Each week I do a lot of reading. I will process material from local and foreign newspapers, magazines, Internet websites, and also full length books. In so doing, I run into material that I think is important for you readers to consider and assess. Most times, such important material is included in this newspaper, with a simple heading. My sense is, however, that only serious readers take on such articles. It makes me sad to realize that not all the readers who would benefit from such material, are willing to do the work involved with serious articles. I understand.
Most readers of this newspaper have grown to enjoy this column, and they are willing to fight their way through it even if I tackle heavy, complicated matters. I try to package my column in such a way that you are entertained while I am making my points. Food should have flavoring, we all agree.
After all the years, I still have stories to tell, but some of these stories would be best told in a fictional framework. There were so many times when I was running the streets that I had experiences which I’ve never shared with you. I still dream of doing creative work, but time is no longer on my side.
In any case, in this particular column I will, in a sense, try to force you to read some serious material, analyze it, and place it in a Belizean context. There are people who come to this country which you and I call our own, our Jewel, and these newcomers do not participate in the life of our roots people. Some of the people who come here are rich and powerful people. They dominate our economy, and therefore influence our politics. Other people who come here are poor people seeking to improve their standard of living. Along the way, things have happened to Belize which we can only begin to understand if we know of what is happening in the region and in the world.
A few weeks ago a friend sent me a book by one Howard W. French, entitled CHINA’S SECOND CONTINENT: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa. It was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2014. Early on in the book, I began saying to myself, how I wish our readers could check out some of this material. Now that you are deep into today’s column, perhaps you will go on and read the following excerpt from pages 45 to 48 of Mr. French’s book. I have to do it this way to “force” you to read something that you need to know.
That Zambia had become the leading edge of China’s push into the continent was the result of a political coincidence. China’s official embrace of Africa had roughly coincided with a radical transformation of this country’s political economy. In the early 1990s, Zambia had gone in a blink from being a socialist-minded, effective one-party state to a multiparty democracy that embraced the standard economic prescriptions emanating from the West, and Washington in particular. Practically speaking, the country’s change of economic direction required wholesale divestment by the government of its monopoly control of major industries. As elsewhere in Africa, as countries applied the prescriptions of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, this meant the selling off of national telecommunications and power companies, and the opening up of commerce and agriculture to foreign investment. But in Zambia, where copper had always been king, it meant above all privatizing the country’s mines.
This began occurring at the precise moment when the new Chinese “go out” policy was gathering momentum. This was the blunt watchword that Beijing gave to Chinese state-owned corporations, and the provincial governments that often controlled them, to begin scouring the globe in search of business opportunities. And because Zambia was largely ignored by the West, the pickings were plentiful and often seemed easy.
Against such a backdrop, it would not take long for an initial trickle of individual Chinese prospecting for business to become a vigorous stream. Word of mouth quickly spread in China that Zambia was open for business, that it was stable, that its people were “gentle,” and that its government was friendly toward Chinese. This last element was due at least in part to the lingering gratitude in Zambia for the immense gesture of solidarity extended by China with its construction of the TAZARA Railway in the 1970s. The railroad gave the country an outlet to the sea via Tanzania and reduced its dependency on a hostile South Africa that was still governed under apartheid.
The Chinese-built line’s tracks stopped a few miles short of another railroad that also passed through the town of Kapiri Mposhi. This one had been built seventy years earlier by the British, at the height of their power, and was part of Cecil Rhodes’s grand imperial dream to lay railroad tracks from Cape Town to Cairo.
If the British never managed to quite pull off that feat, they satisfied an important interim strategic goal nonetheless: bringing rail to the cusp of the world’s most extensive copper reserves. Kapiri Mposhi was the gateway of the Copper Belt, where in 1895 an American explorer named Frederick Russell Burnham, at least an indirect source of inspiration for the Hollywood film character Indiana Jones, had discovered geological formations similar to copper deposits he had seen back home. In his prescient report to the British South Africa Company, he called the deposits “probably one of the greatest copper fields on the continent,” and went on to note that “The natives have worked this ore for ages, as can be seen by their old dumps, and they work it today … The natives inhabiting this part of the country are skilled workmen, and have traded their handiwork with all comers, even as far afield as the Portuguese of the West Coast and the Arabs of the East. These natives, being miners and workers of copper and iron, and being permanently located on the ground, would give the very element needed in developing these fields.”
Before that could happen, though, Britain and Belgium’s King Leopold II, whose Congo Free State lay to the immediate north of the British South Africa Company’s holdings, needed to agree on where to place the dividing line between their territories. Unable to resolve their dispute, they submitted it to the king of Italy, whose country was not a player in the region at all, with the result that Leopold was awarded a “pedicle” of land the size of New Jersey that juts southeastward into present-day Zambia like some drunken mapmaker’s baroque flourish. The Italian king based his decision about where to draw the border on the watershed of the region’s three great rivers, the Zambesi, the Congo, and the Luapula, and on the fact that after murdering the ruler of a large and powerful regional kingdom named Msiri, Belgium had moved faster to consolidate its claims to land in the area than had Britain.
This frenzied imperial jousting during the Scramble for Africa left what would eventually become the independent nation of Zambia with its odd, bent dumbbell shape – like two countries fused together with a tiny waist to join them. But the significance of this perverse mapmaking goes far beyond any such curiosities. Only later would it be discovered that the Italian king’s border ran through the heart of one of the world’s richest copper deposits, dividing the mother lode into two unequal parts, with the far bigger share going to Congo.
During my visit, with elections near, Michael Sata, the longtime opposition leader and presidential candidate, was making loud and frequent claims that Zambia was being cheated by the big foreign companies that controlled its mines. Given that Sata had denounced Chinese exploitation of Zambians in a previous, failed campaign for the presidency, most guessed that even though he had toned things down this time around, it was the Chinese he had in mind.
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