Zambia: should China worry about Sata's victory?

Sentiment turns against Chinese investment in Africa as others vie for influence.

Known as King Cobra to his Zambian supporters, 73-year old populist Michael Sata has been inaugurated as the President of Zambia, replacing Rupiah Banda who had been in power since 2008. 

The Result: 
  • Michael Sata (Patriotic Front) 43.0%
  • Rupiah Banda (Movement for Multi-Party Democracy) 36.1%. 

With a strong constituency of urban poor, many of whom languish on less than US$2 per day, Sata has criticised China's employment record - in particular its treatment of workers. Voices of complaint against the Chinese have risen across Africa lately, and this may be the start of a far wider phenomenon. 

In June, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned of China's intentions in Africa when on a visit to the Zambian capital, Lusaka. Later in Dar-es-Salaam she spoke of "creeping new-colonialism" from foreign powers, perhaps concerned at dwindling American influence on the Continent. 

The Americans (and French, it has to be said) might well be concerned. The Chinese have for many years reaped the rewards of massive involvement in Africa by investing without conditions. Unlike the Europeans or Americans, they've been interested only in fueling their own growth through the extraction of mineral wealth, without insisting on reduced corruption, human rights, electoral transparency or effective governance.

In Zambia, Sata has been critical in the past of Chinese practices. This rhetoric was toned down during the election campaign, perhaps - sceptics say - because Taiwanese funds into his Patriotic Front dried up and he'd been persuaded to turn to mainland Chinese for assistance, the Economist noted.

He is now at the helm though. And there are other foreigners in the wings prepared to replace the Chinese at a moment's notice. Investment banks, like the Russian firm Rennaissance, Indian conglomerates, Turkish entrepreneurs and corporations and others. Brazil now has more diplomatic missions in Africa than the UK, states The Economist, for example.

Brazil has treated its local workers extremely well on a rail project in Liberia, it's claimed. This contrasts sharply with the Chinese who were reported by Reuters last October to have "shot and wounded 11 local coal miners protesting over pay and working conditions" at Collum Mine in Zambia. After this incident Chinese bosses were charged.

When the British left the then Northern Rhodesia in 1964, Zambia was one of Africa's richest countries. Less then ten years ago it was one the Continent's poorest. Yet in the past few years the country has grown by an average of 6%, and this year it might achieve 7%, according to the Economist. But little has filtered down to the poor. Sata has promised to fight corruption and redistribute wealth. If he's genuinely serious about tackling graft, Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff could give him a few pointers, I suspect.  

How far he can go will depend on his ability to retain and entice foreign investors. While he will be keen to address working conditions at Chinese operated mines in the Copper Belt, he'll undoubtedly seek to bring other interested parties on side.

His success will be monitered by other sub-Saharan countries where Chinese investment practices are equally under scrutiny. And by Turks, Brazilians and Indians all eager to benefit from the wealth lying beneath African soil.

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