China is nowadays even compared with former colonial powers when it comes to its economic rise in Africa. Journalist Howard French, the author of China’s Second Continent, takes a step back and looks at how it all started in the 1960s for Worldpoliticsreview, and how it relates to South Africa.
As I have written in “China’s Second Continent,” the early 1990s was precisely the moment when Beijing began to put together its own initiative to become a leading force for global economic integration, beginning in Africa. The continent would come to serve as a kind of Chinese laboratory and workshop for an even bigger infrastructure and development scheme known today as the Belt and Road Initiative.
But even as China has ultimately built the new railroad and highway networks in Africa, along with many other things, it is easy to forget how much less wealthy and powerful the country was when this all started. In 1994, when Mandela became president, China’s per capita GDP was a mere $473. South’s Africa’s was more than seven times higher, at $3,445. China’s wager on Africa has paid off stunningly well, for the government and for Chinese companies and workers who by the hundreds of thousands have sought their livelihoods and built new fortunes on African soil.
Some of this, and perhaps even a great deal of it, could have been achieved instead through South Africa’s initiative and agency—by energetically expanding the pie instead of dividing it. New wealth could have been built through intra-African supply chains and networks, and millions of new jobs created, both for South Africans and Africans from other parts of the continent. While most countries have little choice about their place in the world economy, for a select few, history presents more options, including whether to be a globalizer or be globalized by others. South Africa in the 1990s had a rare chance, and made the wrong choice.
Today, a diminished South Africa still tries to sell itself to the world as a gateway to Africa, but it’s unconvincing. Its people, all too often including black South Africans, talk about the rest of Africa as if it sat on an entirely different continent, and its leaders are impassive in the face of spreading anti-African sentiments and violence at home.
As if to illustrate how far South Africa has fallen, another story circulated in newspapers in Johannesburg during my recent visit, about a spate of deadly attacks on foreign truck drivers across the country. An estimated 213 people, most of them foreign drivers, have been killed over the past year, and some 1,200 vehicles and their cargo destroyed in ongoing violence. Rather than call for calm, though, South African truck drivers are calling for companies not to employ foreign drivers, “in order to protect South African jobs.” What seems clear is that China has understood the power of economic integration, while sadly South Africa still has not.
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