Friday, September 6, 2013

Guest Post: Visiting the Chinese-financed Zongo II Dam

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.


Anonymous said...

The apologist nature of this post gets to me more than others on this site because 1) it is an anecdotal piece and 2) it introduces all the elements to refute itself.

What the author has described rings to me of a segregated, violence-prone workplace characterized by a deep distrust between two groups.

The Congolese workers do not have shoes and uniforms, but don't worry, we are told: a shipment is arriving soon. Now the question- why weren't these uniforms and shoes given out to Congolese workers when work started? Same thing applies to pay: 'they will certainly be paid tomorrow'. Since the author was on site for several days, perhaps s/he can enlighten us as to whether 1) they were indeed paid the next day and 2) the chinese workers had the same interruption in pay?

Besides that we have violence against workers which is dealt with what must have been a stern little lecture (that'll teach him!).

And then the leitmotif of this piece, the 'congolese are lazy' theme. If this were not an anecdotal piece, or if it gave the reader some context, then maybe it wouldn't be so outrageous. But to calmly write about the laziness of congolese workers without leaning on any context, on any data, is at best a disconcerting omission.

It would be great for the author to catch up on some labor literature, and perhaps to visit other countries' labor sites where the attraction of China will not be so dazzling as to cover up a diagnosis abuse and mistreatment.

Anonymous said...

First of all, I (Antoine Lokongo) would like to thank Dr Deborah Brautigam for giving me this opportunity to publish my Guest Post in her blog.
To respond to the anonymous reader who reacted to my Guest Post, I would like to write the following:

1. People see things differently. I contrast, others readers have also posted positive comments about my article (I sent the link to as many people as possible). Tony wrote:
To: Antoine lokongo
Sent: Saturday, 7 September 2013, 16:50
Subject: Re: My guest post in Dr Deborah Brautigam's blog on my visit to Zongo II Dam
Félécitations Antoine (congratulations Antoine),
C'est un excellente et exemplaire reportage et attitude (It is an excellent and exemplary piece of reporting and attitude).

2. The first anonymous reader who posted this reaction on the blog sees nothing positive in my article and his prejudices blind him from seeing how objective I am:
I hear the Congolese complaints and questions
I put them to the Chinese manager straight away.
I get the manager's responses.
The manager did not say the shipment was arriving soon. He said it has arrived and has to go through the customs, the clearance of which is very slow in Matadi (it is still done manually and it only now that they talking about using scanners). To confirm his prejudices, the reader changes the meaning of what I wrote.

3. Yes, the Congolese workers were paid the next day, otherwise how would I have discovered the fact that a Congolese worker forged the signature of a Chinese manager, ticked more hours he did not work for in order to get more money? I was the translater during the process.

4. I described a dispute between one Chinese and one Congolese which the reader, to confim his prejudices, labels as violence-prone work-place. That is not the case. The Chinese told me that he was frustrated because he did not get the efficiency he expected and could not control himself and lost temper. And if I were an apologist, I would not even include this incident in my report which I drafted and let the Chinese managers read before I left.

5. I wrote that on one hand, Congolese workers were skilled and knew what they were doing (especially electricians). But on the other hand, many of them always come late for work. That is also a fact. And when you challenge them on that they get angry and complain all the time. I am a Congolese myself. In Congo, something that can be done in day takes a week, and I do no think that is how we are going to rebuild our country. We need to change, learn from the Chinese experience because China was also backward like Congo but today it is the world's second biggest economy. Maybe the reader cannot forgive the Chinese for that!

Johanna Jansson said...

Interesting post, thanks!

Anonymous said...

Just discovered this blog today, very insightful post Antoine!