Continental Competition

The new scramble for Africa could play out to developing countries’ advantage


A third scramble for Africa is unfolding – this time between China and the United States. China holds a key advantage over the US by virtue of its own form of one (communist) party rule. This allows it to engage in mediumto- longer term central planning not just domestically but in relation to its international relations. In this regard, Xi Xi Ping’s 2013 ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI) is the centrepiece of China’s global economic diplomacy, through which the Asian giant delivers much-needed infrastructure projects to 150 countries and international organisations. Travel through Africa today and you will see a benefit of the BRI in the form of bridges, dams, highways, harbours, airports and even parliaments. Of particular attraction for African political leadership, BRI projects not only ‘look good’, but don’t come with the terms, conditions and conditionalities often required or imposed by Western countries and agencies. Moreover, the terms of payment for such BRI (and vanity) projects are often natural resource-based, rather than in hard currency. It’s no wonder then that China is by far Africa’s largest trading partner, and at R4.25 trillion, it dwarfs USAfrica trade fourfold. But it’s not just infrastructure and trade that define China’s relations with Africa.

Catching up

Where does this leave the US? In short, behind and with a lot of catching up to do. The US is by far the largest donor country to Africa and continues to exercise considerable influence over the IMF and World Bank’s Africa policy. Washington has also put its money where its mouth is by pledging R935 billion to Africa over three years, thus outstripping the previous Forum on China-Africa Cooperation spend commitment of R680 billion. While the US cannot compete with China on infrastructure spend (and why should it?), it brings other benefits to Africa with respect to technology, health, education and private sector investment. The signing of an MoU between the US and the African Continental Free Trade Area signals the important potential of Africa for the US as a relatively untapped market of over one billion, but the key challenge is for Africa to boost its imports to the United States beyond the current desultory 1.3%. The African American diaspora remains a relatively untapped resource and opportunity for stronger relations across all sectors, but this will require focused attention and commitment to realise its significant potential across all sectors. The global strategic landscape is, for once, becoming more favourable for Africa, and the potential exists for the continent to turn the emerging competition to its advantage. To achieve this will require skilled and prescient African leadership, regional cooperation and a strategic view of how to position the continent as a ‘player’ in the new global configuration. As Pliny the Elder famously commented, “Semper aliquid novi Africam adferre”– Africa always brings us something new. Is it time for new leadership to seize the new scramble for Africa and turn it to the continent’s advantage?

Text | Ian Kilbride Photography | Oleg Elkov Ian Kilbride is Chairman at Spirit Invest. For more information, go to

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