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Tanzania - TANZAM Railway

In undertaking to build the Tanzam railway, linking Zambia's copper belt with the Tanzanian coast 1,100 miles away, Peking embarked on its first major showcase project in Africa. To cover the Chinese contribution Peking extended a $400 million, 30-year interest-free credit -- the largest ever extended to the Third World by a Communist country.

China was determined to outspend the Soviet Union and the rest of the international community in Africa to raise its stature on the world stage. The Tan-Zam Railway, completed in 1975, between Tanzania and Zambia, was but one of the visible reminders of this effort. China also supported African liberation movements in contravention of Western policies and in competition with the Soviets.

China's decision to plunge ahead was probably based on its appraisal of the railroad's strategic and political importance rather than its economic potential. Zambia and Tanzania had been by far the leading supporters of the liberation movements directed against southern Africa. The completed road gave Zambia access to the sea through a friendly country, in place of the traditional routes through Rhodesia and Mozambique or through Angola. By thus reducing Zambia's vulnerability to economic retaliation for its aid to guerrillas operating in the south, the project was expected to contribute directly to the revolutionary,”anti-imperialist struggle”.

Moreover China's leaders were not unaware of the opportunity the Tanzam afforded to score points against the Western powers: China's offer to build the road came less than a year after the World Bank had turned it down. But the Tanzam must be viewed as a special exception in Chinese foreign aid practice, and there was no reason to think Peking's leaders were looking about for other expensive projects, or that they intend to raise their aid outlays to a level which would preempt other aid donors in Africa.

The TAZARA Railway, also called the Tanzam Railway, runs 1,860.5 km between Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and Kapiri Mposhi in Zambia. It was a capital-intensive aid project undertaken by China in East Africa in the 1960s and 70s, and to date remains one of the country’s largest engineering projects completed abroad. Surveying and design kicked off in May 1968, and construction started in October 1970. The rail line was completed and handed over to local authorities in July 1976.

There was an urgent need to build a new transportation line in order to develop their national economies, support the people of the Southern African region in their just struggle against imperialism, colonialism and for national liberation, as well as to overcome their dependence on the sea route in the south which was under the control of the white racist regime of South Africa and Southern Rhodesia. Tanzania and Zambia first attempted to seek assistance from major powers in the West and the former Soviet Union. They were, however, turned down. In February 1965, President Nyerere of Tanzania made his first visit to China. During talks with the Chinese leaders, he expressed the desire of requesting China to assist the construction of the Tanzania-Zambia railway. Proceeding from the strategic perspective of providing support to the African countries in their efforts to win and safeguard national independence and to develop their national economies as well as of actively boosting the friendly cooperation between China and the third world countries, the Chinese leaders agreed to the request to construct such a railway.

In June 1967, President Kaunda of Zambia visited China. During his stay in China, he also sounded out the opinion of the Chinese Government on the construction of such a railway. The Chinese side expressed in explicit terms that so long as the Presidents of Tanzania and Zambia were determined to do so, China was ready to invest in the construction of this railway. At the same time, the Chinese side emphasized this was a support to the African people in their struggles against imperialism, colonialism and for national independence and assist the African countries to develop their national economies and to consolidate their national independence. Shortly after President Kaunda visited China, the Governments of Tanzania and Zambia sent government delegations to China to discuss the related matters. In September 1967, the government delegations of China, Tanzania and Zambia held talks in Beijing and formally signed the "Agreement of the Government of the People's Republic of China, the Government of the United Republic of Tanzania and the Government of the Republic of Zambia on the Construction of the Tanzania-Zambia Railway".

The Tanzania-Zambia Railway is one of the biggest complete sets of projects China had ever undertaken in overseas aid items. This 1860-kilometer long rail-road starts from Dar es Salaam in the East Which is the capital of Tanzania and ends in Kapri Mposhi in Zambia in the West. Chinese experts and engineering technicians did all the work of exploration, survey and designing and they also assisted the Tanzania and Zambia governments to organize the execution of the construction. Some sections of the railroad ran through some high mountains, valleys, torrential rivers, dense and primitive forest.

Some sections of the rail-road bed and the foundation of the bridges and tunnels were swampy mud and drifting sand. Besides, many areas along the railway construction site were stretches of desolate and uninhabited land where wild animals roamed about. In other words, the project was collosal and involving complicated techniques and the construction was carried out under the most difficult conditions. Altogether 320 bridges have been built totalling 16,520 meters in length; there are 22 tunnels and the total length is 8898 meters; 93 stations were built with a total floor space of 376 thousand square meters.

The surveying and designing of this project started in May 1968, and its construction began in October 1970. The whole project was completed and handed over in July 1976. To build this railway, the Chinese Government provided an interest-free loan of 988 million RMB yuan and shipped about 1 million tons of equipments and materials. The number of technicians and workers dispatched for the construction was about 50 thousand, and at the peak period, the number of Chinese workers and staffs working at construction site were as many as 16 thousand. In the course of building this railway and in the technological cooperation thereafter, 64 people on the Chinese side laid down their precious lives. After its completion, the railway was handed over to the railway administration which was set up by Tanzania and Zambia to jointly run the railroad. Later on, in order to guarantee normal operation of the railway, China continued to provide interest-free loans, rendered technical assistance and cooperation and sent experts and technicians there to participate in the management or to provide consulting service. Up to the end of 1999, the total number of experts dispatched was close to 3 thousand.

It is no exaggeration to say that China exerted all its strength – in terms of manpower, materials and funds – to build this railway. The country was hard-up in those years, but still shouldered the whole cost of its construction, including transport of 50,000 technical personnel, accommodation for Chinese engineers and workers in Africa, and employment of 50,000 to 60,000 local laborers. The official report cited a RMB 988 million no-interest loan from China to the two African countries, but the actual cost was much higher.

China shipped out more than 1.5 million tons of materials, including steel rail, cement and dynamite, and daily necessities, even though it suffered itself a dire shortage of all commodities. Chairman Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai nonetheless personally oversaw a nationwide mobilization to ensure that only the best-quality materials went to the project. Many factories – such as Wuhan Iron and Steel Plant – operated day and night to produce the stuff needed for the TAZARA.

Over the ensuing six years of the rail line’s construction, China deployed more than 50,000 engineers and technicians to East Africa, 16,000 of them working there at one point. China dispatched five ocean liners to ply between Guangzhou and Dar es Salaam to ferry them back and forth.

Although hundreds of interpreters accompanied the Chinese engineers and technicians in the two African countries, they were nevertheless insufficient by far, and communication with local workers remained a challenge. When mentoring local workers on rail technologies, the Chinese resorted to simple Chinese, a smattering of the local language, and mime. A 150-km stretch of the TAZARA in Tanzania traverses treacherous terrain where the track has to be almost entirely elevated on bridges or routed through cuttings. The muggy local climate swelters in the summer heat. Temperatures top 40oC. Tight schedules left truck drivers with few breaks. Long periods of overwork, high stress and inclement weather engendered skin diseases in many that festered alarmingly.

In July 1976, the TAZARA was completed and handed over to the two African countries. In the fiscal year from July 1, 1977 to June 30, 1978, it transported 1.27 million tons of cargo, marking the peak in its history. This aid project by China served two goals. First was boosting the economic development of regions along the rail line and hence that of the two host countries. Second was breaking the economic blockade imposed by racists in South Africa by opening up a safe route for cargo transport in Zambia as well as supporting the countries in the southern part of the continent that had not yet won independence to achieve it. The TAZARA accomplished its mission in both senses. By the end of 2013 the rail line had transported more than 28 million tons of goods and 46 million passengers.

On the African side, however, when local technicians retired, the number of candidates qualified to replace them proved insufficient. As equipment and infrastructure aged over time, the government of neither nation appropriated the funds requisite for upgrades. As a result, the line now sees less use than before. In the 2012-13 period, total freight stood at a mere 218,000 tons, just 17 percent of its peak volume.

After its completion, the Tanzania-Zambia railway becsme a major truck line of communication linking the two countries. It smashed the blockade by the then racist regime of South Africa and provided Zambia with a new and reliable route to the sea, thereby ensuring the major source of its income. For more than 20 years, the Tanzania-Zambia railway has helped boost the economic development of the two countries and promote the flow of commodities between the cities and the countryside. Newly emerged towns along the railway line have become political, economic and cultural centers in their respective localities. In addition, the railway also played a positive role in supporting the struggle for national liberation in Southern Africa.

Nyerere spoke highly of it and he said that China's assistance in constructing the Tanzania-Zambia railway is a "great contribution to the African people", "in past history, construction of railways by foreigners in Africa was for the purpose of plundering the wealth of Africa, while the Chinese did it just the opposite, to help us in developing our national economy". President Kaunda praised the project and said that "a friend in need is a friend in deed. When we were in most difficult time, it was China who rendered assistance to us. The people of Tanzania and Zambia and even the whole of Africa praised this railway as "the road to freedom" and a "model for south-south cooperation".

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Page last modified: 14-02-2018 18:14:31 ZULU