Monday, April 4, 2011

How China won the West: Sinohydro in Botswana

How China won the West
The Times (South Africa), Apr 3, 2011
By Kevin Bloom and Richard Poplak

A mountain of distrust still needs to be overcome in dam project, write
Kevin Bloom and Richard Poplak

AN engineer sidles up to the bar at the Phokoje Bush Lodge in eastern
Botswana, just outside the town of Selebi-Phikwe. He is a reticent man
in his early 50s, wearing the regulation khaki and groomed moustache of
his caste.

He is here to dine with two other white engineers and three of their
Chinese counterparts, all of whom are building one of the largest
infrastructure projects in Botswana's history: the Dikgatlhong Dam.

He points out his table: five big-bellied men, their silence broken only
by hiccoughs of awkward conversation. Their mutual suspicion is tougher
to cut through than the overcooked steak.

"Perhaps they've brought us here to bribe us," muses the engineer.
"Although they usually do that one on one." He lumbers back to his
table, carrying a stiff cocktail.

What the engineer has just done is echo the town's ambivalence to the
vast project in their back yard, undertaken by the Chinese construction
monolith Sinohydro. He is one of five Southern African lead engineers on
the job, and it's a working life defined by sullen distrust and

Selebi-Phikwe, the centre of Botswana's nickel deposits and the Copper
Belt, is no stranger to this brand of wariness, especially when it comes
to industrial development. The nickel mine that has long dominated the
town's economy spews a cloud of effluent over the surrounding tableland,
filling the atmosphere with sulphur dioxide. A recently built dam, about
15km outside town, was, among other things, supposed to jump-start a
recreation boom that would diversify local industry. That never happened.

Dikgatlhong seems, to many locals, like one more specimen of a familiar
species: an ill-considered, environmentally dubious project that will do
little for the town's fortunes.

That said, it is the single-largest civil engineering project being
built in the country. The 1.13-billion pula contract was awarded to
Sinohydro in January 2008. It will take 47 months to complete, and
they're on month 35.

There was no funny business: Botswana has a regulatory process that
makes the EU seem louche by comparison.

The Chinese-built dam lies about 65km due east of Selebi-Phikwe, past
the hamlet of Mmadinare. Slope-backed cows graze at the side of the
road, contributing to the country's foremost environmental emergency:
deforestation caused by free-grazing livestock. Gaunt men bounce donkey
carts over the rutted road; a pastoral scene giving the lie to
Botswana's status as a Southern African success story: a per capita GDP
of $13100 and a 3.1% annual growth rate. Botswana isn't booming so much
as it is stable.

Following a right turn at a dusty T-junction, 3km from the Zimbabwean
border, Dikgatlhong announces itself with a billboard. It depicts a
space-age piece of infrastructure, baffling in its complexity: a hybrid
dam, launch pad and dry dock, all for vehicles yet to be invented. In
other words, we're looking at an ecstatic rendition of Sinohydro's
signature development, the Three Gorges Dam in China. "Keep truthful and
faithful," it reads. "Create the best."

The main compound is boomed and gated.

We got to a second compound, a series of single-storey buildings, where
we meet one of the senior project engineers. A stout man, ruddy of cheek
and knee, he's a white Zimbabwean who has worked on many of the bigger
dams in Southern Africa. This one, he willingly concedes, has been
somewhat different. "It's not that the dam is being badly built - it
meets the standards. But to me, it's scraping through."

We sip bottled water in his sterile office, where the only decor is a
multi-coloured topographical map of the dam site.

The diagram depicts the Tati and Shashi rivers, and the catchment area -
the swirl of lime-green highlighter - where they meet.

Then, in the engineer's 4x4, we are subjected to a reasoned, if
sarcastic, lecture on the corners that are being cut. His words contain
a yearning for a European past in Africa that may not have existed, at
least not on the levels of uncompromising excellence he seems to remember.

But while the forces that protected white-owned and driven construction
projects in pre-independence Southern Africa were far from innocent, the
engineer's major gripes remain technical: a lack of a "best practice"
culture in the Chinese compound; an unwillingness to question authority;
and a reluctance to aspire to anything beyond cost and deadline.

Sinohydro, one of China's largest parastatals, has 240 projects
globally, with 100 in Africa, many of them in dangerous areas. Five are
in Botswana, including the extension of the Sir Seretse Khama
International Airport in Gaborone and the upgrading of the Francistown
road up to Zimbabwe.

Six hundred Chinese nationals work in Botswana under the monolith's
auspices. (As one of the Chinese managers puts it to us later, "To use
the wrong word, we are 'flooding' Africa.") They're stretched tight, and
the implication is that they do not send their best and brightest to the

"Very often," says the Zimbabwean engineer, "we're the teachers. The
kids are great on paper, but in the field ...

"This is Botswana's Three Gorges," he deadpans, reminding us that his
Chinese colleagues recently built one of the largest dams on Earth.

It's a poignant statement, all the more so because Botswana suffers from
a dire lack of potable water. Dikgatlhong is part of an initiative by
the Botswana government to deliver drinking water to its people, and in
such a critical endeavour the stakes are high. Sinohydro has done this
before; on paper, they're more than a safe bet.

Three Chinese engineers walk to the Zimbabwean and ask his opinion on
the viscosity of a concrete compound. "We'll work it out," he says.
"Tonight I'll stay awake thinking about it." They appear baffled by his
wryness, and we are reminded that this encounter of cultures often
resembles a collision.

The principal resident engineer, Botswana national Boikanyo Mpho, has
the job of negotiating this environment.

According to him, the Chinese contingent have an "inability" to adapt
readily to the local situation. They are used to doing things in a
certain way, he says, and have yet to come around to the African way.
But progress has been made, he stresses; the project is moving towards -
not away from - common understanding.

It's a sentiment shared by Mr Xu (who refuses to provide a full name or
a business card), Sinohydro's commercial manager on the project. From
his office in the Chinese compound, using an electronic translator on
his laptop to search out the correct words - and improve his spoken
English at the same time - Xu informs us this is his first time in
Africa, and that before he came he was terrified.

A compact and well-presented man in his mid-30s, Xu was born in the
province of Henan, on the south bank of the Yellow River. He has a
master's degree from a university in Jiangsu, and has been with
Sinohydro for just under a decade. When he landed in Botswana, he tells
us, he was afraid to shake hands with the locals. He knew there was no
possibility of contracting HIV by touch alone, but in his heart, he
admitted, "he had discrimination".

"We are coming from Asia," he says earnestly. "Here is Africa. There has
been a lot of heartbreak due to cultural differences." According to Xu,
mirroring exactly the white engineer's assessment of the Chinese
engineers on site, the local labourers are not as skilled as he's
accustomed to. "They are not diligent like the Chinese," he says. "They
don't want to work, but they want a better life. That is the conflict."

Xu himself compares the mainstream Chinese view of Africans with the
mainstream American view of the Chinese. He looks up a word on his
translator, and struggles to enunciate it.

"I had bias," he says. "That's what the Americans get off the internet
about the Chinese."

Days later, at the Phokoje Bush Lodge, none of these cultural challenges
appear to have been surmounted. Dinner continues in stilted silence. We
recall something our engineer guide said. "It's sad. We ask them: 'What
are you doing today?' They'll say: 'Same as yesterday, same as tomorrow.'"

That's how Sinohydro built China. It's how they're building Africa.

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