This article by Kizito Sikuka was originally published on The Southern Times
I MUST confess. I have never watched the movie “When China Met Africa” directed by two British filmmakers, Marc Francis and Nick Francis. I have only watched the preview, which I did not rate very highly. However, even those that have watched the full movie such as Jonathan Bhalla of the Africa Research Institute — an expert on China-Africa relations — seem to have the same reservations. They argue that the movie does not fully represent a comprehensive depiction of China’s multifaceted engagement with Africa. Well, this account is not about the movie by the two British brothers who are neither Africans nor Chinese. Rather it is about the China-Zimbabwe relations, which I experience every single day.
While relations between China and Zimbabwe date back to the days of the liberation struggle, co-operation between the two countries was further strengthened in 2003 when Zimbabwe became the first country in Africa to adopt the Look East Policy. Since then, co-operation has grown from strength to strength. For example, trade volume between the two countries has increased tremendously from just about US$191 million in 2002 to the present US$1 billion, according to latest figures by the Chinese Embassy in Zimbabwe.
Such co-operation has not only influenced socio-economic growth in Zimbabwe, but has also shielded the country from the global economic depression of 2008, and the economic sanctions imposed on the country by the West and her allies. Furthermore, China has influenced socio-economic development in Zimbabwe with the Asian nation now becoming the single largest investor in Zimbabwe. To this effect, China has made major interventions in developing Zimbabwe’s economy, particularly its extensive natural resource base, which includes diamonds, gold and coal.
According to figures released last year by the Zimbabwe Investment Authority (ZIA) for the period January to October 2013, the authority approved Chinese investments worth more than US$348m, concentrated mainly in the energy and mining sectors.
A recent visit to the coal-mining town of Hwange, revealed that China is indeed making significant contributions to the development of the energy and mining sectors in Zimbabwe. For example, China has invested heavily in the refurbishment of the Hwange Thermal Power Station.
Hwange Power Station is the largest coal-fired power station in the country, and the 14th largest thermal station in the southern African region with an installed capacity of about 920 Megawatts (MW). However, due to inadequate maintenance and lack of financial resources, the power plant is operating below capacity. As such refurbishment of the plant is not only expected to improve operations, but will also result in the addition of two more units with a combined capacity of about 600 MW. This new installed power is expected to go a long way in easing the power shortages that have negatively impacted the economy.
China Machinery Engineering Company (CMEC) won the tender to refurbish the Hwange Thermal Power Station on a Build, Operate and Transfer contract, meaning that after a certain period Zimbabwe will have total control of the station. The government of Zimbabwe is now concluding technical discussions with the CMEC to ensure that refurbishment begins at the station.
“The technical negotiations for the contract for Hwange Power Station expansion are fairly advanced at around 95 percent complete,” chief executive, Noah Gwariro, of the Zimbabwe Power Company, which co-ordinates energy development in the country has said. The expansion of the thermal station is expected to cost about US$1.2b over a period of close to two years.
With regards to coal mining, China has also helped the town to add value to its raw material, a move that has allowed the town and country to earn more from its resources. For instance, traditionally Hwange would export raw coke and coal to different markets, but the town is now exporting processed coal.
Coal processing plants are being set up in the town with a number of new mines, including the South Mining and Makomo Resources now processing and adding value to the raw coal.
“We have been mining and selling the coal in its raw form, so we have now acquired a washing plant to process the coal,” Samson Mabvira, the general manager of Makomo Resources said.
The move to process coal has not only allowed the mines and the country to get more from its natural resources, but has also created new jobs for the locals.
“The processing of coal has changed the face of the mining industry in Hwange,” a resident Thomas Mudimba said, adding that it has greatly benefited the local people through employment. More than 400 locals are employed at Makomo Resources, while South Mining ‑ another mining company with Chinese shareholding ‑ employs about 300 locals.
The new mines have also taken advantage of the Look East Policy to purchase affordable equipment from China. It is a common sight to see Chinese-made trucks and heavy machinery work at full capacity in most of these new mines. The machinery includes dump trucks, excavators, drills, cranes, bulldozers, graders and dump trucks.
While China’s influence in the mining and energy sectors has been positive, there are a few challenges that still need to be addressed. For example, the sudden increase of open cast mining or coal mining in Hwange has caused pollution to the environment.
“It will be good if these challenges are addressed to ensure that the town gets maximum benefit from these ventures,” Mudimba said, adding that the town has nevertheless greatly benefited from the presence of Chinese companies in the mining and energy sector.
• This article is a result of the China-Africa Reporting Project managed by the Journalism Department of the University of Witwatersrand