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Friend or foe?

If 2005 was a year in which campaigns against onerous debt, unfair trade and flawed aid focused attention on Africa’s relationship with the West, then 2006 has been the year of looking East, with China’s rise to prominence in Africa capturing the agenda.

The stage was set in January with the launch of China’s Africa policy. This was followed with a June visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao to 10 African countries.

Then in November China hosted representatives from 48 African countries in Beijing for a three-day China-Africa ‘Co-operation Forum’. At the event, Hu Jintao pledged to double aid to the continent over the next three years and announced sweeping investments, laying out a vision for increasing annual trade with Africa to a total of $100 billion by 2010. This will double the $50 billion of trade expected by the end of 2006 – a tenfold increase since 1995.

China sees Africa as a valuable source of raw materials for its booming economy and rates the continent highly in its quest for global status.

In Africa, opinions range from a belief that the fastest growing developing country in the world provides a positive alternative to years of damaging engagement with the West, to fears that China will show scant regard for human rights and issues of governance.

‘There are reasons to worry about this new scramble for African resources,’ says Nnimmo Bassey, a Nigerian activist with Environmental Rights Action and Friends of the Earth Nigeria.

Bassey lists environmental and safety concerns surrounding Chinese corporations and believes the Chinese ‘swoop’ on Africa is opportunistic. ‘It is essentially a battle between the West and them, and Africa will once more be torn apart.’

China’s demand for energy to fuel its fast-growing economy means Africa is faced with a ‘serious dilemma’, argues Bassey. ‘Extractive activities continue to be violent and destructive and so far I have not seen any reason to believe that this will change. The more the intensity of mining goes up, the greater the depth of poverty of local people and communities.’

He says the Chinese have not offered better relationships with communities or shown that they will act transparently. ‘It will be business as usual. And business as usual is killing Africa. It is a shame that Africa continues to be seen as a region for raw materials that can be grabbed with impunity.’

But many, like Demba Moussa Dembele, Director of Senegalese-based think-tank The Forum for African Alternatives, see it as odd that China’s relationship with Africa is being viewed so critically – especially by the West, with its vested interest in controlling Africa’s resources. ‘As far as I am concerned the West, identified as it is with global capitalism, has no credibility – much less moral authority – to tell Africans what to think and what to do.’

Dembele sees the building of strategic relationships with China as being in Africa’s best interests. What China offers Africa, he says, is ‘breathing space’ from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and the transfer of technologies in the areas of agriculture, infrastructure building and oil exploration.

It is up to Africa to avoid a scramble for its resources by building an industrial base to take advantage of them so that it can create a more equal relationship with China, argues Dembele. To do this Africa needs the ability to speak with one voice, a coherent development strategy within and between countries, and strong leadership committed to defending Africa’s interests.

Lunatic beetroot

In August this year an HIV-positive prisoner died at Westville correctional centre in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, a region with one of the highest HIV rates in the world. For Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) it was the last straw. The death sparked the launch of a TAC campaign demanding the dismissal of the South African Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang. Prior to the death, the TAC had been embroiled in a court case to force the Government to provide Anti-Retroviral (ARV) treatment to HIV-positive prison inmates at Westville. According to TAC General Secretary Sipho Mthathi: ‘Evidence shows a 40 per cent prevalence of HIV in prisons, which means you’ve got people either dying in prison without any proper care or people who go outside bringing HIV back to the population. It’s just crazy – one should never have had to remind the Government that you just do this [provide treatment] and don’t argue about it.’ The judgment in the Westville case ordered that barriers to treatment be removed, but the Government appealed. It was in this context that one of the 15 applicants in the case died. Mthathi was outraged: ‘The kind of negligence we saw in the prison system we felt was the exact same kind of negligence being displayed by the health ministry across the board.’ The spat was the latest between government and civil society over the provision of ARV treatment. With between 5.5 and 6 million South Africans HIV positive, TAC estimates that there are 800 AIDS-related deaths a day. Official health department figures claim that 175,000 people are currently receiving life-saving ARVs, just a fraction of those who need it. At the same time as the Westville case was unfolding, the 16th International Conference on HIV/AIDS took place in Toronto. Activists were furious at the South African Government’s exhibition in Toronto, including displays of beetroot and garlic, advocated by Tshabalala-Msimang as central to the fight against the epidemic. The South African Government was roundly condemned at the conference. UN special envoy to Africa Stephen Lewis denounced the South African Government’s theories as worthy of a ‘lunatic fringe’. The Westville case and the Toronto debacle caused the TAC to embark on a campaign to highlight the slowness of the Government’s treatment roll-out programme. They demanded an urgent national meeting to implement an emergency HIV/AIDS plan and the immediate dismissal of the Health Minister. Protests took place around the country and at South African embassies around the world. Since then events have taken a positive turn, with the TAC meeting Deputy-President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. Both parties emerged indicating a commitment to work together on HIV/AIDS. Mthathi believes Mlambo-Ngcuka’s positive statements affirming that HIV/AIDS is a national crisis represent a real breakthrough. Commentators have interpreted Mlambo-Ngcuka’s involvement as a sidelining of Tshabalala-Msimang, something the Health Minister denies. While demands for Tshabalala-Msimang to be sacked remain, Mthathi sees the TAC in negotiating mode. He warns that a lack of progress by World AIDS Day on 1 December will take the TAC ‘back to the streets’.