China in Zimbabwe, Africa: Past, present and future

China has long-standing historical affinities with Africa through its support for liberation movements in Southern Africa, notably the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA) in the run-up to independence

China has long-standing historical affinities with Africa through its support for liberation movements in Southern Africa, notably the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA) in the run-up to independence

Phyllis Johnson Correspondent

“We will always remember, not only what China has done in the past, but also what continues to be done by China,” – President R. G. Mugabe

IN the latter half of the 20th century, soon after consolidating its own revolution, the People’s Republic of China began to work with African countries on the liberation of those parts of the continent still under colonial rule.

China established strong and lasting relations with Tanganyika, later the United Republic of Tanzania, soon after independence in 1961.

Following the formation of the Organisation of African Unity – the OAU – on May 25 1963, Tanzania became the seat of the OAU Liberation Committee and worked on material support and training for the liberation of countries in Southern Africa.

China’s support to the OAU Liberation Committee and the liberation movements continued for more than 30 years until the end of apartheid in South Africa in 1994.

That period marked the single most important role that China played in Africa’s development in the 20th century.

“China gave us tremendous support with arms, they trained our fighters and assistance from China continues to come,” President Mugabe has said. “Ours has turned into a really solid relationship which has grown some strong roots. We treasure this friendship.

“It’s not really the relations that count but the love, alliance and, indeed, understanding.”

China’s Africa Policy acknowledges the significant contribution that African people have made to the progress of civilisation through long years of struggle that “freed them from colonial rule, wiped out apartheid, and won independence and emancipation”.

China has shared in these longstanding historical affinities through its support for political liberation in Southern Africa during the latter half of the 20th century, and its commitment to partnership in advancing economic development during the first part of the 21st century.

This partnership was notably strengthened through the mechanism of the Forum on China-Africa Co-operation (Focac) established in 2000, and the China-Africa Summit in Beijing in 2006 attended by 48 African countries that resulted in an ambitious framework of collaborative plans and milestones.

The second Focac Summit and the sixth ministerial meeting will take place in South Africa in early December 2015.

China’s relations with Zimbabwe and impact on Zimbabwe’s development span a very long period of time and several dimensions, and by late 2009 had attracted the largest investment package since independence.

Since then, investment has increased and trade volumes multiplied, culminating in the much-anticipated visit to Zimbabwe by the Chinese President Xi Jinping before the Focac meeting in December.

It is useful to examine the past and the present before looking to the future.

This first article in a three-part series takes a brief look at relations with China.

The Past

The first group of five recruits for the Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu) went to China for six months training in military science on September 22 1963, led by Emmerson Mnangagwa.

A second group, who had basic training in Ghana in 1964, went to China in 1965 for advanced training as instructors.

Early in 1966, Josiah Magama Tongogara led a group of 11 to the Nanjing Academy in Beijing where they trained in mass mobilisation, strategy and tactics, returning to Tanzania later the same year.

Tongogara, who became Commander of the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (Zanla), “learned in China that it was vital to mobilise the people, and it was that lesson which shaped future strategy”.

Eight Chinese instructors arrived at Zanla’s training camp at Itumbi in southern Tanzania in January 1969. One of these instructors, Comrade Li, the infantry expert, played a particularly important role in the evolution of the new strategy.

At Itumbi and other training camps, the recruits learned the meaning of “a people’s war, a people’s army, the objectives of the war and the basic teachings of Chairman Mao on guerrilla warfare . . .

“The Chinese, who by then had 20 instructors at Mgagao, believed that you have got to be matured politically in your head before you go and shoot,” one of the early recruits said later. “I learned that the decisive factor was not the weapons but the people.”

There is plenty of evidence emerging that Zimbabwe’s relationship with China is very much longer than this, and that China has been engaged in commercial relations with Southern Africa for more than a thousand years.

There is firm archaeological evidence of Chinese products found in coastal Mozambique and far inland at Great Zimbabwe and elsewhere, an indication of trade relations that existed long before the arrival of European explorers and settlers.

Southern Africa was producing gold and precious stones, as well as cotton and fabric, and was rich in agricultural produce. Chinese goods such as ceramics, porcelain and glass were traded with the east African coast and the African states of the interior.

 This article from the Southern African Research and Documentation Centre (Sardc) through its Institute for China-Africa Studies in Southern Africa, is part of a series exploring the dimensions of China Africa relations in advance of the Focac Summit to be held in Johannesburg in early December.

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