience of living in the country of the former colonial master, typically 4 years for those who went abroad to acquire university degrees or 9 years for those who sought doctoral qualifications. These former colonial subjects lived with or among people who had previously treated them as inferior and needed either to be “whipped into shape”, or given a benevolent, avuncular hand by the kind white man.
As the Africans were treated as equal learners and equal employees, their previously hostile and suspicious attitude softened and changed, and white people were no longer the controlling, selfish and disrespectful monster they had been in colonial times. They became partners and even friends.
In a word, the West won the friendship and respect of their former African subjects by inviting them to study, work and live in their countries. The West have exposed many of our people to receiving Western education in their countries which has not only provided academic knowledge but also enhanced a cultural understanding between our peoples and our former colonisers.
It is my view that China could change the face and substance of the Africa – China relationship by adopting the same tactic as did the former colonisers: a degree of assimilation whereby the host population no longer sees a hard economic, social or cultural border between themselves and their Chinese guests.
Returning from the 2018 Regional Summit of students held in Johannesburg, I am convinced that China is having problems being understood by the peoples of the SADC region because China is a relative newcomer not only to the region but to Africa as a whole, and therefore not well understood. One way China can overcome this problem, is by taking as many students as possible into learning and training institutions in China, so that they experience life among the Chinese people and get to understand Chinese culture and China’s history especially as it relates to Africa and the SADC region in particular, where China’s role in liberation, is second to none.
The anti-China propaganda is having an effect because few people in SADC know anything about China apart from the fact that China wants our resources. But why does the UK have an Embassy in Zambia, if not for our resources? China should now embark on a new path of strengthening its relations with the people in SADC countries and one of the most effective way is to take as many SADC youths and students to China so that they can live and experience Chinese life first-hand and not through history books written by imperial powers.
China and other countries like Japan, Israel and Canada need to increase undergraduate scholarships, partly as a way of encouraging more interaction between the Chinese people and SADC nationals where China is an honoured guest for all its help beginning with the independence struggle to the current struggle for economic emancipation of SADC nations where China’s assistance has proved invaluable.
China, as far as is practicable, should take deliberate steps to take and greatly increase scholarships for education, skills training and cultural exchange, so that SADC youths, as students, can spend part of their early adult life in China itself, learning – not just academic education but also about China as a country – training and experiencing Chinese culture and general way of life so that they come back from China with a positive message about the Chinese people, the Chinese economic system and government.
90% of Zambian students in China are self-sponsored. China can afford even 1,000 scholarships a year for SADC. Of course Zambia is their strongest and best partner in SADC and we should get the lion’s share of those scholarships. China can benefit greatly from having many more Zambians studying in China. 4 years is enough time for them to learn and understand China as a country and the Chinese as a people. Many Zambians who are capable of benefiting from an education, training and living in China would need China’s direct financial assistance as Zambians are generally resource-constrained.
China would have to seriously consider giving some of its development assistance in the form of fully- sponsored scholarships to Zambians students and youths, including young entrepreneurs. China, just like other nations from Scandinavian and Cuba in particular, as well as the United States of America and Canada, must utilise the current atmosphere as an opportunity to become part of and interact with students from SADC as Zambia prepares to host the 2019 SASU Region Summit on Education.
The author is a governance and legal activist but also Secretary General of the Zambia National Students Union [ZANASU], an umbrella body of students unions in Zambia