China is building new football stadiums in Africa. If its “agenda” of stadium diplomacy has been concealed, it hasn’t really been hidden very far from view.
In Maputo, the “Garden for Sculptors” behind the Museu Nacional de Arte on Avenida Ho Chi Minh has become a kind of prison yard for Mozambique’s various Ozymandiases, a semi-public dumping ground where colonial monuments now crumble quietly away. A marble European baroness reclines in thick robes, the grasses growing up around her base. Both of her arms have been lopped off, but her amputated left hand still touches the midriff of a black male slave crouched in a loincloth by her side. Nearby, a decapitated Lady Justice presides over a small patch of weeds and bare earth. No longer public art, but not quite garbage, these are the monuments which were extracted like rotten teeth from the city’s squares and public buildings when Portuguese colonial rule finally ended, but which nobody could quite bring themselves to destroy.
One August afternoon I chanced upon the newest addition to this miserable collection. Facedown in the dirt lies an enormous bronze angel, wings stretched high over its head like some kind of massive avian Academy Award. Walking around it to its jagged base, ripped from wherever it had once been rooted, I found that the figure was completely hollow. Inside there was a small plaque whose Chinese characters I could not read. Intrigued, I went back into the museum, and asked the receptionist there where this gigantic statue had come from and why it had been dumped here. He answered with the air of someone patiently explaining something very obvious to someone very dull. The angel had been erected in 2011 by the Chinese government in front of the new national soccer stadium, to give the place some character and serve as a kind of focal point. But when Mozambican officials saw that the statue had “a Chinese face”, they decided it wouldn’t do to have a Chinese angel in front of their national stadium, tore it down, and trucked it into town to join the rest of Maputo’s unwanted colonial trappings in the Garden for Sculptors.
Mozambique’s new national stadium, Estádio Nacional do Zimpeto, is on the outskirts of Maputo, not far from the Chinese-built international airport. The Chinese have also overseen the construction of the new parliament building and a new “Palace of Justice” in the last few years. The main institutions through which a sense of Mozambican national life is constructed—the laws of the nation, international departures and arrivals, and its most spectacular public moments of heroism—now take place in Chinese-built structures.
China completed its first stadium construction project in Africa in 1970 with the opening of the 15,000-seater Amaan stadium in Zanzibar, Tanzania. That modest structure marked the start of four decades of so-called “stadium diplomacy” by China across Africa, the Caribbean, Asia and the South Pacific. Today there are few countries in Africa that don’t have stadiums built by the Chinese government as gifts or with concessionary loans. There was a noticeable acceleration in construction in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as Senegal, Mauritania, Mauritius, Kenya, Rwanda, Niger, Djibouti and the Democratic Republic of Congo (then Zaire) all got shiny new stadiums. But the real boom has come in the last ten years. Three recent host nations of the African Cup of Nations—Angola, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea—have had all their tournament stadiums built for the purpose by China. All three happen to be nations with significant off-shore oil reserves ruled by autocrats and small elites structured around a ruling family. But countries with more modest natural resources and more democratic structures of government—Ghana, Tanzania, Zambia and Malawi for example—have also found room for new Chinese-built stadia within the last decade, as part of China’s much-documented program of economic expansion.
The impact of this most concrete form of soft diplomacy is difficult to assess in terms of hard cash. But there’s little doubt about how it’s supposed to work. For relatively small outlays—usually well short of $100 million—China constructs a sterile national arena that can be opened with long speeches and presidents in tailored suits kicking balls for the cameras, in return for sweetened access to natural resources, votes at the United Nations and the marginalization of Taiwan. Domestic politicians point to highly visible new infrastructure as evidence of their success as managers of the national development agenda; China and Chinese businesses gain, at the very least, an entrée into the highest circles of government.
All of this is officially carried out in the name of friendship, of course—there’s one Stade de l’Amitié, in Libreville, Gabon, and another Stade de l’Amitié in Cotonou, Benin. Fortunately, the pious fraternal rhetoric attached to the openings of these stadiums has on occasion been punctured by moments of mutual cultural befuddlement. In 2007, for example, it was gleefully reported that at the opening of the new cricket ground in Grenada in the Caribbean, the Chinese ambassador Qian Hongshan and assorted dignitaries displayed visible discomfort as they sat through the Royal Grenada Police Band’s stately rendition of the national anthem of the Republic of China—a country more commonly known as Taiwan. The bandmaster took the rap. “This unfortunate error breaks my heart,” said the Grenadian Prime Minister.
By 2010, over 50 stadia had been built with Chinese government support across the continent, and despite the always-repeated insistence that another new stadium is “needed” we are now approaching stadium saturation point. If there was a Millennium Development Goal for stadia per capita, Jeffrey Sachs would probably turn up one morning at one of his Millennium Villages and find that the Shanghai Construction Group had knocked up a 55,000-seater next to one of his newly dug wells, christened it Le Stade de la Fraternité, and carted off all the hardwood trees from the forest.
If the “agenda” of stadium diplomacy has been concealed, it hasn’t really been hidden very far from view. Yet all the focus has been on the not-especially-mysterious question of what it is that China expects in exchange for all these stadia, rather than on what this addition to virtually every African capital city means culturally and historically, let alone whether or not they’re actually enjoyable places to watch a soccer match.
It took three separate minibus rides from downtown Maputo to reach Zimpeto. I had arrived from Scotland the previous day and was finding Mozambican Portuguese tough going, but this was match-day, with Mozambique hosting neighbors Tanzania, and it was easy enough to find my way by following the crowds of people in bright red shirts and scarves wrapped around their heads, and the constant parping of vuvuzelas. Inside a vast paved complex ringed with a chain-link fence, a huge grey concrete bowl rose up. When I first saw the new home of Os Mambas, I thought those aliens from District 9 must have finally got their spaceship working and parked it in Maputo. Inside stood a suitably intergalactic prophecy, in Mandarin and Portuguese, written in red letters: “Amizade entre a China e Mozambique irá prevalecer como o céu e a terra.” Translation: the friendship between China and Mozambique will last forever like the heavens and the earth.
Read the whole of this article at Roads and Kingdoms here. This is an excerpt from Roads and Kingdoms’ “The Far Post” series.