Chinese in Africa II

A wolf devised a plan to dress in a sheepskin to prey upon a flock. Mingling with the sheep he fooled the sheep and the shepherd too, and was penned in for the night. That night the shepherd wanted some mutton for his table and, mistaking the wolf for a sheep, promptly dispatched him with a knife there and then – Aesop’s Fables.

A friend of mine posted this on her Facebook page last week:

“I am in this hotel in Lilongwe and honestly, I could be somewhere in China. Everything and I mean everything is Chinese. The staff, right from the watchman at the gate, the receptionists, the bartender are Chinese! All the gym equipment instructions are in Chinese! The computers at the business centre have Chinese as the language! The only restaurant is Chinese. This is too much! I am now very skeptical of Chinese presence in Africa. Instead of assimilating, they are here to own us… I guess in the case of Kenya, they are unable to do this because we have a strong Civil Society, a strong private sector and most of all, a strong people that will not take this kind of crap!”

Feisty and fighting words some might say, but words driven out of concern that what appears to be foreign direct investment into Malawi – an African republic- may be a camouflaged form of economic and social colonialism. There is nothing wrong with foreigners coming to invest in our economies. It is theoretically supposed to generate income for locals in the form of employment and ancillary business opportunities through the chain of suppliers for the investing organization. As an emerging – I am loathe to use the archaic term Third World – market, we throw open our doors to anyone who wishes to invest and help grow our economy. The flip side of the deal is that we provide the labor and raw materials needed for an entity that takes a risk to invest its capital in an environment of political turmoil, now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t economic growth and whimsical government policies for both domestic and foreign investors. It has to be a win-win scenario for all parties concerned and the receiving country has to be in a better position by having transfer of knowledge embedded in the citizenry by the time the foreign entity is leaving.

Last month, I happened to visit Chennai, India accompanying a family member on a medical excursion. The Indians – with the benefit of clear and present danger intuition– require anyone on a medical visa including their travel companions to register at the Department of Immigration in the city that one is visiting. So I sashayed over to the DOI in Chennai, a squat building that was as colorless outside as it was drab inside. I joined a long line of “visitors” to India all of us helpless spectators in the highly entertaining soap opera of “please-stamp-my-passport-or-else-I-will-get-arrested.” I promptly forgot that I had carried a paperback novel to keep me occupied during the two or so hours that I had to wait to get attended to as I shamelessly eavesdropped on the conversations in front of me. Ahead of me was a Japanese middle-aged man who raised the immigration officials’ eyebrows as he was earning two salaries, one in Japan and one in Chennai for whatever it is he was undertaking in India. He was followed by a German widower whose late wife was Indian and had never left India since settling there ten years ago and acquiring permanent residency. He wanted to make an urgent trip to his home country Germany and was advised to apply for an exit visa to enable him return to India without an entry visa. A Chinese lady was next and the immigration official tore apart the financial accounts for her “restaurant” saying he didn’t understand how she could be making consistent losses and still operating. She was given an A4 sized page list of documents she needed to provide before she could be granted an extension of her visa. The list went on and on but I arrived at one conclusion: the Indian authorities kept a pretty tight lid on foreigners doing business in their country. While foreigners were welcome, it was on the terms of their Indian hosts and there was no special treatment given to the Sudanese, Germans, British, Indonesians or Americans that walked the well-trodden visa path beside me.

Our unemployment rates in Kenya, and many countries in Africa as a whole are more than 50% of the population. We have a high supply of labor due to population growth as well as more women getting into the workforce. Conversely we have a low demand for labor due to slow economic growth in many countries. While welcoming foreign direct investment on the one hand, we should vigorously protect and jealously guard against infiltration of immigrants who do not provide intellectual or physical labor that cannot be locally provided. For every non-skilled immigrant that insinuates their way into our economy, that is one less African who will lack employment, one less family that will lack financial stability and one less wage that will not be taxed to raise revenue for the Exchequer.

This is by no means meant to be an attack on a group of people seeking new frontiers for investment. If anything, they should be feted, given the red carpet and handed the keys to the capital city on a silver platter. Actually, this is a wake up call to our own immigration officials that a shortsighted decision to give out blanket work permits has a long-term negative impact for their own children and grandchildren’s ability to get employment. I always thought that the wolf in sheep’s clothing was the stealthy interloper. But the farmer, who dispatches the wolf to the next world mistaking it for a sheep actually has the last laugh. Our immigration departments are the farmers that should vigorously and assiduously protect their flocks.
Twitter: @carolmusyoka