There is little both as hip and worrying to people interested in international affairs as China’s relationship to Africa. Beyond a fly-by-night visit by Barack Obama, it’s one of the only reasons the rest of the world will pay any attention to the continent.

Of course, the reasons for the African interest among Chinese businesses and government officials boils down to the same reasons most non-Africans have always cared about Africa: money and resources.

Foreign Policy‘s Elizabeth Dickinson notes that Africa’s resources are not only in vogue among the Chinese, but perhaps more broadly among the BRIC countries. Those BRIC countries that have managed to navigate the current economic crisis relatively well (of the four countries — Brazil, Russia, India, and China — Russia is almost definitely suffering the most) boast of decoupling from the developed world’s economies, and the opportunities their independence allows:

With aid and investment drying up from Europe and the West, it’s wise of the BRICs to fill the void. More than good business, it’s proof of the BRICs claim that they’re in Africa for the long haul. Guess who wins that game?

Still, most of the attention is coming from China — who else is going in deep enough to bail out Zimbabwe when no one else will? This has led to a lot of speculation in English-language press that there’s basically just a new colonial boss in town. Nothing encapsulated this view better than French president Nicholas Sarkozy’s chilly reception at a funeral for Gabon’s president Omar Bongo. Bongo was the quintessential French colonial stooge in the “post-colonial” African setting, the “epitome of françafrique,” writes The Economist. He even managed to arrange for the firing of one of Sarkozy’s ministers, overseas aid minister Jean-Marie Bockel, who had dared to call for the end of the excesses and patronage relationships of françafrique.

As France and other western states muddle along in trying to fashion a post-colonial world order that still affords enough of the practical benefits of colonialism, China the basically the only contender for the top of the heap of this world order. The attractiveness of China to Africans is partly a matter of the fact that the Chinese are just not the West, writes William Wallis in the Financial Times:

Europe still sees Africa as a burden. The Chinese, Brazilians, Indians and others see it as an opportunity.”We have a competitive advantage,” says Gu Xiaojie, China’s ambassador to Ethiopia, with a certain amount of glee.

“My own experience is that they [African governments] are uncomfortable dealing with developed countries. They think they [Europeans] want to impose their own ideas and they have a long [mutual] history that is violent and bitter.”

But China’s star shines brightly beyond the fact of who it is not. Quite plainly, it is often the only major economic power that seems to give a damn. Shortly before I left Philadelphia for Johannesburg, I had a discussion with my former professor in Chinese history during which I mentioned that the Chinese may be running roughshod over African workers and communities in the course of their projects in the continent. Her response was simple and, honestly, hard to refute: Who else is paying attention?

Howard French notes that both political and financial attention from China is in easy supply. Top political leaders visit the continent every year, including a visit by Hu Jintao concurrent to my discussion with my professor in late February / early March. Moreover,

from Angola and Congo and from Nigeria and Mozambique, the big news in Africa has recently been measured in big business deals, and this story could almost be summed up as all China, all the time.

A Shanghai-based housing developer argues that Africa is a key plank in China’s grander geopolitical strategy in China Safari, a new book on China’s role in the continent written by two French journalists, Serge Michel and Michel Beuret.

“I’m going to be honest with you, China is using Africa to get where the United States is now, and surpass it.”

This may be overstating the case. While the view from Africa may make this plausible, the view from China may look quite different.

Jeune Afrique recently had a large report on China in Africa, and took a much more skeptical view than most of the writing from English-language publications, perhaps reflecting a greater overall disillusionment with outside influence in Africa among those in the francophone world. In an interview with He Wenping, director of African Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, reporter Pascal Auaralt asks if there might be a lack of knowledge about Africa among many Chinese. He does not exactly defend her countrymen and women. She points out that there are only 20 students in her program, the largest African studies program in the country.

So the White House announced over the weekend that Barack Obama would make his first trip to Africa in July, a short stayover in Ghana. Why Ghana? It is democratic and relatively stable. But, all things considered, it is not a political or economic powerhouse on the continent compared to countries like Nigeria or South Africa.

This is definitely all about domestic politics for Obama. First black president at the Ghanaian slave castles? OH MY GOD THAT’S POIGNANT. I’m not even joking. Those slave castles are probably the greatest historical draw on the continent for African-American tourists.

Still, surely there could be a visit to Africa that is about more than just a photo op. TexasinAfrica has some suggestions:

It’s interesting, though, that American presidents actively avoid conflict when traveling to Africa. This can’t all be attributed to security issues; presidents regularly travel to Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel-Palestine, and any number of other places where they’re much more likely to be assassinated. Why do they do this? Part of it has to do with a general fear of “Africa” on the part of the Secret Service, etc. But the postcolonial legacy also plays a role. African countries are generally viewed by American policymakers as immature basket cases, not as functional states. In some cases this is a fair assessment; in others, it is not.

More importantly, however, is the impact that a presidential visit could have on a less-than-perfect situation in a place like Kenya or Uganda, or, dare I say it, the Congo. If anything could force disputing parties to the table in most African countries, it’s a visit from Barack Obama. His presence alone would attract such a degree of attention and respect that serious, high-level negotations could occur. Here’s hoping the president will choose to take a risk on his next visit to the continent.

There are a proliferation of blogs by non-Africans about Africans. Some are written by freelance journalists and contracted correspondents, while others are by academics in African studies and international development and aid, and still more by NGO and aid workers. It is rare that you see non-Africans who write about Africa talk about local press and general local literary society. In fact, I can’t think of one blog that I read about Africa written by a non-African that makes me feel like I’m reading part of the same discussion contained in local newspapers published here in Johannesburg.

Of course, this is not just true for blogs but for general international correspondence. A case in point is the way the formation of new president Jacob Zuma’s cabinet was covered by both local and international press. From an international perspective the focus was solely on then-Finance Minister Trevor Manuel. These same sources were, if not satisfied, then at least cautiously optimistic about the news that Manuel would be the head of the new planning commission in the presidency. I wish I had kept a screen shot from the day, but on Sunday, the basic gist of BBC online’s headline about the announcement of Zuma’s cabinet was “Manuel In.” Similarly, the Economist magazine has as its headline on South Africa — one of four stories to make it in to this week’s Middle East and Africa section — “Who Will Call The Economic Shots?

The most-watched post in Mr Zuma’s new cabinet is the finance minister, who for the past 13 years has been the fiscally conservative, well-respected Trevor Manuel. South Africa’s business establishment and foreign investors have been nervous lest Mr Zuma, as a sop to his many vocal supporters on the left, would get rid of him. The trade unions and the South African Communist Party, both boosters of Mr Zuma on his way to power, have long complained that the National Treasury under Mr Manuel had become too powerful.

So there was an early frisson when Mr Zuma shifted him to another post. But the new president may have been displaying his instinct to try to please all sides. Mr Manuel may have even more authority in his new job as head of a new national planning commission. Along with another minister in the presidency, Collins Chabane, he will oversee the implementation of overall policy—from Mr Zuma’s office. “Manuel understands government very well and therefore he has been given that task,” says the president. The commission, he notes, is a “very powerful structure”.

This issue has also been given great importance in local media, particularly so in publications like Business Day, which have a specialty audience with an interest in the story. However, there is much more to the debate about the new South African cabinet than just the fate of Trevor Manuel in local media. The weekly Mail & Guardian leads with “Zuma’s Cabinet, Inc.” as this week’s print headline. The story is about the many business interests of which a number of cabinet ministers, including Tokyo Sexwale, and deputy ministers must divorce themselves now that they have assumed their government posts. Another intriguing story is the fate of acting head of the National Prosecuting Authority Mokotedi Mpshe and Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi, carried today by Business Day.

If these two stories have a common thread, it’s a preoccupation with the integrity of the institutions of democracy in South Africa. While this was a cursory preoccupation of many international news sources, particularly during the Zuma corruption saga, I think local press finds this a more durable concern worthy of attention. Economic policy is an important concern, but not the only one.

I know that most international news sources have little space for news from Africa, and so what does make it out to the rest of the world will be distilled and boiled down to a startling degree. Still, the Internet has allowed for a particularly wide range of writing about Africa, as well as for a greater level of intertextuality between local and international writing about any given place.

I would be curious, then, to see how international journalists, academics, and other bloggers might make better use of the kinds of homegrown analysis and ways of talking about a place that are the more exclusive domain of local press. The one example I can think of, in this regard, is BBC’s occasional practice of posting local articles about a given subject that they also cover online. Across the board, though, more can be done. What are the impediments to a greater role for local press in international coverage of countries in Africa?

I’m not a big reader of travel writing, per se. Most of the books that I’ve read that are sold in such a section in bookstores are more like outsider or insider accounts of a given country or place rather than accounts of a specific trip through a specific geographic space. Books like Giles Tremlett’s Ghosts of Spain, and Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul are two of my favorite “travel” books, but both of those authors actually live in the respective places about which they write. I mention those two examples because they write with a particular sense of understanding and empathy that marks the best travel writing — both books grab the reader and inspire an emotional connection to the place about which they write, warts and all.

When it comes to modern travel writing Paul Theroux is probably the biggest name by far. He travels all over the world, maybe just by train, maybe just by boat, and tells readers about literary and political luminaries wherever he lays down his head. My friend Alex gifted me his copy of Dark Star Safari, Theroux’s account of traveling through Africa earlier this decade. I was interested to get to this, as I had studied a number of accounts written by early Western explorers in Africa in Professor Timothy Burke‘s class called “Image of Africa.”

In Safari, Theroux meanders from Cairo to Cape Town, including stops in Sudan (pre-genocide), Ethiopia, Uganda, Malawi, and Mozambique. To many readers’ eyes, given Theroux’s narrative here, this trek is just a series of godforsaken hellholes. Corrupt government, dependent locals, and useless foreign aid workers are the characters that populate much of this text. While it is clearly no academic document, Theroux occasionally makes wry observations about foreign aid, but too often poisons it with his ubiquitous arrogance and lack of empathy. Beyond dispute is Theroux’s contention that foreign aid workers don’t necessarily help those in need to help themselves. Still, foreign aid workers have noble intentions, brave treacherous circumstances, and, at the end of the day, usually bring much needed aid (i.e. help). It seems — as some older South African relative who I may just be imagining might say — a little rich for Theroux to take on foreign aid workers while he goes across Africa writing an erotic novella and reading and rereading Heart of Darkness for inspiration.

For Theroux, Africa is a soapbox that he should realize has rather shaky foundations for the methods he uses to draw his conclusions. He notes not one positive cultural experience throughout the entire trip. No music. No African writers (beyond the South African Nobel-winning novelist Nadine Gordimer). I don’t necessarily blame him for his frustrations. Travel in any developing country is difficult, and there is no disputing that most African countries are in bad economic, and even societal straights. Still, to condemn these people to their destitution without a ray of hope in sight requires a more worthwhile approach to purely anecdotal observation.

Theroux suffers the fate of many a Western observer who aims for the crucible of Africa (like his beloved Conrad) — a loss of the capacity for empathy, and ultimate disgust. I picked up a free copy of Tim Butcher’s new book Blood River: A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart at WHYY. It might be hard for Butcher to avoid a similar sense of disgust, as Congo is once again in the news as one of the most messed up places on earth. Maybe he managed to catch a little soukous?

Does anyone know of a travelogue of anywhere in Africa that somehow avoids these pitfalls? Please let me know.