Investment, foreign aid or just 21st century colonialism

Is colonialism dead, or is it in fact alive and well in Africa (again)?  And when is “progress” just progress, and when is foreign “investment” to be welcomed, with no strings attached?

Like a woman with low self-esteem who keeps being attracted to unsuitable partners, it might appear that some African countries are! just maybe, succumbing yet again to the “blankets and guns” enticements preferred by foreign explorers, using “development” as a rationale for establishing and securing a supply chain.

For wasn’t that what the Dutch were doing when they settled in the Cape of Good Hope… establishing and securing a supply chain for precious spices from the east?  In this case, the precious cargo is minerals, the supply chain is roads, lots of roads, and the colonisers are from the east.    

Most visibly on this trip, in Swakopmund, which is booming thanks to a large influx of Chinese workers.  The Chinese, we were told, have bought a 40% share in Rossing uranium mine, and are building a new wholly owned mine just down the road at Huseb due to open in January, which will be the largest opencast uranium mine in the world.  The locals have a small grumble about failure to employ “enough” local workers, but are otherwise pleased to embrace the progress and foreign investment.

Elsewhere in Africa, it’s roads that appear to be the focus (maybe not required here in Namibia where the mines are literally a stone’s throw from the rapidly expanding port at Walvis Bay).  In Rwanda last year, I blogged about the amazing roadworks, literally from one end of the country to the other – overseen and funded by Chinese expertise and money, but employing local villagers for each stretch, leading to a patchwork of stretches of road in varying levels of completeness.  When done, that road will take all the heavy traffic between Burundi and the port at Dar Es Salaam away from the sensitive wildlife areas.  A good thing, surely…or just more of the supply chain.

And our fellow travellers, Anne and Willy, who have just driven down from Malawi though Mozambique, report simlarly significant, similarly funded, roadworks underway.  

One cannot help but be reminded of the long ago ambition of that great colonial, Cecil John Rhodes, whose ambition it was to build a railway line from Cape Town to Cairo.  Seems his ambition may yet be realised, only not quite as he envisaged, with the romance of rail replaced by the efficient practicality of winding black tarmac – all in the name of progress.  

I recall a old man in Zanzibar telling me some 10 years ago that Eastern investment in his country was preferable to Western investment, which inevitably came with strings attached.  Expectations of democracy, and western “standards” of law and order, for example.    And hence my question – is it still colonialism when the deal done is simply investment in return for resources, with no intention to “civilise” or indeed, to colonise in any major way.

But I am no historian, no sociological scholar…  And as my dear old dad would have said, I am probably talking about things I know nothing about!

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