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African Brother (by Mark H. Levine)

Writer:Mark H. Levine, Ph.D. Date:05/24/2023


African Brother

By Mark H. Levine, Ph.D.

“After studying for a year in Beijing I moved off campus and into a hutong. Many elderly Chinese are longtime residents of these neighborhoods known for their narrow alleys and courtyard homes. Walking around the hutong I am greeted by these seniors who ask where I come from. ”

“I answer Nan fei(South Africa). 

“Without exception this brings a smile and the warm greeting ‘Fei zhou xiong di’ (African brother).”

The speaker is Luyolo Sijake who first came to China from Cape Town, South Africa in 2013. From 2016-2018 he studied for a Master’s Degree in China Studies with a concentration on Economics and Management at Peking University. When we met he said “I will probably stay in China for another year but I want to return to Africa, probably outside of South Africa, to help expand the connections between China and other countries in Africa.” He is currently back in South Africa working for a cross-border advisory organization assisting both Chinese companies interested in working in other countries and foreign companies seeking to establish themselves in China and Asia.

My father’s vehicle was called Zhou Enlai”

A website of China Media Group, was organizing a special activity in honor of the 20 years of diplomatic relations between the Republic of South Africa and the People’s Republic of China. It was called My China – South Africa Story” and both Chinese and South African people were invited to tell their stories about their experiences with the other country.

I was invited to coach them, reviewing each of the speakers’ texts and offering some suggestions for improvement on that and on their delivery .

The entire series was broadcast on South African national television about one month after taping and was uploaded on the China Plus site shortly thereafter.

It was through this program that I first heard Luyolo’s story. I learn that Luyolo’s use of the word “legacy” and reference to “my father’s generation” are more than just figures of speech. “When he was 15 my father joined the African National Congress (ANC) and became part of the fight against the apartheid regime. After two or three years he was nominated to join armed forces training of the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto weSizwe, ‘Spear of the Nation.’ This took him to Tanzania and many other countries for training both inside and outside of Africa.”

“Sometimes my father and his comrades would get together and reminisce about their experiences. They are getting older and being afraid that these stories will be lost, I started to film them. One of their stories was when the all-terrain vehicle they were driving in was sabotaged. Someone had damaged the rear axle and it came off. My father then referred to needing to send for a mechanic to fix the ‘Zhou Enlai.’”

“Zhou Enlai? Luyolo was surprised to hear reference to China’s first Prime Minister and didn’t understand Zhou’s connection to his father’s vehicle. My father explained that during the struggle against the racist government, Zhou Enlai spearheaded Chinese support for our struggle. As part of this aid, China provided a large number of these vehicles. But, no one knew what to call them because the only markings were Chinese characters that no one could read. So, they called them Zhou Enlais.”

Luyolo continues by explaining that later his father was captured and imprisoned on Robben Island. Upon release after the defeat of the apartheid government, he joined the army and had a chance to come to China several times and he still talks about the warmth he felt when he was here.” Unfortunately, Luyolo’s father had come to China a few months earlier and had returned home less than a week before our first meeting.

While this may be one side of the “brotherly” connection, it is not the only one.

The People’s Republic of China was founded on October 1, 1949. It was not until 1971 with the passing of United Nations Resolution 2758 that the PRC was recognized as the only legitimate representative of China and allowed its rightful places in both the General Assembly and the Security Council. Nearly a decade earlier at the end of 1963, Premier Zhou Enlai visited 10 African countries at the end of 1963 and laid out five principles of China’s support for African (and Arab) nations.

As a result of this historic support for African countries, of the 76 countries voting in favor of Resolution 2758, 26 of them came from Africa! Chinese people, especially those of my generation, are aware of the close relations between China and South Africa and are quick to recall the phrase “African brother” that was often spoken by Mao Zedong and that Luyolo continues to heard nearly 5 decades later in the hutong.

Western Criticisms about Chinese investment in Africa

Ian Goodrum, is American who works in the Edgar Snow Newsroom at China Daily, the main English-language newspaper in China. After briefly meeting Ian in May of 2018, we later meet again to exchange some of our U.S. and China experiences. I tell him of my recent conversation with Luyolo Sijake and his “African Brother” story. This leads us to a discussion of China – Africa relations and, specifically, western criticisms of China’s relations with Africa including the 2018 criticisms of China’s relations with African by then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Ian says, “too many people outside of China don’t understand that these ‘criticisms’ are based on ideology not on facts.” He recommended a number of items for me to read including several pieces by Deborah Brautigam, a professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

Her 2015 article in Foreign Policy magazine, with reference to President Xi’s just completed visit to Africa, she notes that Xi promised a “lift in China-Africa relations” to promote a mutually beneficial partnership and announced a commitment of $60 billion over three years for development projects in Africa. In her piece titled “5 Myths About Chinese Investment in Africa” she discusses “five of the most dangerous — and persistent — myths about Chinese engagement in Africa that are reliably recycled by the press.” Let’s look at three of them.

           Myth 1: China only wants to extract Africa’s natural resources. Brautigam notes with while Africa’s extensive array natural resources are a draw for China, they are no less so for western companies. .

           Myth 2: In July 2015 President Obama cautioned an assembly of African ambassadors against building infrastructure with foreign labor. Although making no mention of China, everyone knew his reference to the time-worn myths. Brautigam noted that while  a small group of largely oil-rich countries Chinese construction firms are allowed to bring their own workers, her own and other’s research, however, shows that in most of Africa, the vast majority of workers are local hires.

           Myth 3: Argues that China is in pursuit of control over African land. This claim even suggests that it is China’s intent to send Chinese peasants to grow food for China in Africa. Brautigam’s own 3-year investigation into 60 stories about Chinese agricultural investments in more than a dozen countries found no support for this argument. To begin with she found that Chinese had, in fact, acquired only 700,000 acres instead of the 15 million that some critics claimed. She did, however, find that there were a few dozen Chinese who were growing crops FOR LOCAL MARKETS.

Why African students are ditching the US for China

Luyolo Sijake is not alone as an African student in China.

In 2017 I got to know Zakaria Migeto, a doctoral student in sociology from Tanzania who lived in my apartment building at Minzu University of China (MUC). In August 2018, I saw him leaving our building as I was coming in. “I am currently writing about the historic relations between China and Africa.” Zakaria quickly said, “Do you know about Tazara? China built it for free at a time that China was still quite poor.” [Tazara is a railway line from Tanzania-Zambia built to connect the landlocked Zambia to the sea which allowed it to break its economic dependence on the racist regimes in South Africa and Rhodesia.]

In the past I have gotten to know other African students from Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, Congo, Cameroon, Nigeria, Guinea and other countries studying at MUC. In fact, in colleges and universities across China, African students, which in 2003 represented only 2% of the international student body before COVID-19 made up 13%. These figures, presented in a June 2017 article on the CNN website entitled “Why African students are ditching the US for China” which also reports that

           In less than 15 years the African student body has grown 26-fold -- from just under 2,000 in 2003 to almost 50,000 in 2015.

          According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, the US and UK host around 40,000 African students a year. China surpassed this number in 2014, making it the second most popular destination for African students studying abroad, after France which hosts just over 95,000 students.”

In the 2015 summit on the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation committed to make 30,000 scholarships to Africans by 2018. There are a variety of different scholarships. Zakaria was here through one of seven programs under the umbrella of Chinese Government Scholarship. In addition, there are also the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) scholarships and even more. Luyolo came through another path, he entered the 13th Hanyu Qiao competition and won a scholarship (including airfare).

Due to Chinese visa rules, most international students cannot stay in China after their education is complete. This prevents brain-drain and means that China is educating a generation of African students who - unlike their counterparts in France, the US or UK - are more likely to return home and bring their new education and skills with them.

At the Nigerian Embassy in Beijing

Ian Goodrum explained that ever since the 2013 announcement of the BRI many in the West have undertaken a campaign to label it as “new colonialism” or “imperialism”. But as Goodrum argues that “the people of Africa deserve the right to choose their own development path and having experienced crisis and stagnation despite ‘assistance’ from the West, they are now taking a different approach with China’s help.”

This idea was specifically addressed by leaders of African countries speaking during the 2018 FOCAC (Forum on China Africa Cooperation) that was held in early September in Beijing. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who I first met nearly 30 years ago in Palo Alto, Calfornia, was co-chair of the 2018 meeting. He argued that instead of acting in a colonialist fashion in Africa, China has helped development on the African continent. In his conference speech, Ramaphosa said “China is a reliable partner with African countries to realize the African Union Agenda 2063,” the strategic framework guiding Africa’s 50-year plan for development.

In December, 2018 my music partner, Fu Han, and I were invited to perform at the Nigerian Embassy in Beijing where we met a African diplomats from more than 20 African countries including a number of Ambassadors who spoke at the combined New Year and Spring Festival celebrations and spoke of the warm and historic ties between China and many nations in Africa.

In his welcoming address, H.E. [His Excellency] Baba Ahmad Jidda, the Nigerian Ambassador spoke of China’s relationship, not merely with Nigeria, but with all of Africa saying, “We are here today in the Nigerian embassy, on behalf of all of us African ambassadors, to appreciate the long history of close relations with China.” Other ambassadors in attendance are those from Niger, Sierra Leone, Cape Verde, Senegal, Morocco, Algeria, Mali, Somalia, Ghana, Libya, Namibia, Benin, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, C?te d'Ivoire and the Ambassador from the African Union to China.

H.E. [Her Excellency] Tania Romualdo, the ambassador from Cape Verde stressed “We are going through a very interesting place in our relations under the umbrella of FOCAC but these relations were not born two or three years ago. They come from long ago, when Africa was not yet a continent of free countries but a continent of colonies, China was our biggest brother in support.

She concludes her comments highlighting the real strength of the link between China and Africa. “I do believe that our future is very bright. China and Africa are in a strong and complementary relationship; it’s a win-win relationship.”

Let me conclude by echoing Ambassador Romualdo’s statement that the future for these two brothers China and Africa, is indeed bright as they are linked through history, common interest and friendship.


About the author:

Mark H. Levine, Ph.D.

Chief Expert of DAO ZHONGHUA(道中华)Mark Levine’s Workshop, School of Foreign Studies, Minzu University of China

Dr. Mark Levine is an American sociologist who received his Ph.D. in 1976 after completing a ground-breaking quantitative-historical study on the base of electoral support for the Nazi Party in the 1930 German parliamentary election. Following a couple years of university teaching he left the academic world and became a full-time volunteer with an organization of poor workers in California’s Bay Area. Two decades later he was invited to participate in a panel at the American Sociological Association conference where he was recognized as having helped to spearhead a new field of sociological practice as a public sociologist. He continued this work for the next decade until leaving for China.

Arriving in China in 2005, his first destination was in the Jiangsu Province city of Huai’an, best known as the hometown of Zhou Enlai, the first Premier of the PRC. In 2007 he came to Beijing to accept an invitation to teach at Minzu University of China, where he is still teaching today. In addition to his teaching Mark is known through a variety of identities in China. To some he is a singer-songwriter having composed 80 songs – American country/folk music style -- about China which he has performed in 16 provinces and on numerous Chinese media outlets. To some he is known as a public speaker as he has lectured at 65 Chinese universities around the country. To some he is known as a public speaking judge who has served in that capacity in 80 competitions with contestants ranging from 4-54. And, to some he is known as an author having published two books about China Stories from My Chinese Journey and Singing My China Stories to the World and co-authored another about public speaking Demystifying Impromptu Speech.

Dr. Levine was the recipient of the Great Wall Friendship Award for 2011-2013 and the Chinese national Friendship Award in 2014. He is a permanent resident of the People’s Republic of China.

In 2022 the Ministry of Science and Technology of the People’s Republic of China authorized the establishment of DAO ZHONGHUA(道中华)Mark Levine’s Workshop within the School of Foreign Studies at Minzu University of China. Dr. Levine serves as the Chief Expert at this eponymous institute.



The article reflects the author's opinions and not necessarily the views of China-Africa Institute.



Copyright: China-Africa Institute