These poor, hopeless, angry people exist by grubbing for scraps of cobalt and copper ore in the filth and dust of abandoned copper mines in Congo, sinking perilous 80ft shafts by hand, washing their finds in cholera-infected streams full of human filth, then pushing enormous two-hundredweight loads uphill on ancient bicycles to the nearby town of Likasi where middlemen buy them to sell on, mainly to Chinese businessmen hungry for these vital metals.
To see them, as they plod miserably past, is to be reminded of pictures of unemployed miners in Thirties Britain, stumbling home in the drizzle with sacks of coal scraps gleaned from spoil heaps. Except that here the unsparing heat makes the labour five times as hard, and the conditions of work and life are worse by far than any known in England since the 18th Century. Many perish as their primitive mines collapse on them, or are horribly injured without hope of medical treatment.
Many are little more than children. On a good day they may earn $3, which just supports a meagre existence in diseased, malarial slums. We had been earlier to this awful pit, which looked like a penal colony in an ancient slave empire. Defeated, bowed figures toiled endlessly in dozens of hand-dug pits. Their faces, when visible, were blank and without hope.
Who is doing this to these people?
I can give you no better explanation in miniature of the wicked thing that I believe is now happening in Africa. Out of desperation, much of the continent is selling itself into a new era of corruption and virtual slavery as China seeks to buy up all the metals, minerals and oil she can lay her hands on: copper for electric and telephone cables, cobalt for mobile phones and jet engines–the basic raw materials of modern life. It is crude rapacity, but to Africans and many of their leaders it is better than the alternative, which is slow starvation.
It is my view…that China’s cynical new version of imperialism in Africa is a wicked enterprise. China offers both rulers and the ruled in Africa the simple, squalid advantages of shameless exploitation.
Where are the protests in the streets? Where are the screams for international justice? Oh. This isn’t Bush’s fault. Never mind.
Persuasive academics advised me before I set off on this journey that China’s scramble for Africa had much to be said for it. They pointed out China needs African markets for its goods, and has an interest in real economic advance in that broken continent. For once, they argued, a foreign intervention in Africa might work precisely because it is so cynical and self-interested. They said Western aid, with all its conditions, did little to create real advances in Africa, laughing as they declared: ‘The only country that ever got rich through donations is the Vatican.
It’s a long and disturbing article. The utter corruption and brute force that that is loose in the world on so many fronts, with China–the human organ merchants so often, it seems, in the lead–is taking my breath away.