Wednesday, October 21, 2009

South Africa

As many of you know, I am in Africa reporting a story about competition between China and the U.S. in the region. Robert Zoellick, the deputy secretary of state under George W. Bush, has said, "China and the United States will be on a collision course if China continues to pursue energy deals in Africa...The Chinese will have to decide if they want to pay the price." Over the next month I'll meet with Chinese businessmen and U.S. soldiers to explore how both countries are competing for influence in Africa.

Me and photographer Tom Murphy

I spent the last two days in Johannesburg in South Africa. The country is still recovering from apartheid. There is a sense of hopelessness and palpable tension in downtown Johannesburg.

A South African cameraman I am working with here explained that during apartheid people were passionate about ideals like freedom and equality. They had leaders like Nelson Mandela to believe in and look up to. But after apartheid ended, he said, things didn't change. Blacks earn 1/18 the salary of white employees in S. African countries, and he says many whites remain overtly racist. In everyday interactions "they behave as if we are invisible, as if we do not exist," he said.

So many Africans here have abandoned their ideals of equality and turned to crime instead, the cameraman went on to explain. And the crime rate here is extraordinary. Since my cameraman Tom arrived from London he has been mugged and his hotel room has been broken into. Every person I have interviewed so far has had sometimes multiple experiences of being held at gunpoint inside their homes. "If you haven't been robbed, you haven't been to South Africa," one Chinese businessman told me.

I can't keep my computer or camera in my hotel room because they might be stolen; I can't keep them in the safe in my hotel room, because the safe would be stolen; I can't carry my camera or purse in my hands when I'm walking in the city, because people will try to take them from me; and I can’t keep my purse in my lap in the car, for fear we will be car-jacked. So we have a driver and security guard who stay with our car, where we leave our valuables in the trunk while interviewing people.

Ironically I've spent most of my time in Chinatown speaking Chinese, eating Chinese food and interviewing Chinese shopowners. The scale of immigration to Africa is huge -- 300,000 Chinese live in South Africa today.

At a Chinese-run construction site

I asked one African worker at a Chinese-run construction site why, in this part of Africa, Chinese and local employees seem to work well together and live peacefully side by side. He said, “They understand poverty and suffering. We understand poverty and suffering.”

I told Walter Wang, who has made a small fortune through starting a chain of Chinese grocery stores in S. Africa, that some critics say China is taking over Africa. "In a business and economic sense China is taking over Africa," he said. "In that sense, China is taking over the world."

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