Thursday, November 6, 2008

Zambia becomes shorthand for what can go wrong

CHINA'S AFRICA - ZAMBIA: Workers who cheered when the Chinese arrived now complain of exploitative work practices, writes Mary Fitzgerald in Zambia

JUSTINA MULUMBA still remembers the sound of the explosion that killed her son Thomas. And the way it made the ground beneath her shudder and every window pane in the ramshackle township of Chambishi shatter.

The blast levelled the explosives factory - a subsidiary of the local Chinese-owned copper mine - where Thomas worked, incinerating 46 Zambian workers.

"There was very little left to bury," says Justina, her voice trembling at the memory. It was the worst industrial disaster in Zambia's history. Three years on, local residents and unions still blame the mine's Chinese management, saying those who died were unskilled casual labourers unsuited to working with hazardous substances.

Since then Chambishi, located deep in Zambia's copperbelt, has become a byword for anti-Chinese sentiment in the country. In 2006 a number of local miners were shot and wounded following rioting over wages.

The incident, according to an independent study of the copper mining industry, "confirmed in the popular imagination the idea that Chinese bosses were uniquely brutal and exploitative, and that the Zambian state's relationship to them was too close".

Such was the anger and hostility that Chinese president Hu Jintao was forced to cancel a visit to Chambishi last year amid fears of further disturbances.

Tensions remain high. Last March 500 workers at a Chinese-owned copper smelter were suspended and more than 50 sacked after an alleged attack on Chinese managers during protests over poor pay and conditions.

"We've seen very deep anger and resentment towards the Chinese," says Noel O'Regan, bishop of the local diocese. The Cork-born prelate drew a sharp rebuke at the time from Zambia's president Levy Mwanawasa, who has recently died, after he spoke of exploitative work practices during the funeral of those killed in the explosion. "Unfortunately the face of China we see here is not its most pleasant face," he adds.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. China had, and indeed continues to have, big plans for this corner of landlocked Zambia, a country that holds some of the world's richest copper reserves. Locals cheered when China's state metals conglomerate bought the shuttered nearby mine in a privatisation deal in the late 1990s, hoping their depressed township would soon see the benefits of the new investment.

"Yes, we welcomed them at first," says Bernadette Simbeye, whose son died in the 2005 blast. "But what have they done for this community? They are just profiting on the backs of ordinary Zambians."

None of the mine workers I spoke to would give their names for fear they would lose their jobs. All said they were being subjected to harsh working conditions for lower pay than in other foreign-owned mines. One pulled out a bunch of crumpled wage slips to prove his point.

"When we complain, they say 'this is how we do things in China'," said another man, an engineer. "Well, this is not China, this is Zambia and we have laws against this sort of thing."

The complaints are not just confined to the copper sector. Two years ago a government minister wept on national television after seeing conditions at a Chinese-owned coal mine in southern Zambia. She accused its managers of treating their workers like animals. The company's licence was temporarily suspended.

Zambian construction workers hired by a Chinese firm to build housing units for police officers in Ndola, one of the largest towns in the copperbelt, told me they were being paid just 250,000 kwacha (€47) per month.

Zhang Shudong, economic counsellor at the Chinese embassy in Zambia's capital Lusaka, acknowledges that "maybe one or two Chinese companies have not done well in this regard".

"Our government says those who go out to invest in another country must abide by the local law and regulations. Most of the companies know this but sometimes it is difficult to understand the local regulations or there are language difficulties, so misunderstandings occur and mistakes are made," he adds.

That's not good enough, says Michael Sata, a populist opposition leader with a penchant for provocative sound bites. Nicknamed King Cobra, Sata tapped into Zambia's growing anti-Chinese sentiment during his bid for the presidency in 2006.

One of his main arguments was that Chinese workers were taking Zambian jobs. The rabble-rousing campaign clearly struck a nerve - the Chinese ambassador warned that Beijing might sever all ties with Zambia if Sata won. He did not, but his party made gains in the copperbelt.

"Zambia has become a province of China," Sata thunders. "The Chinese are the most unpopular people in the country because no one trusts them. The Chinaman is coming just to invade and exploit Africa. We need investors not infesters." It's a message that resonates with the likes of Emmanuel Kasongo, an engineer whose nephew died in the Chambishi explosion.

"The fear is that after milking our resources, the Chinese will leave Zambia and we will be left bankrupt with nothing to our name," Mr Kasongo says.

Some of Sata's critics say his rhetoric can sometimes skate dangerously close to racism, and that it bolsters some of the more lurid rumours to be heard about the Chinese in Zambia. Others argue that much of Sata's vitriol stems from his links with Taiwan.

Minister for trade and commerce Felix Mutati admits China's engagement with the country has not been as smooth as he would like but insists the situation is improving. "Some of the issues of safety and work relations may have arisen because our own inspection regime is not as effective as it should be," he says.

Mr Mutati's cavernous office is dominated by a huge mahogany panel which features a poem by 8th century Tang dynasty poet Li Bai inscribed in gold calligraphy - a gift from Beijing.

Zambia's government, he argues, needs to communicate better the nature and extent of China's investment in Zambia to counter anti-Chinese feeling.

"The rumour mill has taken over and there is this idea that everything Chinese is bad. The more positive story about the relationship, unfortunately, is not coming out." Mr Mutati talks about how Beijing has identified Zambia as a key location for Chinese investment in Africa, with the construction of a tax-free economic zone in Chambishi already started. One of five such zones earmarked for the continent, its manufacturing and processing facilities are expected to draw more than $800 million in investment.

"The zone will create 7,000 direct and many more indirect jobs and it will have the potential to generate revenues of about a billion dollars per annum when complete," he says. "We don't have sufficient economic muscle to provide these opportunities as Zambians."

But the irony is that far from being a poster child for China's engagement with Africa, Zambia has become shorthand for what can go wrong. After Malawi became the latest African country to sign a deal with China in December, a government minister there told me they would be very careful in setting out the parameters of the relationship.

"We've all seen what happened in Zambia," he said. "We certainly don't want to see a repeat of that here."

© 2008 The Irish Times / August 25, 2008