Tanzania-Zambia Railway

“The Tanzania-Zambia Railway: A Case Study in Chinese Economic Aid to Africa” by George T. Yu in Soviet and Chinese Aid to African Nations (1980)

Africa’s Freedom Railway: How a Chinese Development Project Changed Lies and Livelihoods in Tanzania by Jamie Monson (2009)

TAZARA Railway was a symbolic development project that marked “third world” solidarity amid contentious Cold War politics through China’s leading, benevolent role. Proposals for the project were consolidated at the heels of Tanzania and Zambia’s independence in the 1960s with the hopes of stimulating greater agricultural productivity especially in light of neighboring Rhodesia as competition. As Yu (1980) states, “landlocked and surrounded on three sides by hostile forces, Zambia, more than ever, sought a link with the outside world, fearing that Rhodesia and the Portuguese would sever its traffic to the sea entirely”; furthermore, an oil pipeline that went from Dar es Salaam to Ndola, Zambia proved to be an additional incentive to build the railway.

Proposals were submitted to the former Soviet Union, United Nations, Britain and Canada, all of whom rejected the project based on what they would turn out to be an “expensive mistake” (Yu 123). China accepted the agreement in 1967 following President Kaunda’s visit to China, but the agreement was not finalized until 1970 after several rounds of negotiation. By the time it was completed in 1976, the project had cost an estimated $456.3 million and exceeded the initial estimate by $55 million, which China “had agreed to absorb” (130). Although the loan was supposed to be interest-free, governments on all sides agreed on commodity-credit exchanges. Half of costs of building the railway link would be financed through the purchase of $121 million worth of Chinese goods.

The workforce comprised of Chinese, Tanzanians and Zambians. In 1972, the workforce was broken down into 70 percent Tanzanians, 26 percent Chinese and 4 percent Zambians. By 1974, 30 percent Chinese, 36 percent Tanzanians, and 34 percent Zambians made up the workforce. Manpower, according to officials involved in the project, seemed to severely limit the project due to the shortage of trained civil engineers, hydraulic engineers, mechanical and hydraulic engineers as well as geologists and soil scientists. Because China was also confronted with the problem of scarce resources, much of the technology was imported. The Japanese provided hundreds of bulldozers. Other imported machinery included British and Swedish trucks, Finnish rock-crushing machinery and German buses (135). Most of the equipment, such as locomotives, rolling stock and actual materials was manufactured in China.

Actual construction of the railway was done in sections. Mobile construction camps, which moved along the route, were given equipment and resources by the main base camp. Jamie Monson (2009) reports that when the Chinese and Tanzanians worked together, their approach to the project was “labor intensive” and back-breaking. Even against Tanzanian law that required workers in government institutions to put in seven hours a day, Chinese supervisors required that workers put in longer shifts. What is fascinating is that, according to Monson, if workers read Mao Ze Dong’s red book, supervisors allowed them to sit for hours. Otherwise, workers were instilled with ideologies of brotherhood, personal character and hard work. Although broader conceptions of cooperation and collaboration may have framed projects, Monson’s description of the interactions among Chinese and African workers suggest other possibilities. Majority of workers conducted their working and off-duty lives in a segregated manner and although African workers were put in leadership positions, they were few and far between.

By late 1970s, Yu reports, China began to limit aid to African countries. However, he argues, “the rail link, in terms of aid categories and level of resource expenditure, reflected an exception, rather than the rule, in China’s aid practices” (141). TAZARA was a symbol of China’s power, commitment to other “third world” nations, and victory of the West. Unfortunately, when I last visited the railway en route to Dar es Salaam from Kapiri Mposhi, evidence of its deterioration was apparent. According to a 2008 report by the Times of Zambia, “screws and bolts were missing from most sleepers and switch bearers,” thus posing danger for passengers and crew members. It seems the railway will once again make its way into the hands of the Chinese, the government has granted $10.8 million to renovate and rehabilitate the railway and Chinese investors have looked into the prospect of taking advantage of potential privatization of transportation sectors (thanks to recommendations by the World Bank and audit firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers). Sadly, the railway has been underused. Designed to carry 2.5 million tons each way (Yu 137), it now carries 0.5 million tons a year. It seems mounting problems manifested themselves in 1978 when about one-third of the locomotives and 30 percent of the wagons were inoperative. Yu attributes these problems partly to “premature departure by the Chinese” before Zambian personnel could be fully trained. Despite these problems, TAZARA remains a permanent fixture reminiscent of historical Chinese, Zambian and Tanzanian solidarity. It continues to be a potent symbolic force that is consistently invoked in modern times.

Note: Picture (left or top) is the inside of the Kapiri Mposhi station in Zambia. Picture (right or bottom) is a Chinese map of TAZARA (1977) obtained by George T. Yu (1980: 138).

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