Zimbabwe elections: China is the dragon in the room

Hugged by long, dry grass and weary acacia thorn trees, the banks of the Mungezi River in southeastern Zimbabwe’s arid Bikita district appear to be an unlikely site for the geopolitical maneuverings of global superpowers.

Across the water, shimmering in the heat, stand imposing steel and concrete structures — the brand new plants built by Sinomine, one of the several Chinese companies that have invested in Zimbabwe’s nascent lithium mining industry. Soon, Sinomine will be exporting the lithium from its Bikita mines to massive battery manufacturing factories in China. This neglected rural district is now one more pawn in China’s gambit to control the world’s supplies of rare earth elements and minerals.

The Mungezi River forms the border between Bikita and the equally poor neighboring district of Gutu. On a Friday afternoon in July, Nelson Chamisa, the young, charismatic leader of Zimbabwe’s opposition, is on the campaign trail.

“Our minerals are being exploited,” Chamisa says to the crowd at a rally. “You are getting nothing. The only thing you are getting are cracks in your houses from the dynamite blasts. Our people are still jobless, they still remain poor.” 

On August 23, 2023, Zimbabweans are scheduled to vote in a general election. Chamisa and the incumbent president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, are — as they were in 2018 — in a standoff, with none of the other candidates expected to be in the running. Mnangagwa took over the presidency in Zimbabwe in 2017, when long-time president and strongman Robert Mugabe was deposed in a coup. A year later, Mnangagwa won a disputed election. During his time in office, Zimbabwe has lurched from one economic crisis to another.

But now Zimbabwe has been marked as a potential lithium hub. “Lithium batteries,” Elon Musk tweeted last year, “are the new oil.” China is, by a significant margin, the world’s largest manufacturer of these batteries, which are used to power electric vehicles, laptops and mobile phones among other things. And as the pressure to transition away from fossil fuels grows, the demand for lithium has been outstripping supply, raising prices and setting off a scramble to discover alternative sources.

Chinese and Western companies have their eyes on mining minerals across Africa, including, for example, Morocco and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The cobalt reserves in the DRC are critical to the manufacturing of lithium-ion batteries, leading to a rush to mine the metals often under inhuman conditions. When Pope Francis visited Kinshasa, the DRC’s capital, he said that the “poison of greed” was “choking Africa” and that the continent was “not a mine to be stripped or a terrain to be plundered.” 

But with the value of the EV battery market projected to increase from about $56 billion in 2022 to an estimated $135 billion in 2027, Zimbabwe’s lithium deposits represent an enormous economic opportunity for a debt-ridden country that has been suffering from international economic isolation and U.S. sanctions for 20 years. 

Sanctioned by the United States, Mnangagwa has turned to China, Russia and Iran for support. In July 2023, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi stopped in the Zimbabwean capital Harare as part of his three-country African tour. The crowd waved Zimbabwean and Iranian flags. Mnangagwa described Raisi as his brother. “When you see him, you see me,” said Mnangagwa. “When you see me, you see him.” 

And at the 2023 Russia-Africa summit in Saint Petersburg, Vladimir Putin reportedly gave Mnangagwa a helicopter. Putin also included Zimbabwe among a half dozen nations that Russia promised to supply with grain for free after refusing to extend the Black Sea grain deal that enabled exports of Ukrainian grain to Africa. Victims of American sanctions must cooperate, Mnangagwa said, “and this is the cooperation we are seeing.”

In Mnangagwa’s view, the West has had decades to mine and invest in Zimbabwean minerals and has done little. Sinomine and other Chinese companies, on the other hand, have moved quickly. The fruits of Chinese investment are evident across Zimbabwe. Last year, Mnangagwa delivered a State of the Nation address from a new $200 million parliamentary building entirely funded and constructed by China. Opponents of Chinese investment, Mnangagwa says, just want to hand Zimbabwe to the West. “They want our lithium,” Mnangagwa says of Western companies, “they want our minerals.”

Instead, it is Chinese companies, the Zimbabwean government argues, that offer Zimbabwe the best deal. For instance, Sinomine expects to create 1,000 jobs at its two Bikita plants and export up to $500 million of lithium concentrate every year. By comparison, the plants’ previous European owners did nothing for 50 years.  

Standing on the back of a pickup truck, Nelson Chamisa tells cheering supporters that these projections of Chinese success mean little unless locals benefit from the jobs and the profits. “Do you see any development from the lithium here?” Chamisa asked his supporters in Gutu. “Kana,” they roared back. Nothing.

According to the Zimbabwe Investment Development Agency, international investors are flocking to the country for lithium. Of the 116 investment licenses issued to foreign investors in the first three months of 2023, 42 were given to companies seeking to buy into the lithium industry. “Without doubt, mining outstrips every other area,” Tafadzwa Chinhamo, the head of ZIDA told me. “Most of our licenses right now are for lithium mining, prospecting and processing.”

His list of applications for licenses tells the story of the race to mine Zimbabwean lithium. In the first half of 2023, he told me, ZIDA received 160 investor applications from China, up from 53 over the same period in 2022. By contrast, there were only five U.S. applications and 10 U.K. applications. The Chinese applications for the first quarter of 2023 pledged investments of $944 million, compared to $166 million proposed by U.S. investors.

Zimbabwe’s opposition claims that Chinese companies are being given free rein over the nation’s mineral resources and allowed to cut regulatory corners and scar the environment. The ruling party says the opposition are megaphones for the West.

This has not gone unnoticed in Washington, D.C.

At a March confirmation hearing for Pamela Tremont, the U.S. ambassador-designate to Zimbabwe, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was clear on what they expected her to do — go to Zimbabwe and counter China’s influence. Chinese and Russian interests, Tremont told the committee, “comprise about 90% of the foreign direct investment in Zimbabwe’s mineral sector.” Expressing doubt about the terms of the contracts, Tremont added that she “would certainly hope the Zimbabwean government is ensuring that the Zimbabwean people are getting fair compensation for the minerals taken from their country.”

Her comments riled the Chinese embassy in Harare. A spokesperson told The Herald, Zimbabwe’s state-owned daily newspaper, that “Zimbabwe should not be used as a wrestling ground for major-country rivalry.” China, the spokesperson said, was focused on bringing more development to Zimbabwe, while the U.S. was slapping “illegal” sanctions on Zimbabwe and meddling in its internal affairs.

But Chinese investment in Zimbabwe is not without controversy.

Goromonzi is a farming area just east of Harare, the capital. Standing on a red-soiled ridge, I saw maize fields stretching to the horizon on one side of the Nyaguwe River. On the other side, Shengxiang, a small Chinese company, has started mining for lithium. According to the local office of the Environmental Management Agency, the company is operating in the area illegally.

“We inspected the mine, found them in breach of regulations, fined them and ordered them to stop operations until they got an EIA [environmental impact assessment authorisation],” said Astas Mabwe, the officer in charge of the area. Still, Mabwe told me, the company kept mining.

A member of the ruling party told me anonymously: “Who is going to go out and fight an investor when the president is calling for more investment?”

The Chinese Chamber of Enterprises in Zimbabwe, which represents over 80 companies in the country, insists that companies like Shengxiang are in the minority. Allegations of illegal operations, Chinese authorities say, are part of a campaign of deliberate misinformation.

Last year, local newspapers published a series of articles that argued that Chinese companies in Zimbabwe had flouted a number of laws safeguarding the environment and labor rights. The reporting was attributed to the Information for Development Trust, a journalism program funded by the U.S. embassy in Harare.

Aja Stefanon, from the U.S. embassy’s economic affairs department, said last year that the program’s “work has ensured that the media plays its watchdog role in safeguarding shared goals in labor, human rights, and natural resources governance.”

Predictably, the Chinese embassy saw it differently. It told The Herald that the Information for Development Trust was “a puppet sponsored and manipulated by the U.S. Embassy to attack Chinese investment in Zimbabwe.” It “had long fabricated false information and published anti-China news,” the Chinese embassy said.  

Back in Bikita, Sinomine, under the conditions of its mining license, will spend an extra $2 million to supply uninterrupted power to local villages. This June, Sinomine started to drill 35 boreholes to provide water to these villages.
Until then, Molly Mandityira, a local village head said, eight villages shared a single borehole. “This,” she told me, “changes everything.” With people in rural areas generally voting in far greater numbers than people in urban areas, Mnangagwa might be counting on Chinese investment to win him the election. – .coda