TAZARA IS MORE THAN JUST A RAILWAY TO US
China should always have a very important strategic position in Zambia’s international relations. And in our relationship with China, the Tanzania-Zambia Railway is an economic infrastructure of great historical, moral and political significance.
In today’s world, propelled by imperialist lies and propaganda, the history, purpose, and importance of this railway should be explained to our people, especially the younger generations, to help them understand China’s altruistic motives for its aid to us and other African countries. It should also help expose imperialist lies about so-called Chinese colonialism in Africa.
The earliest idea of building the Tanzania-Zambia Railway can be traced back to the British colonial era. At the end of the 19th century, the British imperialist or colonialist Cecil John Rhodes put forward a plan to build a “2C” railway running through the north and south of Africa, which was the earliest idea for the TAZARA Railway.
Due to two world wars and also for other reasons, the “2C” railway project fell silent for nearly 50 years. In the late 1940s, the United Kingdom began to renew its interest in the TAZARA Railway, led by the British Colonial Office and jointly funded by the United Kingdom and the United States. The initial survey was carried out in 1952. The survey report said that from the perspective of engineering construction, the project did not have any obvious difficulties and could definitely be revitalised. But, “Unless the necessary development is carried out in the area along the railway, the railway will not be worth building”, it said. The British did not immediately take any further action out of a motivation to divide and control the colonies and consolidate the original ruling order.
In the 1960s, African national liberation movements brought the issue of independence to a climax. Tanzania and Zambia gained independence in 1961 and 1964, respectively. After the independence of the two countries, they not only faced the historical task of developing their national economies and consolidating the achievements of independence, but also of continuing to fight against the remnants of colonialism and realise the final independence of the whole of Africa.
It was under these circumstances that the plan to build the railway was put back on the agenda. President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania had high hopes for it and believed that “when the railway is completed, not only Zambia will benefit, but Tanzania will also benefit . . . not only that, the whole of Africa will benefit from this railway”. It was believed that the railway would strengthen Zambia, which in turn would strengthen the power of freedom, and trade among African countries would become more convenient.
As a landlocked, or rather land-linked country, Zambia was facing a more severe situation. Copper mines were its pillar industry. It was believed that if you controlled the passage of copper to the sea, you would control Zambia. Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda envisioned before independence to find another railway leading to the Indian Ocean besides the Rhodesian one. This railway would start in the central part of northern Zambia, go around Kapiri Mposhi, pass through the newly independent Tanzania, and finally reach the Indian Ocean. At the end of October 1970, the construction of TAZARA – a landmark project of China’s solidarity with Africa – officially began.
In the 1960s, when the two countries were repeatedly denied loans from the West to support the project, they turned their hopes to China. But due to the large amount of financial investment required, there were initial doubts within the Communist Party of China’s Central Committee about whether China could manage to provide the required assistance. However, Premier Zhou Enlai – who established China’s new foreign aid work – stressed that it was China’s inescapable internationalist duty to assist African countries.
According to Zhou, “Concentrating efforts to aid the construction of such a large project will not only be of great significance to the two countries of Tanzania and Zambia, but will also play an important role in supporting the liberation of southern Africa.” The railway could help landlocked Zambia access the Indian Ocean, facilitate trade between African countries, and weaken colonialist and imperialist control.
At the decision-making stage, Zhou diligently studied the aid plan with Minister of Railways Lu Zhengcao and affirmed China’s position to Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere. “After the railroad is completed, sovereignty will belong to you and Zambia,” he said, adding, “We will also teach you about the technology.”
China’s positive stance, unlike that of the West, eventually led to an agreement in principle. During the construction phase, Zhou also relied on several years of domestic railway construction experience to solve various challenges in railroad exploration, construction, and loan repayment schemes, which ensured the project’s smooth progress.
TAZARA took six years to complete, with China sending more than 50,000 workers, 70 of whom sacrificed their lives. China’s support for the railway’s construction not only countered doubts about the country’s strength and technological capability, but also helped gain firm political support from African countries. Today, TAZARA is a landmark project of China’s aid to Tanzania, Zambia and Africa in general.
Starting by supporting the national liberation movements and promoting friendly cooperation between China and Africa, Chairman Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai resolutely decided to aid in the construction of TAZARA when Tanzania and Zambia’s pleas for help were repeatedly rejected by the West.
Zhou Enlai played a key role in the decision-making process of aiding the construction of TAZARA. He not only listened to the opinions of relevant departments and carried out administrative mobilisation, but also provided decision-making information for Chairman Mao and the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. He not only had to develop in-depth contacts with Tanzania, but also work with Zambian leaders. At the stage of railway construction, in order to make the railway meet the requirements of Tanzania and Zambia, Zhou Enlai instructed the Ministry of Railways to send elite soldiers and generals to conduct surveys. At key points of the negotiations between the three countries, he presided over the overcoming of technical difficulties, raised domestic forces to support the railway construction and strengthened foreign aid workers’ education. TAZARA was therefore not only a railway to freedom for African national independence and development, but also a historical monument to China-Africa friendship.
TAZARA is therefore more than just a railway to us. It is an emotional, moral and great symbol of our friendship with China, built on the immense sweat of more than 50,000 Chinese workers, the supreme sacrifice by 70 Chinese workers who lost their lives, and the immeasurable efforts of Chinese leaders like Chairman Mao and Premier Zhou Enlai, among others. This should never be forgotten, and for these reasons all effort must be made to revitalise and modernise TAZARA and put it to the most efficient, effective, and orderly use. It must be an important part of today’s Belt and Road Initiative.
President of the Socialist Party Zambia