Selling tofu to Botswana

In a small town on the banks of the Okavango, there is a brand new school built by a Chinese construction company. Unfortunately the Shakawe Senior Secondary School is empty because the building inspectors discovered that the materials and workmanship were not up to code.

When the Chinese contractor was informed of these deficiencies, his initial response was allegedly to do exactly what he would have done back in China, namely bribe a government official to make the problem go away.

Wang Xiaming, the then general manager of the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC) in Botswana, and two others have been accused of offering the former infrastructure minister a 250,000 pula bribe (about US$33,000) in order to facilitate the approval process.

This may have worked in China, as tragically seems to be the case in Sichuan when so many “tofu” school buildings collapsed in the 2008 earthquake, but Botswana prides itself on honest government and Wang and his alleged accomplices were arrested.

Subsequently, the president of CCECC sacked the three accused and flew to Botswana to personally apologise for the incident and assure the government that the school project would be completed in accordance with Botswana’s building standards.

The three accused were supposed to stand trial this week but Wang skipped bail and no one has seen him since. Without the principal defendant, state prosecutors decided they had no option but to drop the case and the two remaining accused were set free. The judge said they could be re-arrested if Wang ever showed up again but the chances of that happening seem very slim.

In the meantime, several hundred Shakawe students and teachers now have to attend school in the regional capital Maun, a five hour bus ride away.

The Shakawe incident is likely to further fuel anti-Chinese sentiment in this traditionally open and tolerant country. There have been Chinese businesses in Botswana since the 1980s and many have been very successful and made a positive contribution to the country’s development but, for many in Botswana, that success has come at the expense of local businesses. And, as a recent research report by the Brenthurst Foundation noted, the government in Gaborone is now responding to public concern by taking an increasingly tough line against Chinese companies in the construction and retail sectors in particular.

Unlike many of its southern African neighbours, Botswana, thanks mainly to its massive diamond reserves, has a relatively robust economy and can afford to get tough on creeping Chinese influence if it so chooses. Batswana are rightly proud of their country’s democratic government, independent judiciary and transparent business practices. The country’s healthcare and education systems are also the envy of many in southern Africa. Any threat to those institutions is taken very seriously.

If China wants to continue to do business in Botswana, it is going to have to learn to play by that country’s rules, and not assume that what works at home will necessarily work abroad. As a gesture of good faith, if and when Wang Xiaming finally shows up, the Chinese authorities would do well to put him on a plane straight back to Gaborone to stand trial for the crimes he is accused of.

This, incidentally, is a view shared by a commentator at none other than the Global Times who noted that unless swift remedial action is taken, the Shakawe case “could become a powerful weapon for those who see Chinese investment in Africa as more corrosive than constructive.” The commentary added: “It's unfortunate that this case hasn't been covered in the Chinese media. Other firms should be aware of the dangers of getting involved in corruption overseas.”

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