The China-Africa story is often derided by critics (primarily in the West) who describe the relationship as being one that is unequal; an imbalanced construct which sees the scales tipped firmly in the favour of Beijing.
With Western countries riven by internal politics – right-wing politicians and parties have been gaining ground and racial violence aimed at black people in the US by their government – foreign policy and trade agreements will take a backseat.
Already, we have seen US President Donald Trump withdrawing financial support to the World Health Organisation and continues to wage a war of words with China – which recently led to the Chinese instructing its companies to refrain from buying certain products from America.
Covid-19 remains the joker in the pack as nations try to recalibrate and reimagine their economies; deal with record levels of unemployment and negative GDP growth almost across the board.
So how will all these factors affect or play into the Sino-African relationship that stretches back decades.
The relationship continues to weather many storms and as both China and Africa have developed beyond just being basket cases, it has wielded more and more influence on the global stage.
And therein, lies some of the rub.
For too long the West and its allies have enjoyed being the only ones sitting at the table, all the while thumbing their noses at the rest of us, many with begging bowl in hand.
The power dynamics have changed considerably – China is the second most powerful economy in the world and with that comes a level of influence, much to the chagrin of those in the West still living out some Cold War fantasy of impoverished communists all wearing khaki uniforms.
And to have in China an ally and an investor will become even more crucial as the Covid-19 challenge continues to stymie economic activity. China has indicated it would provide Africa with 30 million test kits per month, 10 000 ventilators as well as 80 million masks.
South Africa’s president Cyril Ramaphosa, who is also the chair of the African Union, confirmed the pledge recently during an online meeting with editors.
China’s role in supplying logistics across the African continent during the coronavirus outbreak has also been well-documented.
Arguably its most famous businessman, Jack Ma, collaborated with the Ethiopian government and the African Union to distribute logistics across the continent.
Into the future, Africa having the youngest population in the world is an important factor in this relationship – the African continent is an undervalued and unheralded place where innovation and the democratisation of information has seen technology being used in Rwanda to help pupils in rural areas receive schooling; drones to deliver medical supplies, robots to help contain Covid-19 and so on.
The Chinese have recognised this and have always had a pragmatic approach to how it has collaborated with the continent.
They are also quick to remind everyone that Africa is not a country.
China’s interest in developmental states is perhaps still linked to how it self-identifies: as a developmental state, which is a misnomer if ever there was one.
It will be useful to African states financially indebted to China.
As the World Economic Forum pointed out recently: “ Since the late 1990s, and recently under the umbrella of the Belt and Road Initiative, China has become a significant lender to low-income countries. Its approach to aid and investment is foremost a function of its own development experience. As a low-income country in the 1980s, China itself renegotiated some of its foreign-invested agreements.”
As to the point earlier of Africa’s burgeoning market of the future, the WEF points out: “African countries are important to China’s long-run development agenda, and vice versa. Not only is Africa home to important new energy and technology-related minerals, but it is also home to the largest share of the world’s youth – tomorrow’s markets. China is the world’s second largest economy and an industrial superpower. Moreover, when China agreed loans to construct the Mombasa-Nairobi railway, there was little related international interest or supply chains.”
The Africa-China relationship could well prove to be the go-to example of co-operation in a post-pandemic world which will need to shake off past ideological conservatism and embrace a wider understanding of who we can rely and trust upon to build a symbiotic basis from which everyone has a say and everyone has a share.
Bathabile Dlamini is President of the ANC Women’s League.