During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, huge portions of African territory were carved up and divided for European superpowers to take control of, later dubbed the “Scramble for Africa”. In 1870, only ten percent of Africa was under European control, yet less than forty years later this figure had increased to ninety percent of the continent, such was the extent of Western ne0-imperialism.
Over a century on, a new form of involvement has emerged. Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) from countries such as Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa to a lesser extent (BRICS), has resulted in their growing influence over large parts of the continent, despite questions being raised about stability of their own economies. Since South Africa joined the BRIC grouping in 2010 at China’s invitation, there’s been considerable discussion about the rationale for its admittance (Smith, 2013). Jim O’Neill, the Goldman Sachs analyst who coined the term BRIC, has questioned why South Africa was asked over much larger economies. Yet other commentators, including author Kingsley Chiedu Moghalu, have argued that geopolitics trumped global economics: while its economy is dwarfed by others around the world, South Africa is important regionally because its economy is sizable in continental terms. (Carmody, 2011)
What all the Brics countries share, however, is awareness of the potential in the rest of Africa. Even if there is a hidden agenda behind South Africa’s admittance to the BRIC grouping, it has not stopped huge economic investment in Africa by the BRICS since the turn of the millennium. From 2000 to 2014, BRICS-Africa trade rose by 1,250% (Mulupi, 2016). In 2014 alone China invested £56bn in African infrastructure (Poplak, 2016). China’s pursuit of Africa’s natural resources has undoubtedly been a central component in African economic growth over the past decade, but is this colonialism in another guise?
Questions must be raised of the legitimacy of the actions of the BRICS; is it really likely to just be a result of good nature? For example, China’s economic and political interest in Africa certainly has been driven by the impact of the country’s need for new overseas markets to absorb the products of its expanding economy. Furthermore, Africa’s rich natural resources are arguably the primary reason for FDI. China’s share of Africa’s unprocessed primary products was more than 80% of its total imports from Africa (Mbaye, 2011). Certainly the level of Chinese FDI flowing into Africa at present is staggering. And with FDI being an engine for economic growth (Moyo, 2010, p. 101), it is difficult to blame African countries for turning it down. But this Chinese FDI is bundled together with concessional loans (Mbaye, 2011), and as a result, concern about African countries’ future debt burden is growing.
Within a mere decade there have come to be more Chinese living on the African continent than Europeans despite decades of Western imperialism. Across Africa, European colonisers have long since been driven out. Those who advocated apartheid are now governed by those they despised for generations. Certainly, Western influence is unrecognisable to what it once was in Africa, and that has allowed new forces to emerge. But the role of these countries in the new ‘Scramble for Africa’ need not hold the negative connotations as did its predecessor. China, as well as the other BRICS, are out for their own gain, there is no doubt about that, but it doesn’t mean that Africa cannot benefit along the way.