Will Americans imitate China’s approach to Africa?

By Ivor Ichikowitz

African nations today seek a very different kind of engagement with the West from what they have known, and the United States is seemingly “all in” on the continent’s future. This much was clear at the US-Africa Summit held in Washington last week.

Having participated in the events and listened closely to what all sides were saying, I was taken aback by two things — by the degree to which the US is now looking at Africa and, whether or not it was said outright, by the degree to which the commitments forged during the summit were influenced by China’s long-standing inroads and continued successes on our continent.

In the past, in that period more than a century ago that historian Thomas Pakenham called The Scramble for Africa, foreign powers vied with one another to divide our continent into colonies, from which they might extract resources. However, unlike in the days of colonisation, today Africans themselves choose with whom to forge partnerships and alliances, based on common interests and shared values.

Despite the pomp of what was unquestionably an impactful and enlightening experience, one nation loomed large in the background during the entire US-Africa Summit — China.

Geopolitically, China has been playing to win. In the 1980s, trade between China and Africa totalled $12 million annually, but in 2021, it reached $254 billion. With this exponential increase has come a new focus on private enterprise and public sector initiatives toward the development of sustainable cities on the continent. In other words, measurable projects that bring mutual benefit to both sides, which — after all — is the commonly agreed definition of partnership.

Let’s be clear —while seeking similar partnerships in Africa as those held by China, the US and its policymakers, and intrepid industrialists who comprise it, very seriously require a deeper understanding of what the Africans of 2023 want.

In order to provide depth to the answer to this question, the Ichikowitz Family Foundation launched its African Youth Survey, an ambitious study of what 18- to 25-year-olds across 19 African countries think, hope, and plan for the future of the continent they will soon inherit. The findings reflect our current challenges and upcoming opportunities — some of which are obvious, and others that loom over the near horizon.

The study should be deemed a “playbook” for effective US engagement on our continent.

Nearly half (45 percent) of all respondents to the 2022 AYS said that death from infectious disease marked the most significant event for them in the last five years. In the African context, this goes well beyond the COVID-19 pandemic that has consumed so much global bandwidth since 2020.

Cholera, Ebola, and a host of other viral and infectious diseases continue to threaten the health of Africans as we work to address the root causes and eliminate risks. And as we have learned, these are highly exportable threats.

But in helping Africans to address those threats, the US will find for itself prospects for mutually beneficial economic development. Africans remember well the historic successes of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and, indeed, I was pleased to hear Ambassador Dr John Nkengasong (US Global AIDS Coordinator and Special Representative for Global Health Diplomacy at the US Department of State) announce during the Summit the start of a revitalised US Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief to accelerate regional manufacturing of critical health commodities on the continent.

In enhancing our localised manufacturing prowess, mutually beneficial opportunity abounds.

One of the most encouraging findings of our research has been the powerful entrepreneurial spirit that pervades even the most difficult economic circumstances in Africa — an astonishing 78 percent of young Africans plan to start their own business in the next five years; two-thirds say their country is encouraging entrepreneurship and innovation; more than three-quarters (77 percent) already have a solid idea as to how they plan to build careers. In concert, these indicators point toward a generation passionately committed to robust economic growth.

And yet, when Africa’s next generation, the world’s largest collective marketplace and youth demographic, extends its hands seeking a partnership to achieve that growth, in short order, it has always been China that has responded first.

China has long recognised, something the US seems to have just realised, that we stand on the doorstep of a new African Century. And our future is no longer dependent on what can be extracted from our soil and sent beyond our shores, but rather by our own sheer human potential — because right now, demography is our friend.

The natural resources which China has remarkably invested in for decades as the resource race ramps up in tempo, accelerated by global supply chain crises, are evolving in nature — from lithium to labour, the global economy, the fourth and green industrial revolution, will be propelled by African energy.

This is why it is now, most certainly in the wake of the US’s second US-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, that Washington must ask itself how in 2023 and beyond they can bolster their own growth in Africa through investments that are informed and guided by the complementary benefits Africa and the global powers who seek our partnership bring one another.

Our latest survey does reflect a 10-point advantage for China over the US to-date, in terms of what foreign power Africans see as the most influential today, reflecting perhaps the sheer scale and intensity of Chinese engagement on the continent. Even my good friend, Nelson Mandela himself, spoke to the sociological rationale of this mutually fruitful relationship and how Africa would accelerate China’s ascendance on the world stage. “China’s potential contribution, as one of the world’s largest economies and a leading figure in world affairs, cannot be exaggerated,” he had said.

Our study may be one reason why, in Washington last week, I got the sense that imitation is truly the highest form of flattery.

Except this time, it is the US that is doing the imitating – perhaps because they have seen how well real respect for African will actually works.

The author is a South African industrialist and philanthropist. He is the founder and Executive Chairman of the Ichikowitz Family Foundation.

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