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Africa needs its own development model

Updated: 2013-08-02 09:02
By Andrew Moody and Zhao Yanrong ( China Daily)

 Africa needs its own development model

Garth Shelton says many who criticize China's role in Africa do so becasue they are not interested in facts. Zhao Yanrong / China Daily

 

Continent lacks long-term economic vision, says leading academic

Leading South African academic Garth Shelton says many of those who criticize China's role in Africa do so because they are not interested in facts.

The professor of international relations at the University of Witwatersrand insists even those in the academic community fail to do proper research.

"There is a paradigm or framework for thinking out there. A lot of scholars automatically attach themselves to this idea that the China-Africa relationship has negative consequences for Africa.

"When you challenge them and ask for specific examples, few have anything to add. They are just repeating the things they have heard or a general viewpoint."

None can accuse Shelton of not doing proper research, having done fieldwork research on China's impact on no fewer than 11 African countries.

Two of his four published books, China, Africa and South Africa: South-South Co-operation in a Global Era (with Garth Le Pere), and The Forum on China-Africa Co-operation: A Strategic Opportunity (with Farana Paruk) directly examine the relationship between the world's second-largest economy and the African continent.

"I think China is responsible for a lot of the growth in Africa because we are selling more and more resources to China. Some of the cities I visit in China are going to double in size in terms of population over the next 20 years and that means more steel, concrete, copper and Africa is providing these raw materials," he says.

Shelton, 56, a relaxed figure who often breaks into laughter, was speaking in his study in the sprawling campus of Witwatersrand University, one of South Africa's premier academic institutions.

He thinks China is sometimes criticized because it is perceived to have got the better of a deal with an African government when the real blame should go to the local politicians who originally struck the agreement.

"When I go to Shanghai, I see a lot of foreign investors there but nobody ever says the foreigners are colonizing or taking control of Shanghai. That is because these foreign companies have to conform to strict rules and regulations all set up by the Shanghai municipal government.

"I think in Africa we have been weak in response to China. We in Africa need to set up rules and strict ways of engaging to maximize our benefits."

Shelton says that South Africa has been the exception to this with foreign investors having to meet stringent criteria.

"South Africa is a different case. You won't see Chinese companies flooding into South Africa. We have very strong trade unions and very strong legislation and minimum wages that are four times higher than those in China."

The academic says Chinese companies also have to contend with the country's Black Economic Empowerment legislation, which requires companies over a certain size to employ specific quotas of black people. One of South Africa's leading employers, SAB Miller, has had to agree its own BEE deal with the government.

"If a Chinese company sets up in South Africa it has to establish a partnership with a black business individual. A lot of Chinese companies complain that they don't even know a black businessman," he says.

Shelton, who was born in Johannesburg, is almost a Witwatersrand institution in his own right, having studied up to PhD level at the university as well as spending his entire teaching career there.

He did, however, briefly study at Christian Albrechts University at Kiel in Germany.

Shelton also had a break from teaching when he did a sabbatical at South Africa's Department of Defence in the late 1990s.

"Part of my teaching program is on defense and security issues and my roles was to advise them on restructuring after democratic elections," he says.

Shelton is far from an insular figure, however, and has a particular fascination for Asia. He has visited more than 30 cities in China, making his first visit in 1994, and has been to Hong Kong no fewer than 28 times.

"I know Hong Kong even better than Johannesburg and it is certainly my favorite city. Hong Kong universities have such fantastic resources on China. South African ones are very weak on China and we are trying to build these up."

Shelton says he has been able to witness first hand the transformation of China since reform and opening-up in the late 1970s.

"All my Chinese friends say they love China because every year they get an increase in salary and every year their life gets a bit better. Only 30 years ago they used to ride bicycles and now they drive Audis and wear Italian suits."

He believes the country is at a critical phase and the next decade could be historically very important.

"The next 10 years could be the most decisive in China's modern history and key decisions have to be made on which direction they are heading."

Shelton says the country's economic model has to change from one based upon exports to one based on domestic consumption.

"You just can't export to Europe anymore. I don't see any major recovery in Europe for the next 20 years. China has to shift to the domestic market and stimulate domestic demand in the (more underdeveloped) west of the country. They have to ask questions as to what do people in Urumqi (capital of the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region) want to buy. I am not sure what the answer is."

One of the major questions is whether Africa, which has had something of a boom itself over the last decade, can learn something from China's economic development over the past 30 years.

"I don't think South Africa could ever compete with China in manufacturing. Our labor costs are just too high. Even with resources, South Africa has had gold for more than 100 years but we still are not big on jewelry making. All the jewelry is made in Italy, India or Hong Kong," he says.

"Africa needs its own development model. What we could take from China is the special economic zones and try and do the same here."

Shelton says the main weakness is that the continent lacks the long-term vision of someone like Deng Xiaoping, who began China's reform process.

"Countries like South Africa have no long-term plan. There are lots of little plans but they are not that clear. If China exploits the opportunities that are here it is our fault. We didn't do our homework," he says.

Shelton is a particular expert on the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, set up to foster relations between China and African nations. Some felt the 5th ministerial conference in Beijing last year lacked the pageantry and significance of previous ones.

"I think China has run out of ideas for it and is not sure how to make it a big event. You cannot just carry on building schools and hospitals. You really need to turn it into a more exciting and adventurous relationship.

"There has been some speculation that it will just be absorbed into BRICS but my Chinese official contacts insist they want to keep it separate for the short term, at least."

Shelton says the views of Africans themselves on the China-Africa relationship vary across the continent but it is far from the almost universally negative one often portrayed in the Western media.

"Before the third year begins I always ask my students about their private assessment of China. They tend to say that we should maintain a balance between the East and the West and that we should definitely maintain our relationship with Europe and the United States but see China as an additional partner."

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