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Africa’s Last, Worst Hope

A continent that withstood European colonialism welcomes Chinese conquest.

It is the optimism of Africa that is so heartbreaking. In the alleyways of townships where human waste dribbles among the potholes, in mud villages where tiny homes cluster round anthills, the same scene replays. Out of dim hovels come scrubbed children in dazzlingly clean uniforms, hurrying to disciplined schools where they hope to better themselves. On Sundays, platoons of beautifully dressed, joyous women make their way proudly to full churches, carrying themselves like royalty. In the great cities, a thousand tiny businesses compete good-naturedly for scanty trade. They are adorned with spirited, witty, and cheerful artwork that Westerners—most of whom could not draw a bar of soap with any verisimilitude—dismiss as naïve. All this takes place in circumstances of misery and squalor, corruption, and oppression that would reduce most of us to passive gloom. We know how little reason for hope there really is. So do the Africans, but they are unable to stop hoping.

Any development that might lift this sad continent out of its present state would at least justify the optimism. This is how many people quite reasonably view China’s powerful new engagement in Africa. It may be wholly cynical, they argue, but utopian and idealistic interventions have all failed. Much of Africa’s existing infrastructure and its most powerful and developed economy in South Africa are the results of comparable Western cynicism in the past. Perhaps straightforward crudity—hard cash, roads, clinics, and railroads in return for oil and minerals—will work where benevolence did not. As one academic expert on the subject said to me, “The only country that ever got rich from donations was the Vatican.” Perhaps China’s hunger for new markets will lift African economies out of their pitiful condition and start them on the long road out of the Third World. It is not as if there is much chance of Africa once again becoming the sort of Garden of Eden that some believe that it was before outsiders burst in.

I set out on a small African voyage to see how China’s initiative looked at close quarters. I did not know before I began that my companions and I would come alarmingly close to death during that journey, though I suspected it might have its awkward moments.

I chose two neighboring countries, Zambia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. One had a relatively peaceful British past, at least partly benevolent. The other was the victim of Belgium’s notoriously rapacious King Leopold and the scene of the violent Katanga secession, which still resonates in African politics. This enormous, potentially wealthy country has seen worse things since, and may see worse things yet. 

The Congo’s government, a despotism thinly disguised as an elective democracy, has welcomed Beijing into their affairs without qualification and recently accepted a colossal Chinese loan in return for equally gargantuan rights of exploitation. They did so just as the IMF was attempting to make conditions for a large, mainly Western aid parcel.

Zambia, by contrast, has something much closer to an Anglosphere democracy. There are functioning opposition parties. One of them, led by the populist Michael Sata, has criticized Chinese investment in the country. Sata—known in Zambia by allies and enemies as “King Cobra” because he is effective, ruthless, and slippery—narrowly lost the presidential election last month. The generally pro-Chinese Zambian establishment did not want him to win, even though he had moderated some of his criticisms of Beijing during the campaign. He told me that China’s methods invited corruption among governments and that safety standards at Chinese-run mines and factories were miserable. 

He is not the only person to make this accusation. Recently, a government minister, Alice Simago, was shown weeping on Zambian TV after she witnessed the shockingly dangerous working conditions at a Chinese-owned coal mine in the Southern Province. When I contacted her, though, she, unlike Michael Sata, was not willing to discuss it. Zambia’s political class does not want to offend the Chinese, who once threatened to cut ties if Sata became president. Sata also told me that China imported its own workers into Africa, denying skilled jobs to Africans who were quite capable of doing them. On building sites in the capital, Lusaka, you can see many Chinese workers toiling away in straw hats that have a startlingly 19th-century look.

It was in Zambia’s Copper Belt that I found Sata’s complaints most strongly borne out. This narrow band of copper- and cobalt-rich territory, close to the Congolese border, is going through a boom mainly because of Chinese and Indian industrial growth. Copper and cobalt, essential for electrical wiring, telecommunications, jet engines, and the batteries of mobile phones, are the raw materials of the modern world.

Critics of Sata—and friends of China —had warned me in advance that Sata was inclined to exaggerate. There were whispers that he was in some way a supporter of Taiwan—a large purpose of China’s scramble for Africa is to destroy what remains of Taiwan’s once considerable diplomatic influence there. China’s cold rage against Taiwan’s very existence as a separate country should never be underestimated or forgotten when trying to predict what Beijing may do next.

But in the Copper Belt itself—an incongruous and disturbing chain of mainly dreary towns, where spoil-heaps and pithead winding gear rear above African bush country in oppressive, malarial heat—Sata turned out to be right. Trade union officials complained that Chinese supervisors often beat and kicked African subordinates. An opposition paper report, which I checked and found to be accurate, of a building worker in Ndola who was beaten by his Chinese superiors because he had fallen asleep. (Urban Africans often fall asleep during the day because, living crammed together in tiny, stuffy shacks with three or four generations, they sleep badly at night. They also suffer from inadequately treated or preventable illnesses, including malaria.)

The Africans who talked about this did not accuse the Chinese of racial bigotry against them. The complaint was more subtle. As one mineworker said to me, “It is a fear of being seen to be weak. They are trying to prove they are not inferior to the West. They are trying too hard. If they ask you to do something and you don’t do it, they think you’re not doing it because they are not white.”

The Chinese are also highly sensitive to criticism of their safety record. My colleagues and I went to look at and photograph a dispiriting little roadside cemetery, laid out among the dry, tall grass right at the entrance of the Chambishi copper mine, which shelters the remains of 54 mineworkers killed in an explosives disaster in 2005. Local people are inclined to blame the Chinese for this event. Within a couple of hours, local “security” officials were buzzing around, anxious about what we were up to. They had obviously been tipped off by the Chinese managers who had seen us among the gravestones. No wonder they are sensitive. An African mine executive recalled the day three years ago when Zambia, a country of 11 million people, went into official mourning for the victims of this catastrophe. A Chinese supervisor said to me in broken English, “In China, 5,000 people die, and there is nothing. In Zambia, 50 people die and everyone is weeping. To [the Chinese], 50 people are nothing.” I find this quite believable. Conditions in Chinese mines are famously appalling.

There is much resentment. Workers at a nearby smelter recently rioted against low wages and what they felt were dangerous working conditions. Zambians snigger at the way their Chinese colleagues talk, describing it mockingly as “Choncholi.” The Chinese are said to kill and eat any dogs that stray into their compounds. And there is a persistent rumor—which I was unable to confirm but mention because it seems to be a symptom of the hostility and mistrust—that there are convicted criminals among the Chinese workforce in Africa.

It is also interesting to learn the private views of Western businessmen who work in Africa. Such people are not Pollyanna types. They know that this is not a gentle or straightforward continent. Nevertheless, one American on his way to the Congo was visibly angry at what he saw as Chinese willingness to encourage and benefit from corruption. His firm tries diligently to abide by Congolese safety laws. But it is constantly targeted by official safety inspectors because it refuses to bribe them. Meanwhile, nearby Chinese enterprises get away with huge breaches of the law. “We never pay,” said the American, “because once you pay, you become their bitch; you will pay forever and ever.”  

Another Western manager in a Congolese factory shrugged over the way he is forced to wait weeks to get his products out of the country, while the Chinese have no such problems. “I’m not sure the Chinese even know there are customs regulations,” he said. “They don’t fill in the forms, they just pay. I try to be philosophical about it, but it is not easy.”

The trouble with these honorable views is that if the Chinese have no special objection to such arrangements and are willing to pay forever and ever, then those who take the ethical position will simply lose in the struggle for raw materials. What many in the West do not grasp is the driven urgency of China’s current dash for growth and status, brought home to me by a casual remark from a Chinese businessman over a drink in a Congolese hotel. He said, “Africa is China’s last hope.” China is also the only obvious hope for many poor Africans—a hope mixed with desperation.

It is difficult to do justice to the series of powerful impressions the traveler to Lubumbashi, Congo’s capital, receives. This city, once the Belgian colonial town of Elizabethville and for a while the capital of Moise Tshombe’s breakaway state of Katanga, is profoundly disturbing to our group, a European, an American, and a white South African who hopes that the Mandela settlement will preserve a more or less European way of life under African government. There is no sign here of the fairly orderly society that Zambia inherited from the British Empire. Lubumbashi is far more African. You can see the ghostly shape of the Northern Hemisphere’s last major engagement with Africa. The airport, once an airy 1950s building, is now a decrepit and leaking dump. It would be unwise and unsafe to enter or pass through without an experienced guide. The transition from air-conditioned modern aircraft to the shouting, milling scenes in the terminal is one of the most melodramatic crossings from one world to another that I have made—and I have made plenty. In the center, the graceful shapes of colonial Art Deco constructions still survive under layers of whitewash and dust, unregarded by the new inhabitants.

Above all is the great black mountain, which rears up at the edge of town and broods over it, a 450-foot high monument to 80 years of rapacity and conflict. This sinister manmade outcrop, which looks like part of an attempt to recreate Tolkien’s Mordor, is the product of decades of copper mining and smelting. Next to it stand the colossal tottering ruins of abandoned smelters, destroyed in one civil war or another and left to rust. Within the mountain are layers of slag and fragments of unrefined metal, often left lying around by the cruder methods of the past. The local inhabitants toil at its foot and on its slope, pounding the slag with hammers to release pieces of copper or cobalt, which they can sell, for a few dollars, to lurking middlemen, who naturally work for the Chinese.

But this process is even more intense and painful further out in the bush, in a place called Likasi. I had been told of child diggers slaving for a few cents in perilous hand-dug shafts in an abandoned mine there, washing their ore in cholera-infected streams contaminated by human filth and going home after exhausting working days to living deaths in hungry squatter camps. Once again, they are working indirectly for China, the ultimate buyer of their scavenged scraps. My colleagues, Barbara Jones and Richard van Ryneveld, and I set out there with two African coworkers, who it would be better for many reasons not to name.

I would like to return to Likasi if it were not for the fact that I was nearly killed there. The road from Lubumbashi is lovely, lined with thatched villages and running through unspoiled bush. The town itself is, like Lubumbashi, pleasing to the eye. Graceful but decaying Belgian buildings still rise over an agreeable scene of African activity, sociability, and enterprise. But at the edge of Likasi, things suddenly grow much grimmer.

Slogging up the potholed track toward us was a gaunt, unceasing procession of blank-faced men (and sometimes women), pushing ancient bicycles laden with sacks of ore weighing at least 100 pounds.

At the end of this highway was a scene so intensely shocking that I can recall it instantly by closing my eyes. Picture a great, uneven pit, the result of decades of energetic and inconsiderate mining, a gang rape of the earth’s surface perhaps a quarter of a mile across, under a brassy sun. Then notice that in dozens of small excavations, bowed black figures are hacking and dragging and pulling small objects from the earth. It is ominously quiet apart from the crunching, tinkling noise of hard labor. Every couple of minutes, another of these despairing figures emerges from the bottom of the pit with a laden bicycle and plods toward town. It is like something from before the Middle Ages. One of the Brueghels, or perhaps Hieronymus Bosch, might have painted the scene, only they would have shown it in darkness, lit up by a red glow.

We approached the fat cop, sheltering under a shady awning, who seemed to be in charge. He wasn’t. He was plainly deferring to a dead-eyed boss man, with one badly chewed ear, sitting to the side. We explained that I wished to write about the mine and that we needed to take some photographs. The cop riffled through our many official permissions and said we needed yet more paperwork. I took this to mean that he needed some paper money, but our Congolese fixer refused to consider this possibility. We went back to Likasi to a series of offices. I am not even sure if we got the necessary chit.

It wouldn’t have mattered. As we bounced and squeaked down the miserable track once more, I noticed that the procession of laden bicycles had inexplicably stopped. Then we passed a small group of miners, including a boy of about 12 who snarled at me with an expression of pure hatred such as I had not seen before that day, would shortly see once more, and which I hope not to see again. My white colleagues, one African-born and the other with years of experience in the more worrying corners of the continent, also noticed strange signs—large stones on the road and men running uphill away from us.

None of us realized just how much danger we were in. But while we had been in town, someone had prepared an ambush. We found this out when we turned a corner and saw a crowd of about 50 men ranged across the road, yelling imprecations. Plainly, the gangmasters at the mine had told them we were a threat to their $5-a-day livelihood. Perhaps they were right about that.

Western exposure of these dismal conditions might lead to the mine being closed down, if only long enough to make the workers’ hard lives even harsher. Our minder, ignoring my urgings to leave immediately, climbed from the car to try to reason with the crowd. The Congolese driver joined him. Unimpressed and unassuaged, the mob began to edge round the car. Barbara, Richard, and I were all in the back seats. If we got out, we thought, we would be beaten to death. If we stayed inside, it seemed very likely that we would also be killed—after having been dragged through broken windows. 

My mind almost shut down, refusing to consider the future in any detail. I am ashamed to say that it did not occur to me to pray, though I certainly did later on, once my imagination had begun to work again. I suspect I would have prayed a good deal if things had gone much further.

Furious faces stared in. The workers began to rock the car and hammer on it with rocks. Then they began to break the windows. At this moment the driver recovered his senses and began to reverse furiously down the track. He left his Congolese colleague behind, and I have to admit that I thought we had seen the last of him and cared less than I should have.

After some wild reversing, we had gained enough space for a violent two-point turn and were able to go forward. It was then that we saw our abandoned comrade pelting after us at Olympic speed, with the mob just visible behind him in the dust of our flight. They were approaching astonishingly fast. We slowed enough for him to scramble aboard and tore off out of Likasi. A burst tire or a broken axle and we would have been done for.

This miserable event, I thought afterward, was a metaphor for the Chinese intervention in Africa. Things are so bad for most Africans that they would rather have the greed and corruption that China brings than go without them. They will angrily resent those who preach contentment to them from places of safety. And they will continue to hope against all odds. 


Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the London Mail on Sunday. He blogs at https://hitchensblog.mailonsunday.co.uk

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