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China in Africa: The Real Story

Guest Post: Visiting the Chinese-financed Zongo II Dam

Deborah Brautigam

Waterfall Zongo on the River Inkisi
Zongo Waterfall, Inkisi River. photo: Oldrich Neumayer
This guest post comes to us from Antoine Lokongo, a Ph.D. student studying international politics at Peking University. In August 2012, Antoine visited Sinohydro's Zongo II dam project in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. His report provides a useful lens into Sino-African relations.

As part of my field research, it was of great importance to me to visit some Chinese projects undertaken in my country, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). I visited all such projects in and around the capital Kinshasa, including the expansion of the bridge over the Basoko River project, the reconstruction of Boulevard Lumumba, from Limete up to the International Ndjili Airport, the widening of Ndjili Airport’s runaway project and so on. But above all, spending five days in Zongo, the site of the construction of Zongo II Hydropower project over the Inkisi River waterfalls, living and working together with the Chinese there, was the most interesting activity of my field research. 

Zongo is a beautiful place on the bank of the Congo River in the Western Lower Congo Province of the DRC. Its topography very much resembles that of China’s Yunnan Province (which makes Chinese immediately feel at home). Here, the Congo River, which constitutes an artificial border between the DRC and the Republic of Congo-Brazzaville, is squeezed by rocky mountains, making the deepest river in the world coil like a big snake among those mountains.

Now, the inhabitants of Zongo’s hitherto quiet mountains and valleys are woken up by the sound of the Chinese hammer. From dawn to dusk, hammer beats echo here in these mountains and valleys. The hardworking and industrious Chinese people who have been building dams for thousands of years, have come to the Inkisi River to build a hydroelectric dam called Zongo II (during colonial times, the Belgians already built a first dam, Zongo I, over the Inkisi River to provide Kinshasa with electricity but had always postponed the construction of another dam over the Inkisi River).

Wanting to know whether or not Congolese workers were absorbing Chinese people’s hard-working and organizational culture, I joined different teams on different days and worked with them on site (manual labour like mixing cement with sand, digging trenches to canalize rain water and so on). Although Congolese workers were skilled and knew what they were doing (especially electricians), they were constantly complaining. The culture of complaining in Africa stems from the harsh colonial experience, I guess, but Chinese should not become the new target in this very region of Lower Congo where so many Chinese and Congolese died of slave labour, forced to break the rocks with hammers, to build King Leopold of Belgium’s first railway in Congo, from Kinshasa to the port of Matadi.

"Why don’t we have shoes and uniforms, the same like Chinese workers?"
"Why have they not yet paid us our wages on time?"
"Why don’t they pay us $5 an hour but less?"

These are some of the questions Congolese workers fired at me, “one of them, who could speak Chinese”, as they put it.

I put those questions to a certain Mr. Li Gang, in charge of human resources, who was tirelessly addressing all the questions raised by the Congolese workers to ensure good relations between Chinese and Congolese workers. He told me that he had already many times and repeatedly explained to the Congolese workers that a cargo of new boots and uniforms had arrived at the port of Matadi, but the goods had not yet been delivered to the Zongo due to the slow customs clearance of goods at the port facilities. About pay delay, he explained: “Congolese workers usually get their wages on the 4th of each month. Today is the 6th of August and unfortunately they have not yet been paid. They will definitely get paid tomorrow. This postponement was due to the fact that our financial manager fell ill and went to Kinshasa for treatment."

Mr. Li Gang confirmed that unskilled Congolese workers (jobbers) are paid $2 to $3 a day, but highly skilled Congolese workers are paid $8 per day. “This is very fair,” he said.

The Zongo II Hydropower project, is being jointly built by Sinohydro (China) and Societe Nationale d'Electricite or SNEL (Democratic Republic of Congo). Neither partner is the "boss". SNEL has provided manpower; so has Sinohydro. But of course Sinohydro is injecting more money, expertise and equipment in the project. When the dam is completed, Sinohydro will get more out of the sale of electricty (entitlement is to each according to his contribution). After Sinohydro recovers its money, it will hand over the dam and the management of it to the Congolese government and will have nothing to do with it anymore unless Kinshasa solicits Sinohydro's assistance.

As a reminder, after recovering its investment over five years, Sinohydro handed back to Congo the Kinshasa-Matadi Highway it built, as commissioned by the Congolese government (Matadi is the Congolese port on the bank of Atlantic Ocean in the West). That is what the Chinese are doing all over Africa, and I think it is a good thing that does not leave African countries in debt. Of course due to cultural differences, there were a lot of misunderstandings. I particularly witnessed two negative incidents. The first one involved a Chinese worker. One afternoon, I saw a number of Congolese workers just standing there, chatting, chatting instead of working. This made the Chinese supervisor very angry and he slapped one of the Congolese in the face. 

I mediated between the two. I said to the Chinese supervisor that it would be better to report the matter to the office and the office will decide to sack inefficient Congolese workers. But he should not hit people! A second incident involved a Congolese worker who forged the signature of a Chinese manager, ticked more hours he did not work for in order to get more money. That is a crime! I told the Congolese workers to learn from the Chinese culture of working hard and abandon the habit of corruption.

But at end, the two sides got used to each other. Although they still ate separately, used separate showers and latrines, I could see Chinese and Congolese workers getting on well after all, playing football together on the sandy bank of the Congolese river after work. Local women were employed as cleaners and cooks.

The DRC is still very underdeveloped, but I think for both the Chinese people and Congolese people, this represents a great opportunity. Of course, some labour problems are bound to occur, but this a universal problem, that also occurs in American and European projects sites in Africa. As China begins to transfer its new technologies and expertise to Africa, practical solutions to some of these problems and issues will be found.