One of the marvels of the 1960s and 70s that to date still commands a measure of prestige is the Tanzania-Zambia Railways (TAZARA). Dubbed the Rainbow of Friendship, not only for its engineering genius that it incorporated but was also at the time – the third largest single project by any foreign power in Africa after the Aswan Dam (Egypt) and the Volta Dam (Ghana).
The more politically informed may recall that Dr Kenneth Kaunda was turned down by the very people that are today championing anti-China sentiments-the West as he sought a solution to an easier way to export copper given the volatile political situation in Southern Rhodesia where Ian Douglas Smith had operationalized his Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI). Dr Kaunda went shopping for a solution everywhere and was rudely turned down. Zambia was in a fix as even the Angola route through the Benguela Railway was not safe given the volatile political situation in that country.
The Benguela Railway was a possible choice of a route for copper exports however it ran through Angola which was a Portuguese province that was fighting an escalating war of independence against colonial rule and that line was often closed as a result.
So in 1964 Kaunda commissioned the World Bank to investigate the possibility of building a railway through Tanzania (formerly Tanganyika, which had gained independence in 1961) to the port of Dar es Salaam, on the east coast of Africa.
The Bank’s report found that the building of the railway was not an economic proposition and suggested building a highway instead. You heard that right, the ever patronizing World Bank proposed a highway instead! This did not satisfy Kaunda and he approached the western democracies to finance and execute the project. Only Britain and Canada showed an interest and followed up with an aerial survey jointly undertaken and although the scheme was considered to be viable from an engineering standpoint, it failed to gain sufficient financial backing. This was a blow to Kaunda, who was a West leaning moderate, but things had already come to a head over Rhodesian UDI the previous year and Zambia was forced to choose its stance, which was to become a front line state against the White supremacists to the south.
Having failed to get a donor from the West, President Kaunda travelled to Peking (now Beijing) during June 1967 and received an offer from the Chinese to finance and build the TAN-ZAM Railway as a “turnkey project”.
Zambian and Tanzanian Ministers flew to Peking and on the 5th September 1967 and formally signed a deal with the Chinese.
Few developmental projects have been so highly politically charged as the TAN-ZAM Railway as the international repercussions reverberated far beyond the borders of the two states concerned.
White controlled southern Africa and the West saw the project as an attempt by China to subvert Southern and Central Africa. That is all they saw after having turned KK down. By the way KK is still alive to tell his story which he has repeatedly shared with the world several times before.
In fact the Chinese did not seek immediate political gain out of the venture.
By not making any political demands China gained considerable prestige and goodwill in Africa and when the project was completed two years ahead of schedule its prestige was further enhanced.
Peking called the Railway a “Rainbow of Friendship” and it helped to align Tanzania and Zambia with China in the Third World bloc.
The Tanzania-Zambia Railway Authority was established in March 1968, with survey and design work being carried out by the Chinese between October 1968 and May 1970. In July 1970 China offered an interest free loan of Yaun 988 million (around US $ 500 million) to be repaid in thirty years, which would cover the costs of construction, supporting infrastructure, motive power, rolling stock and staff training.