China’s African ambitions stumble in Botswana

Tensions surface over setbacks and delays to major construction projects as local critics point to ‘shoddy’ work.

A Chinese-contracted power supply expansion project is accused of poor workmanship [Thapelo Ndlovu/Al Jazeera]

Gaborone, Botswana – Tensions have emerged between Botswana’s government and Chinese businesses over high-profile projects as the country gears up for elections in October.

Some local politicians have pointed to a catalogue of problems on large building contracts as they take stock of the scale of the Asian giant’s involvement in their country’s economy.

Motlhaleemang Moalosi, an aspiring parliamentary candidate for the rural Shashe West seat, is among those who claim the Chinese bring more harm than good to local business.

“They have killed local contractors by offering cheap prices for sub-standard work,” he told Al Jazeera.

But Chinese business leaders insist that teething troubles on some major initiatives should not be used as a weapon with which to attack growing economic ties between the two countries.

Power problems

Tensions surfaced in July 2013 when the Botswana-Chinese General Chamber of Commerce (BCGCC) complained that Chinese businesses were all being painted with the same brush by local critics portraying them as a “like-minded monolith”.

The statement came amid anxiety about completion of the Morupule B power plant against a backdrop of extensive “load shedding” – the interruption of power supplies to certain areas when there is not enough electricity available to meet demand.

“All the Chinese contractors have been pigeon-holed into one category and the result is that the delay of the Morupule B project has been attributed to ‘Chinese contractors’ and not the Chinese contractor that is actually doing the job,” wrote the chairman of the BCGCC, Ben Liu.

All the Chinese contractors have been pigeon-holed into one category ...

by - Ben Liu, BCGCC chairman

Work on the new power plant by the Chinese National Electric Equipment Corporation (CNEEC) faced a number of setbacks, generating public anger and prompting President Ian Khama to blame the Chinese for delays in completing the project.

In December 2013, the government refused to renew CNEEC’s operation and maintenance contract when it ended, handing it instead to German company STEAG Energy Services.

Chinese responses to the move have been mixed and a diplomatic Ben Liu merely insisted “there is no tension”, but has called on Botswana’s government to avoid generalising about Chinese companies.

He said: “We have been promoting and asking the government to budget for auditing projects so that the guilty party can be exposed and face the consequences – and it is not fair to just blame the contractors only for failing projects and it is not fair to generalise the whole community.”

The BCGCC has complained that the Chinese contractor was being “singled out for blame at the exclusion of all other parties involved in the execution of construction”.

However, Professor Emmanuel Botlhale, a public finance specialist in the department of politics and administrative studies at the University of Botswana, believes the government is simply enforcing the law.

“There have been instances of police raids at Chinese shops – for instance, at the Oriental Plaza over the sale of counterfeit goods and illegal traders – but these incidents cannot be said to constitute tension between the Chinese business community and the government of Botswana,” Botlhale said.

Growing role

The Chinese economic presence in Botswana became significant during the country’s construction boom in the late 1980s, and some observers such as Botlhale believe the country has much to gain from it.

“There are lots of Chinese businesses, ranging from small shops to big construction companies – these businesses are contributing to the growth of the economy and GDP,” he argued.

The Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Infrastructure, Science and Technology, Dikagiso Bogatsu Mokotedi, dismissed reports of tensions, saying it would be “unfair to only point fingers to the a particular group of people”.

Mokotedi told Al Jazeera there were projects involving locals that had failed and that there were different experiences with contractors at different ministries.

But Ketlhalefile Motshegwa, the Secretary General of the powerful Botswana Land Boards, Local Authorities and Health Workers Union disagreed.

“There are so many projects that we can point to which shows shoddy workmanship by Chinese contractors in particular,” he said, adding that corruption had a role to play.

“How do you explain the fact that some of these contractors continue to get jobs with all this bad track record?” he asked. 

From street traders selling the poplar painkilling balm “tshasa” to large infrastructure projects, the Chinese are understood to consider Botswana as “a place to be successful”, noted Anna Ying Chen in a 2009 paper

In her report, published by the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA), Ying pointed to the active role played by Chinese firms in Botswana’s building industry.

There are lots of Chinese businesses, ranging from small shops to big construction companies – these businesses are contributing to the growth of the economy and GDP

by - Professor Emmanuel Botlhale, public finance specialis

Beijing has also worked hard to develop relations in Africa, sponsoring large numbers of Africans to tour China in cultural exchanges and collaborating with educational institutions such as the University of Botswana, which has pioneered research on China-Africa relations.

However, critics such as Moalosi attack the quality of work on some large projects and argue that the Chinese should leave retail for locals and focus on wholesaling.

Moalosi says he noted when taking a recent flight that renovation work on the Sir Seretse Khama International Airport just outside the capital Gaborone – which was to be finished for years ago for the 2010 World Cup in neighbouring South Africa – remains incomplete.

“This is the first time I have flown out of Botswana this year – the airport is still to be completed,” he said.

In 2012, Botswana’s government fired the contractor on the airport expansion, the Chinese state construction firm Sinohydro, over delays and other setbacks.

The airport is prominent on a list of projects highlighted by critics who accuse the Chinese of shoddy work, including the 500m pula ($56m) Palapye-based glass manufacturing project.

The project – a joint venture between the official Botswana Development Corporation and the Shanghai Fengyue Glass Company – ran into problems before it could mould a single glass – costing the people of Botswana dearly, scuppering job hopes and straining ties.

It was slammed in a damning report compiled by a parliamentary special select committee that concluded it was marred by violations of process and allegations of corruption.

But Rocky Li, who works for the only Chinese newspaper in Botswana, The Oriental Post, insists time will alleviate tensions, and praises her Batswana colleagues for fostering a professional environment.

“The mutual corporation takes time but, when it is built it is very efficient and beneficial,” she said.

Botlhale agrees: “On a social level, the Chinese have become part of us, albeit temporarily. In a way, they have come to understand and appreciate our culture and this will promote Sino-Tswana relationships.”