Francistowner BAKANI MOSOJANE walked down the busiest street in Botswana's second city and could not help but notice an influx and dominance of Chinese traders who are replacing locals
There is a street in Francistown, very unique in nature and characterised by shops and clientele very different to those found in the rest of the city. Firstly, most of, if not all these shops are owned by Asians, what’s commonly known as “China Shops”. Goods sold in these shops range from cheap clothes, blankets and electronic goods. Most of the customers found patronising these shops are Zimbabweans from across the border; although locals do shop at these establishments, it is on a small scale compared to the Zimbabweans who flood in daily for the sole purpose of shopping. On Selous Avenue and S.T Patrick Street, adjacent to Village Mall, downtown Francistown, at sporadic intervals, 65 seater buses, some local and some belonging to Zimbabwean bus owners, stop briefly at a spot strategically within close walking distance to the various, different ‘China shops’. This street that runs parallel to the railway line, is also highly advantageous to the Zimbabweans who choose rail as a mode of transport. Upon their disembarkment from their train, and exiting the railway station, the street with copious amounts of Asian shops is before them. To many this street is nicknamed “Bulawayo” after the Matabeleland city in Zimbabwe – the city of closest proximity to Francistown, across the border northwards. In actuality this street is named Haskins street ,named after one the early pioneer settlers that set up one of the first businesses in the North, in the protectorate of Bechuanaland over a century ago.
An outsider would be forgiven for feeling they are not in Botswana as they walk down this street. Chinese manning the till of these shops or standing outside having a smoking Chinese cigarettes and drinking Green tea as they engage in Mandarin or some other Chinese dialect is a common phenomena along this street. Another common lingua franca along this street is Ndebele - one of the main languages spoken in Zimbabwe. At face value, one would assume that this Asian presence engaging in business, and being patronised by a huge number of shoppers from across the border would have a positive impact on the Francistown economy as a whole, as greater revenue will be injected into the economy and increase monetary circulation would be anticipated. A close analysis of socio-cultural and economic practise of Sino conduct in Botswana, Francistown especially, paints a parallel picture. Firstly, despite the fact that the Chinese have set up shop in Francistown for several decades, they have not positively impacted the community apart from their own, on a huge scale and in a positive way. The Chinese community in Francistown live in an exclusive ‘eco-system’ that only benefits the Chinese and does not allow for locals to benefit in any way from their presence. They in no way have attempted to create a symbiotic relationship between the locals and themselves, but rather are a somewhat ‘parasitic’ entity upon the indigenous population by dumping cheap, knock-off goods on the local population of Francistown and also poor quality electronics goods, which hardly come with a warranty.
The relationship between Botswana and China is highly exploitative, with Botswana bearing the brunt of this equation, as the economic balance is tilted towards China. China exploits its global economic dominance over African nations. Sino – African interests are characterised by a neo-colonial connection, and there is a probability that this will turn out to be economic disaster for Botswana. At face value it seems both Botswana and China are benefiting from this relationship and that it may be symbiotic, but a deeper analysis betrays some level of exploitation, with China having the upper hand and abusing their super power status to be highly exploitative.
Chinese interests in Africa have been primarily driven by the desire to exploit the abundance of natural resources. In Botswana this has proven difficult for the Asian ‘power house’ as penetration into the mining sector, for example with diamonds, De Beers, which has an ‘iron clad’ agreement with The government of Botswana that locks out a majority of ‘players’ interested in venturing into this industry.
The establishment of ‘China shops’, that have ‘mushroomed’, muscling out indigenous enterprises, may seem like a positive scenario as it provides locals with an opportunity to purchase very cheap clothes, blankets and electronic devices. Although these cheap imports benefit consumers in the interim, in the long run, their effects on the economic development to those who are recipients of goods ‘dumped’ on their market are very detrimental. Businesses in China may want to get rid of surplus products for their domestic trade zones and thus ‘dump’ them on African markets. ‘Dumping’ causes material injuries to the recipient market and is also anti-competitive and undermines the market of indigenous businesses. Chinese goods also undercut domestic prices, which leads to decline of sales, inevitably leading to a reduction in profit margins, as well as negative effects on cash flow, return on investment, and ability to raise capital for domestic indigenous businesses. The effect of China’s dominance in certain business sectors has greatly resulted in loss of domestic productivity and overall job loses.
The biggest ‘blow’ to the domestic economy is the practice of the Chinese community in Francistown to operate as a self-sustaining ‘ecosystem’ independent of their host community. They behave in what author Chika Onyeani describes as the ‘Spider Web Doctrine’. This is the principle of certain ethnic groups, especially Asian people to engage in business with strictly, only other Asian people. They buy only Asian manufactured goods, patronise only Asian establishments or restaurants, and only buy from only Asian stores or shops. This theory, to a great extent is very true in Francistown. Despite the fact that there is a relatively large Chinese population in Francistown running ‘China Shops’ and others who are contractors or sub-contractors, it is very rare to see Chinese immigrant doing shopping in the local malls, queuing at the bank to deposit money or at popular eateries like KFC, Chicken Licken or patronising popular franchisees within the city. Their residential areas are not assimilated with the rest of the urban population, as is manifest by their closed gated community situated in Molapo Estates which is predominantly Asian in population. This artificial ‘ecosystem’ clearly locks out non-Asians from benefiting from any economic adavantage’s of the Chinese presence in Francistown - any money the Asians make is trapped in their community like a fly trapped in a ‘spider web’.
In light of this one may draw the conclusion that Sino-Botswana relations need to be reviewed so that they may be balanced and equally symbiotic.