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Belt and Road – A Constructive Initiative

29 April 2019

“We are also scared, “expressed Ambassador Lin Songtian, Ambassador of China to South Africa. He was the keynote speaker at a seminar and launch of the book ‘The Belt and Road Initiative - Alternative Development Path for Africa’ held at the Chinese Embassy in Pretoria.

Photo:  Prof Paul Tembe, Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute, Prof Cheryl Hendricks, HSRC, Ambassador Anil Sooklal, DIRCO, Prof Narnia Bohler-Muller, HSRC, Ambassador Lin Songtian, Dr Philani Mthembu, IGD, Dr Thokozani Simelane, HSRC and Ms Yazini April, HSRC.

Many billions have been invested in this initiative that seeks to bring about a physical global connectedness through infrastructure. It is inspired by the ancient Silk Road that extended Chinese innovation the world over.  China has, at great risk to its own economic growth, embarked on an unprecedented global infrastructure roll out. The investment in rail, ports and roads is a vision that envisages the creation of a shared future and modest prosperity.



The event in Pretoria coincided with the 2nd Belt and Road Forum that took place in Beijing amid 5000 delegates including heads of state, ministers and academics among others. As the Belt and Road train, as it is sometimes referred to, gathers momentum, the vision of the resources, time and effort that has been expanded in the project becomes clearer. The number of representations and outcomes of the discussions is considered a vote of confidence for the Belt and Road Iinitiative (BRI).

The Pretoria seminar, co-hosted by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), set out to discuss the projects, how they are linking up, addressed some of the challenges and criticisms faced, and allayed some concerns regarding debt.  

China has no history of invading or being at war with any country. Since its opening up 40 years ago, China’s development achievements have been admirable to say the least. It has made the quantum leap to become the second largest economy in the world, enroute to becoming the largest.

The roll out of record-breaking transport and technology structures and networks has led to the uplifting of 100s of millions of people out of abject poverty and created work and employment for a burgeoning middle class and wealth and prosperity for many others. President Xi’s leadership intends to share the achievements and success of the people of China. A people that were once equally unprosperous, with lower per capita income then the nations of Africa, have followed a plan that began with opening up four of China’s 34 provinces.
The Marshall plan after World War II was a bailout package for former colonial powers, explained Prof Paul Tembe of the Thabo Mbeki Leadership Institute. There was no such plan for nations devastated by colonialism and the failure of the post-colonial era.  The book, said Tembe, was a new development paradigm for Africa.

Dr. Philani Mthembu, Executive Director of the Institute for Global Dialogue referred to the crisis of multilateralism and globalization. He pointed out the irony that those who once advocated open markets are now turning against it. He also re-inforced the power that Africa has and the influence that it wields as changes domestically are proving.

Science and technology cooperation is a priority pillar of relations between China and South Africa.  The South Africa – China Young Scientist Exchange program will see 7 young South African scientists carry out full-time research at institutes in China. Daan Du Toit, Deputy Director General for international Cooperation and Resources at the Department of Science and Technology commended the Chinese Embassy officials for their commitment to making this cooperation a success.

An intriguing prospect of associating the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) with the Maritime Silk Road was presented by Prof Narina Bohler-Muller of the HSRC. IORA, the 22 member body with 9 African countries and China as a dialogue partner form an intersection as part of the Ocean Economy that has potentially a unique value.

(l-r) Maputo-Katembe Bridge, Addis Ababa Light Rail, and Djibouti Port

Dr Yazini April, Senior Research Specialist at the HSRC has written several publications on the relations between Africa and China. She tackled the negative criticism of the BRI comparing it to what other countries have done in this regard. Many developed nations are warning Africa of China, yet are first in line to attract Chinese investment. 

BRI is constructing, physically building linkages that will usher in an alternate international relations. While others are destroying and sowing seeds of discontent, uncertainty and instability, China’s vision of planning together, sharing together and building together is gaining acceptance. Dr Thokozani Simelani co-editor of the book and Director of Research at the HSRC said the book examines the nuts and bolts of China’s engagement with the African continent. The book points out realities and possible solutions, it unpacks the historical context and scrutinizes the financial implications, it presents the challenges and suggests how they can be overcome.




February/March 2020
















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