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Benjamin Mkapa’s memory on TAZARA, Sino-Tanzania relations

ON 16 August 2013, Mzee Benjamin William Mkapa, former President of Tanzania, gave an interview to some Chinese writers.

In the interview, he recalled the old days when Tanzania-Zambia Railway was built, and shared his thoughts on the appropriate ways to promote Tanzania-China friendship and cooperation under new circumstances. The following is Mzee Mkapa’s narration.

Introducing the TAZARA Project to the Tanzanians

When the construction of the TAZARA started, I was Editor-in-Chief of the Party newspapers, which were The Nationalist and Uhuru.

At that time, The Nationalist and all the other newspapers were reporting very intensively on the growing relations between China and Tanzania, particularly after President Nyerere’s visit to China and the visit of Premier Zhou Enlai to Tanzania.

We had to prepare the people about this new relationship. As Tanzania was a former trust territory of the United Nations under Britain, it’s understandable that our attitude was usually accommodating the Western countries, like Britain and the USA.

And this was at the peak of the Cold War, so there was a natural inclination for our people to think Western rather than Eastern. We had the task of educating our people that Tanzania is non-aligned, and that Tanzania is now independent and we must make our own decisions to take care of our own national interests.

Although the West would want us to think Western and promote Western interests, this was not our role. This was emphasized very much by President Nyerere, particularly with regard to the project of the TAZARA.

While at that time Britain, the USA and many of Western European countries recognized that the railway was a feasible project and could be constructed, they were not prepared to finance or to lend us money to build it. They said it would not be commercially viable.

Our principal reason for building the TAZARA, apart from the fact that it was an independent decision, was to help the land-locked Zambia have an alternative route to the sea, as opposed to the route which was going through Southern Rhodesia and South Africa then ruled by minority racist regimes.

An alternative is always useful, so we had to explain this to the people. We also had to explain that Tanzania had a responsibility for helping the growing liberation movements in Southern Africa, and building the TAZARA would be one way of helping them.

So this might be one of the reasons why the Western countries were not that keen on building this railway. They thought it would help the liberation movements and threaten the lives of their kith and kin in Southern Africa. So our first task was to reeducate our people about a proper national foreign policy.

And that was the task of the Party newspapers, and that we could have done very well indeed. We worked closely with the Xinhua News Agency and its representatives here, and regularly we would carry features to explain China, its own liberation wars and so on.

The second task then, as I saw it, was to try to explain that some of the costs of the construction had to be paid for by allowing Chinese goods into our market which was dominated by Western firms and Western goods. I remember particularly that there was toothpaste from China, and there was prejudice there because our people were used to Colgate.

So we said, “Look, toothpaste is toothpaste, whether it is made in China or in Europe or the USA, and you must get used to it. It will not taste the same, but it will do the same function, which is to clean the teeth.” And there was real prejudice against other goods like clothes from the East, particularly China.

But we had to say, “Clothes are clothes, and anyway this is a cost that is necessary to realize this very important project for us.”

And we clinched it thirdly by emphasizing that the railway would create an opportunity for opening up the economy of the areas where it was going to pass, many of which were very virgin, very undeveloped territories, as they still are. So we said that it would open up economic opportunities.

Those were the three major fronts on which we had to carry out educational work among our people in the early days. After the construction started, it was easier. But there were still prejudicial thoughts among our people that the Chinese would now outnumber us and invade our country.

They were very curious, because there weren’t many Chinese in Tanzania and they’d never seen Chinese before. And we said, “No, to build a railway does not need the whole Chinese population to come here.” So this was another educational role to put the project in perspective.

Besides, while Tanzanians did work hard, they were not as hard working as the Chinese workers. So we again had to explain that the Chinese work hard because they know that’s the only way to develop, and we must learn from the Chinese about working hard, working together and so on.

In the end, actually the local people got to be very friendly and social. They were very much amazed by the Chinese workers, by the speed at which they built the railway, and by their self-sacrifice spirit. For instance, the Chinese cultivated gardens for vegetables, and if they would stay longer they would have bananas and stuff like that.

But our people could not understand that. They thought this was proof that the Chinese were going to stay here. But when the Chinese moved camp, they moved wholly, and moved the garden with them, including the vegetables. They stacked vegetables all together.

So the local people realized of course that the Chinese were not going to stay. So the Chinese were very well received. I think many of our people learned the dedication to work, and what national development is about from the inspiring work of the Chinese workers. They were very much impressed.

The younger brother of my father-in-law was hired by the TAZARA as a public relations and personnel manager. He imparted to me very much how he was learning the spirit of work, the dedication and mutual help in achieving a project or a set piece of work. He said this was working very well indeed on our people. So I know this from first hand.

China-Tanzania friendship and cooperation under new circumstances

To further develop China-Tanzania friendship and cooperation under new circumstances, I think the younger generation are faced with challenges.

Our founding fathers were able to build this close relationship between China and Tanzania, and the TAZARA has been a real symbol of that friendship and proof of the help that we have received from China in our national development.

Now, we must realize that there is a limit to how much help China can give, though we thought that China could forever continue giving and giving. The capital, the money for building the railway was an interest-free loan from the government of China to Tanzania and Zambia.

It would be silly for the younger generation to think they could find new interest-free loans, because times have changed. China also need to transform its own society and build its own country, too. So now, we must think more of commercial relations, or at least loans on commercial terms.

Maybe the interest might be low, but there must be interest on a loan. This change needs to be inculcated in the younger generation. We must stop thinking that we can get free things from either west or east or north or south. Now we must have more self-reliance, which means we must have more savings by ourselves.

But we must also be prepared to borrow, knowing that we will have to pay interest. The second thing I hope our younger generation will learn is that the railway was supposed to be opening up those areas where it was passing, which in turn would help to make this project viable, to make it commercial.

We haven’t up to now planned enough the development of those areas to keep the railway busy and to make it earn. That is the challenge of the younger generation. I think China has signed an agreement with Tanzania on the development of iron ore in Tunduma.

That must serve as an example of what can be done to use the railway fully and profitably. The younger generation must learn and think about what other things can be designed in order to keep the railway busy. So the challenge now is how we can find new development opportunities in Tunduma, not necessarily iron ore or coal, but also other minerals and projects like agriculture.

There is a lot of land up there, with farms, livestock and stuff like that. It is the challenge of the younger generation to use the railway as a tool of development and as an engine of change in those areas, with recognizable development projects. That is the challenge facing us now.

The Chinese government has been very understanding indeed, and only 3 or 4 years ago gave us another 30 million yuan interest-free loan in order to rehabilitate the railway. But we can’t expect this every 10 years. We must turn it into a commercial project. That is the challenge.

One of the earliest China-aided projects we have here is the Urafiki Textile Mill, which has the same kind of problems as the TAZARA. When I came into office, I said, “No, enough is enough, because China couldn’t continue giving handouts to keep the factory going.”

In Tanzania, we grow our own cotton, we have our own equipment, and we have the managerial skills of China, so there is no reason why a textile mill like that should not be commercial. So we argued. Then we went to the Chinese government, and the Chinese officials said, “We have done as much as we can, now it’s up to you to keep it afloat.”

So I said, “Look, find a partner, even a commercial one from China, so that China can help us keep this factory going.” We did, yes. But I understand that we started off nicely, but it is in trouble again. Our management skills are not very good.

But the point, I recognize and we all recognize, is that we need to change our attitude towards management, towards the service industry such as railways and hospitals, and towards any commercial project which is supposed to make a surplus. We learned it from Urafiki, though we did not get very far.

I think China has to insist on the same thing with the TAZARA, and China has the strength to insist on commercial viability. I can’t see any Western country will lend in order to rehabilitate the railway. They didn’t like this project very much because they thought it was bringing China into Africa and assisting the liberation movements. So they’re not likely.

To them, the TAZARA is not a symbol of such importance as it is to us. China must insist now on running the railway commercially, and it can be done.

Keeping the History Alive

I think our media ought to look back on history too, not just the present. We must remember how the past has brought us to where we are today. It’s very important.

Whenever there are anniversaries of the opening of the TAZARA, the opening of the Urafiki Textile Mill and so on, we must highlight the history of China-Africa friendship, because we must keep the memory alive among our people. That’s one thing we have to do.

The second thing we must do is to accept that China and Africa must interact much more on a commercial basis. Once I came back from China, and found people in the plane who had been to Guangzhou to buy Chinese goods and sell here in Tanzania.

I use this example to show that the new relationship is really growing and must grow in trade and investment. It’s not bad for the Chinese to invest in our country, just as it’s not bad for the British to invest in our country.

If we can have a trade delegation from Hong Kong or Guangzhou, let it come. And don’t be surprised if it comes, because our own people are going to Guangzhou.

(Except from the book A Monument to China-Africa Friendship: Firsthand Account of the Building of the TAZATA, published in 2015 by World Affairs Press, Beijing, China.)

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