Contrary to what people say, the Chinese are engaged now in strengthening domestic political institutions in Africa. Something that is not talked about.Dr Innocent Batsani-Ncube Tweet
This research was part of my PhD, and I was interested in China’s engagement in Africa and the expanded global engagement of China too.
There is a particular phenomenon of the Chinese government constructing and funding Parliament buildings across the global South, and especially in Africa.
These parliament buildings are not being constructed on a traditional loan scheme. They are donation, constructed on a complete project aid plan, completely for free.
In 2008, the Chinese government funded the construction of the Lesotho parliament building, and it became Lesotho’s parliament in 2012. Current literature has stated that China is most interested in extracting resources in Africa. But Lesotho is a very small country, an enclave, inside South Africa, without much economic outlay – and so this narrative does not make sense in the case of Lesotho.
As parliaments historically stem from Westminster liberal traditions, it is interesting to think why is China, an essentially authoritarian state without reason to promote liberal institutions, is interested in constructing parliament buildings in other countries (for free) in the first place?
And on the flip side, parliament buildings are important buildings that symbolise statehood. And so why also are States allowing another State to construct a building as symbolic as important as what a parliament building represents?
This research really aimed to explore two questions. First, what is in it for China to be constructing a parliament building for other nations and second, how are they doing this.
I look into the model of delivery (the way in which the building is constructed) and the multi layer agency within the African state. Because when you look at an African state, the narrative is that there is no agency and there is no push back – and I wanted to also examine this at a deeper level.
Batsani-Ncube, Innocent (2022) ‘Whose building? tracing the politics of the Chinese government-funded parliament building in Lesotho’. Journal of Southern African Studies. [Forthcoming]
Where one state gives aid (in this case China) and the other receives aid (Lesotho), sometimes the receiver of aid lacks agency. As this project was pitched at the highest office, this almost disassembled the agency of the government machinery. However, there was clearly some Lesotho influence in the final design, which shows that there is a multi-layered nature of African agents within African states.
There was also a disconnect between the Lesotho Foreign Office and the Public Works department. The Foreign Office was a lot less critical and more accommodating towards the Chinese than the Public Works team. Possibly because they know little about construction and the consequences of using Chinese material, and their main aim was to develop stronger relations with the Chinese.
Interestingly, over the past ten years, with every new government, the Prime Minister has become increasingly friendlier with the Chinese government. Even one that was initially critical, when he became Prime Minister, he appointed a Chinese national as his economic advisor. This signifies the importance for Lesotho to have stronger relations with a major power like China.
China has understood this change that Lesotho, along with other countries in the region, no longer are led by one power, and instead have a multi-party institution. This means that to assert influence, China must be strategic and assert itself in both the present and the future.
So the parliament provides this revolving door of political elites and having involvement there places China at an advantageous position. As China’s global stature increases, it knows it needs to build alliances and it cultivates relations by empowering these national political institutions.
After the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989, the West wanted to sanction China through using multilateral institutions such as the United Nations. At the time China was so deep in economic development and had neglected cultivating relations with African countries -who could provide the necessary numbers to forestall the West’s designs.
So after fear of being cut off, the Chinese government decided to re-engage with these countries. The idea of cultivating relations with African governments should also be seen in this same context – that China is doing this strategically to secure their position in the future.
China did not only want to donate a parliament building, but wanted to donate a parliament building of their choice. I refer to this as a “design loop” – which means that by China designing the building, it also embeds the Chinese into that building. Then because they designed it, they also were in control of how it was built – which materials it used and its specs. The materials chosen were Chinese materials.
And these materials look Chinese. One of the officials even said “this building looks like it came from somewhere and was transplanted into Lesotho”. And this is the parliament building, supposedly a symbol of Lesotho. of course there are some elements – such as the use of the Lesotho symbol, the mokorotlo.
The building also does not serve Lesotho weather. For example, the weather is very extreme. Extremely cold or extremely hot. And so in Lesotho, you do not tend to plaster buildings – because if you plaster, then the paint just peels off because of the climate of the weather. And this is what happened – because the design did not conform to the local conditions.
And additionally, using Chinese materials makes it harder to replace at a later stage. The Lesotho Public Works ministry communicated that it would be a lot easier to replace materials that used South African standards in the future. But Chinese contractors insisted on using Chinese materials.
The third part of this “design loop” is the maintenance of the building. Because the building was designed by China, using Chinese materials, there was a big difficulty in maintaining the building. For the past ten years, the Chinese contractors are still around the building, maintaining the building.
This research was based on multi-sited ethnographic fieldwork research. My main site of enquiry was parliament buildings. I embedded myself within the parliament building, working there for over 45 days. I worked inside the building and observed the parliament environment. I took photographs and spoke with people working inside parliament and people in its surrounding area. I also conducted a document review in the parliament library and conducted focus group discussions with Lesotho citizens, who perceived the building as a political symbol. I hoped this gave me a rounded view.
I did not speak with the Chinese contractors as those on site were not willing to speak with me. But my objective of this study was not so much a why they do this, but how it is done.
Yasmine Finbow prepared this research following an interview with Dr Innocent Batsani-Ncube.