Page last updated at 13:39 GMT, Thursday, 23 September 2010 14:39 UK

China follows British footsteps to African wealth

Chinese railway worker on Benguela track

By Justin Rowlatt
BBC News, Angola

Chinese investment in Angola is bringing back to life one of the greatest rail routes in Africa, the Benguela Railway. In return, China gets oil - but are accusations of a colonial-style scramble for resources fair?

The passengers squatted beside the railway tracks. It was impossible to tell how many there were.

In the darkness their bodies merged with great shapeless bundles of luggage, but there were certainly hundreds.

Then with the first flush of dawn, and bang on time, the bright beam of headlights appeared in the far distance.

The crowd immediately began to stir and jostle for position, even before the train had eased to a halt.

They threw up their boxes and bags into the open cattle trucks and scruffy passenger carriages, then scrambled after them.

Map of Benguela Railway route
The line stretches from Angola's west coast to the Zambia border

Tony, the railway official who was looking after us, urged us to get moving too.

"It will not wait for you," he warned.

He hurried down to the very last carriage, and gestured at us to board this battered old compartment.

"You can leave your things safely here," he said.

We did as he said and climbed up the steps, and into another world.

Teak-lined stateroom

The contrast with modern Africa could not have been greater.

We were in a teak-lined stateroom, the windows shaded by slatted blinds.

Justin Rowlatt has embarked on a global journey to explore the effects of China's policy of "going out" into the world to secure the energy and raw materials its rapidly growing economy needs.
A two-part documentary series will air on BBC Two in early 2011.
He will also be reporting regularly for the BBC News website.

There was a table with a crisp white tablecloth surrounded by four heavy chairs and, in the ceiling, a big silver fan.

We had stepped back into Edwardian England.

Tony laughed at my astonishment. He had known we would be impressed.

"You should feel at home," he teased.

"This is one of the original British carriages, where the directors of the railway company would travel."

Our grand accommodation was a remnant of what was once one of the great routes of Africa - the Benguela Railway.

It was an engineering triumph, stretching 1,000 miles up from the Angolan coast, right into the southern Congo.

Some people mutter that it is really just another scramble for oil and other resources

The railway took almost 30 years to build and cost the equivalent of hundreds of millions of pounds - as well as the lives of many of the indentured labourers who worked on it.

But little remains of the glory of the Benguela now. Until very recently all but a tiny stretch of the line was closed.

The railway was one of the many victims of Angola's 27-year-long civil war.

Now it is being rebuilt. Not, needless to say, by the British, but by the Chinese.

Back in Luanda, the Angolan capital, I had heard a lot of anxiety about the Chinese move into Africa.

Some people mutter that it is really just another scramble for oil and other resources.

It is true that Angola has some of the biggest oil reserves in Africa.

But as I looked around at the expensive fittings in our state car on rails, it looked as if motives of the men who built this railway were pretty similar.

The Benguela railway was not a philanthropic project, but a business investment. It was built to ship out the incredible copper wealth of central Africa.

Rolling supermarket

As soon as the train pulled into the first station - a dusty stop in the middle of dry scrubland - it was clear that the recent Chinese work on the railway is providing economic benefits too.

Those huge bundles I had seen by the passengers were thrown open.

Our people have been fighting for so long, they don't know how to build anymore
Angolan woman

Inside were huge mounds of tomatoes, onions, greens, dried fish and great bloody lumps of meat.

The hundreds of people waiting surged forward, yelling and rushing from one carriage to another to barter for the goods on offer.

I realised that this train was, in effect, a rolling supermarket and the passengers were small businessmen and women.

"I couldn't do this before the railway was fixed," one large woman selling plump red tomatoes told me.

"Before, I had to travel by car which was much more expensive."

She giggled shyly and acknowledged that she was making better money now. "I am not rich, but a bit richer," she told me.

So how did these traders feel about the Chinese helping to refurbish the line?

They all agreed that the Chinese were very hard workers and had done a fine job.

But should the work not have gone to Angolans, I wanted to know?

"Our people have been fighting for so long, they don't know how to build any more," the woman with the tomatoes told me with a wry smile.

Fair deal?

Of course the Chinese labourers get paid - and their wages come out of a cheap loan which the Chinese government made to the Angolan government.

And that loan, in turn, is paid for in oil.

So in some sense oil money is still the motive.

Opened in 1928 to transport copper deposits
It consists of 840 miles (1344 kilometres) of track
Twenty-seven years of civil war destroyed much of the railway

But, as the train grunted and clanked on through the savannah, with its occasional vivid red acacia tree, it seemed to me that what was happening now was very different from what the British had done here.

The Angolan oil which pays off that loan is now sold abroad at the prevailing market rate.

Very different terms from those of the British, who carted hundreds of millions of tons of precious African copper down this line without paying anyone a penny for it.

So, while it may be tempting to see today's China as just another imperial power out to exploit the riches of Africa, it seemed to me that there is a big difference between the Chinese presence and the British one.

Though, sitting back in my state car as the train rattled on up the line, I had to admit those British railway pioneers did know how to travel in style.

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