News 2008


China's influence stokes Kenya's hatred of SA


February 16 2008

By Fiona Forde

The diplomatic chasm between Kenya and South Africa is as wide open today as it was a fortnight ago when the government of Mwai Kibaki said it would not trust Cyril Ramaphosa as an honest broker in the African Union-mandated peace talks.

They impugned his impartiality by citing financial links with opposition leader Raila Odinga, forcing the 55-year-old Ramaphosa to withdraw his name from the negotiations and return home within four days of his arrival.

Ramaphosa took the rebuke with characteristic dignity. Although he left little doubt he has no ties, financial or otherwise, with any member of Kenya's political fraternity, he agreed that while there is no trust, there can be no meaningful dialogue.

In his wake blazed a trail of speculation about why he was really ousted. It became apparent that Odinga was not a factor. It was mooted that it had less to do with Ramaphosa and more to do with Kibaki trying to derail the talks.

But the ostensible reason for the rebuttal had the makings of a bilateral breakdown: SA was simply not welcome.

Although the former negotiator had travelled to Nairobi in his personal capacity on the invitation of Kofi Annan, as a high-ranking member of the ANC he was widely seen as someone close to the Union Buildings, which sits on the other side of the chasm.

"It's political antipathy that dates back to the days of apartheid," explains David Ndii, a Nairobi-based economist.

The Kenyan establishment, during the governments of John Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi, was never too forthcoming in its support of the ANC when the comrades needed it most, he argues.

The prospect of brokering a peace deal might have been a feather in Ramaphosa's cap that would have added to his negotiating achievements. But not in Kenya's, it would seem, as SA is seen as a relative newcomer in African diplomatic circles, a minion that has yet to earn its might in the eyes of early-independence nations.

Prior to 1994, Kenya and Nigeria were the grown-ups on the continent, Ndii explains, and the thought now of the 45-year-old East African country having to pay lip service to the 14-year-old southern neighbour didn't bode well.

"Kenya had been much more influential, and more diplomatically respected, than South Africa on the continent for many years, so there's an element of pride to this," he suggests.

"There's been a bit of a contest for diplomatic recognition, if you like, and South Africa was not going to be allowed to elbow its way in."

Although the younger of the democracies, there is a rising level of animosity towards SA as the new hegemonic force, the major economic power - "the America of Africa", in the words of Simon Freemantle, a senior business analyst at Emerging Markets consulting firm in Joburg.

Hence, when Pretoria broke with its policy of "quiet diplomacy" and stated in no uncertain terms that it would not embrace Kibaki's victory in light of the disputed results, the Kenyan government squirmed.

It became a sore point that has a lot to do with what Gladwell Otieno, the head of the Africa Centre for Open Governance, calls the "big man syndrome".

"Like [Zimbabwean President Robert] Mugabe, Mwai Kibaki did not want to be told what to do by South Africa.

"South Africa takes a strong stance on democratisation and human rights and has been at the forefront of a push for greater transparency on the continent. But in Kenya we have a government who have stolen an election," she says.

The two things combined created an uncomfortable situation.

"We all had great hope in Ramaphosa. He's a principled man - but there was a feeling that South Africa would be opposed to a takeover of power which is not clearly democratic and constitutional.

Kibaki was paranoid that he would pull a rabbit out of the hat in terms of a negotiated solution." SA got a "bloody nose" before he could even try.

But this chasm goes beyond diplomacy and stretches beyond the borders of Africa. It touches on the issue of former colonial powers, donors and traditional African allies and investors that are beginning to wane as China's stake in the country strengthens.

Tired of being preached to by the West about good governance, democracy and zero tolerance on corruption, Kenya is only too happy to look to China which preaches a policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of its partner countries.

Chinese-Kenya relations have flourished since Kibaki came to power in 2002. Two years earlier, trade between the countries had peaked at $136-million (R1-billion).

By the end of 2006 it had reached $650-million. Although it is skewed in China's favour, Beijing's imports from Mombasa have risen exponentially during the same period. In monetary terms they have grown by 200 percent in the last five years.

Gateway to wealth

China sees in Kenya a gateway to a region of rich potential. The port of Mombasa provides a direct route not only to Uganda and Rwanda, but to the emerging markets of Somalia and southern Sudan, and China's other strategic places of interest on the continent. Until now a stable force in a volatile region, it had become an attractive base from where Chinese firms expanded into Africa.

Kenya has seen in China "a very strong partner that just won't interfere in our domestic affairs", says Otieno.

"That's not to say the West is entirely without blame, but they do have a democratic pubic back home who are interested in what's happening with their money and who in the past have pushed for anti-corruption."

As a result, Kenya has been able to play off its suitors like never before.

Although some Kenyan analysts refer to China as the "ravenous rottweiler", in trading terms, the figures speak for themselves. SA, on the other hand, is like a shih tzu in comparison.

There are more than 30 South African companies trading in Kenya. But their footprint is light compared to the inroads other South African firms and investment interests have made elsewhere on the continent, particularly in Southern Africa.

That said, in recent times, South African firms have struggled to make headway in Kenya. Freemantle, and many more like him, often cite the case of South African Breweries, a company that had bought out a number of other interests on the continent before it arrived in Nairobi, where it encountered the East Africa Breweries, which put an instant halt to its gallop.

"Kenyans take some pride in the fact that they refused to let South Africa, a major power, take control there," Otieno says.

Many talk of the black brothers' arrogance. They say they arrive in Nairobi dressed up in white men's suits and are not welcome when they begin to throw their weight around.

But to suggest that the Kenya-SA divide has anything to do with favouring Chinese interests oversteps the point, in Freemantle's view.

"China's entry into Kenya is relatively recent and the country is still heavily reliant on the UK as a trading partner, as well as the billions of shillings that are sent home from there each year in the form of remittances."

If anything, the crisis could work in SA's favour, he argues.

"Asian companies who have been weighing up the benefits of entering the DRC and Zambia, either through Durban or Mombasa, could begin to look to South Africa," he believes, although it will take quite some time before the effects of such a decision could be felt.

However, China's presence cannot be dismissed so lightly in the current climate. Nor can Beijing's ability to turn a blind eye to the blatant rigging at the polls.

As the world's leading heads of state spoke out against Kibaki's stolen victory, China boldly argued that democracy is not an African concept.

"Western-style democratic theory simply isn't suited to African conditions," the Communist Party stated.

The blame lies with the West, China believes, for tyrannically imposing Western democratic systems after independence.

Your money is our business but your politics is your own, is China's underlying message. With China-Africa trade valued at $70-billion and set to rise to $100-billion by 2010, they are words of cold comfort for a troubled continent.