China's role in Africa is 'exaggerated'

Updated: 2016-02-05 08:08

By Andrew Moody in Johannesburg(China Daily Europe)

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China's role in Africa is 'exaggerated'
Elizabeth Sidiropoulos, the chief executive of the South African Institute of International Affairs, says that China continues to challenge the traditional order of the continent based on old colonial attachments. Mujahid Safodien / For China Daily

African nations would like to see more in terms of manufacturing and investment, academic says

Elizabeth Sidiropoulos believes Europe feels "slighted" by China's new economic engagement with Africa.

The chief executive of the South African Institute of International Affairs, the country's leading foreign policy research body, says the world's second-largest economy continues to challenge the traditional order of the continent based on old colonial attachments.

"Europe is no longer the only game in town and it feels perhaps a little slighted as a result. This is more the case because of the still significant numbers involved with its own development cooperation and trade and investment with Africa. There is, however, this decline in its relative influence and that has consequences."

Sidiropoulos, who was speaking in her office at the magnificent Jan Smuts House, dedicated to the country's former prime minister, at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, says the West finds China's no-strings-attached approach disconcerting.

China's role in Africa is 'exaggerated'

"They are concerned about what impact China's policy of non-interference (in the internal affairs of African countries) will have on the government frameworks of emerging democracies," she says.

The 47-year-old foreign policy expert says that at the same time there is also a tendency to exaggerate China's new role in Africa.

"From an African perspective what is conveyed - and it is often more about perception - is that China is now the most important partner of Africa. Over the past couple of years, China has certainly become the largest single trading partner.

"But that does not accurately reflect the true landscape. Europe and the United States continue to be significantly important in terms of trade but particularly in terms of manufactured exports and investment."

Sidiropoulos, whose parents are from Athens, is part of the sizable Greek diaspora in South Africa, which dates back to the gold rush in the 19th century. Her father, however, came to the country in the 1950s to work in a factory.

After attending school in Johannesburg, she went on to study international relations at the University of Witwatersrand, on whose campus the SAIIA is now located.

After graduating she went to work as a researcher with the South African Institute of Race Relations, working on its race relations survey.

"It was a fascinating period because it was after Mandela was released. I was dealing a lot with questions around black businesses, which was very interesting and still is a big topic here. I did a lot of research on black business chambers. This was before BEE (Black Economic Empowerment) legislation was codified and legislated."

Sidiropoulos joined SAIIA in 1999 and has since put her stamp on the institute, which was founded in Cape Town in 1934 but moved to it own current dedicated location on the Witwatesrand campus in the 1980s.

One of the hot foreign policy topics in South Africa is the country's ambition to be admitted as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, for which it hopes China will play an influential role.

Sidiropoulos believes, however, too wide a reform of the council could undermine the institution itself, making it unwieldy.

South Africa is just one of a number of countries wanting to join an expanded permanent Security Council, which since 1946 has only had five permanent members - the United States, China, Russia, the UK and France.

"You probably need a Security Council where you have to recognize certain countries are more powerful than others if you are going to move forward with things and that is probably why the UN has survived for 70 years and not for the 15 odd years that the League of Nations effectively did," she says.

One possible reform option could be the so-called G4 countries of Brazil, India, Japan and Germany and two African nations becoming permanent members.

An obstacle to this, however, is the Ezulwini Consensus reached by the African Union in Swaziland in 2005, which insists that any new African permanent members would need to have veto power, whereas the G4 countries are seen to more flexible on the issue.

"The view of many countries, including some in Africa, is that it is time to review the Ezulwini Consensus to make sure it is not used as a convenient obstacle to moving forward on UN Security Council reform."

A major issue in South Africa remains high levels of crime. Johannesburg has one of the highest murder rates in the world, although much of it is confined to certain areas of the city.

Sidiropoulos says it is often difficult to find an explanation, although blame is often attached to increasing income inequality.

China's role in Africa is 'exaggerated'

"Amartya Sen (the Nobel prize winner for economics) spoke at the university and said that if it was down to inequality, then Calcutta (now Kolkata) would be the most crime-ridden city in the world."

She believes it could be down to two main factors: political turmoil as society moves away from apartheid and that people have also become conditioned to crime.

"I think crime is often a feature of economies and societies in transition. This was the experience of Central and Eastern European countries in the 1990s when they experienced a spike in crime.

"From the 1960s the level of violence (in South Africa) got progressively worse with necklacing and police brutality. If you have seen all this as a 10- or 15-year-old youngster, it is likely to have an effect."

One of the pressing issues in Africa is how the slowdown in China has affected many of the continent's oil producing nations.

"I think this has probably tempered the Africa Rising narrative. Over the last few months the fall in demand for African resources has been a concern. Having said that, I wish South Africa (which has been teetering on recession) was growing at more than 6 percent like China.

"I think the biggest challenges for Africa are the ones set down by the African Union's 2063 Agenda around issues of industrialization and tackling corruption."

Sidiropoulos says it is important that China works along with that agenda and does not mirror the role of the former colonial powers that were just interested in resources and selling manufactured goods.

"That is why on the agenda with China here there is this issue of: 'Hey guys, we need to talk to you about investment in manufacturing and beneficiation (of raw materials),' and I think this now needs to be part of the partnership with China. We have a very vibrant civil society in South Africa and these things are debated."