South Africa

Analysis: Britain and South Africa – an old, occasionally grumpy couple

By Rebecca Davis 10 September 2013

UK Foreign Secretary William Hague took a short breather from tearing his non-existent hair out over Syria on Tuesday, when he jetted in to Cape Town for the tenth UK-South Africa Bilateral Forum. This year the two governments have had some rather fractious exchanges over Britain’s decision to cut aid to South Africa, making the whole prospect more interesting than normal. But the two issues many were hoping for progress on – aid and the question of visas for South Africans to the UK – weren’t the subject of any firm declarations by Hague and DIRCO Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane. By REBECCA DAVIS.

The last time the UK and South Africa met for one of their biannual Bilateral Forums was in London in June 2011, when they “renew[ed] existing vows”, like an old married couple, and set “challenging new targets”. In particular, they wanted to see bilateral trade double between the UK and South Africa by 2015, but perhaps the economic outlook seemed rosier back then.

Since then, Foreign Minister William Hague paid one previous visit to South Africa, in February this year, where he gave a speech to students at the University of the Western Cape reinforcing the length and depth of ties between the two countries. “We do have a lot of history between us,” Hague said. “Not all of it easy, and in the past not all of it good.” The same could be said for most marriages.

One of those less than easy moments came in May this year, when UK international development secretary Justine Greening announced that the UK would be pulling the plug on its aid programme to South Africa in 2015. The UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) maintained that they had been discussing this move with the South African government for “months”, so there was no way it could have come as a shock.

But South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) responded like a lover spurned, with spokesman Clayton Monyela claiming that DfID had not carried out “proper consultation”. Monyela said ominously that the UK’s decision to cut aid would be “tantamount to redefining our relationship”, even though that’s presumably precisely what the UK intended.

So it was always going to be interesting to see if any traces of that frostiness carried through to this week’s UK-South Africa Bilateral Forum. Monyela brought out some fightin’ talk in advance of the forum, telling Business Day last Friday that South Africa continued to take exception to the principle of the UK cutting aid to South Africa.

“The provision of the portion of GDP is a commitment held by the Group of 20 nations,” Monyela was quoted as saying. “It is not like we are saying they owe us. It is our money and they have committed to giving that money as aid…The issue between South Africa and the UK is also compounded by our history.”

Did South Africa play hardball with the UK over the aid issue? We don’t yet know: Hague told journalists after his meetings with Nkoana-Mashabane that that discussion had taken place separately between Justine Greening and Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan in Pretoria.

Realistically, however, it seems unlikely that Greening would deliver some radical about-turn on the question of the provision of aid. In a blog post just last week, she reiterated her conviction that cutting aid to South Africa was the right decision. “When your budget is protected, you need to work even harder to make sure that every pound counts for the British taxpayer,” Greening wrote. “That is why this year I announced the end of aid to India and South Africa as they have become more capable of financing their own development plans.”

Going into this week’s forum, the other issue that excited much discussion was the issue of visas for South African tourists to the UK. Implemented in 2009, these have been a bone of contention for South African officials – and ordinary South African citizens – for the past few years, with some grumbling that South Africa should adopt a “tit-for-tat” approach and require UK visitors to obtain visas too.

It was hoped that this forum might see a breakthrough on the matter – a hope that seemed vindicated by a tweet from Monyela on Tuesday morning. In response to a tweet stating: “RSA must address the visa problems, it’s not clear why we can’t enforce the same requirements”, Monyela tweeted back: “Expect some announcement”.

But Hague again made it clear to journalists that there would be none forthcoming. “Certainly, we recognise the progress made in enhancing border security processes and we look forward to deepening the co-operation in this area,” he said, and that was as good as it got.

Nkoana-Mashabane would say only that they were “giving [the issue] attention”.

But again, perhaps it was naïve to expect movement on this issue given the wider political undercurrents. Outgoing British High Commissioner Dame Nicola Brewer told the Financial Mail last week that South Africans shouldn’t get their hopes up in this regard, given that the UK faces a general election in 2015 in which immigration is expected to be one of the hottest issues.

Brewer did provide a glimmer of hope for the future, however: “Where we have made progress is that we have agreed we have shared long-term goals: no visas in either direction and improved border controls for both countries.”

So, no dramatic announcements on visas or aid (as yet, at least). What did they talk about? As ever on these bilateral platforms, they seem to have affirmed their mutual dependency: South Africa remains the UK’s sixth biggest trading partner globally; the UK remains South Africa’s seventh largest export market, and last year they sent more than 438,000 tourists our way, a growth of 9,9%. 2011’s stated aim of doubling trade by 2015 now looks unlikely, but not due to any lack of will, Nkoana-Mashabane was quick to state: “We haven’t managed because our economies are fully integrated into the global economy”, and thus suffering from the general downturn.

South Africa and the UK government have previously revealed different approaches to Syria, with South Africa siding with Russia, China, India, Indonesia, Argentina, Brazil and Italy at the G20 as being clearly opposed to military intervention. To journalists on Tuesday, Nkoana-Mashabane reiterated her government’s belief that the best road to finding a peaceful solution in Syria would be political rather than military, though she said that if chemical weapons existed, the international community needed to find a way, working through the UN, to destroy them.

Some areas of disagreement between the two countries’ approach to foreign policy matters was “inevitable”, Hague said. But the important thing was that both countries shared a determination to work together, to support democracy and to protect human rights.

Another issue that the two governments diverge on is their response to the Zimbabwean elections. Hague said the UK government had “grave concerns” about the recent elections. “They were certainly peaceful, which is good…but being credible and fair is another matter,” Hague said, suggesting that the UK would like to see an independent investigation on the matter.

Nkoana-Mashabane, representing the Cabinet which congratulated Zimbabwe on its “successful” elections, was taking more of a glass-half-full approach, stressing that more than 54% of Zimbabweans had come out to vote and suggesting that the question should be: “How do we work with the people of Zimbabwe as they move on?”

But like many couples who might bicker in private, South Africa and the UK were reluctant to air their dirty laundry in public on Tuesday. “We from the South African side are very much satisfied with the friendly and cordial way we have conducted our business today,” Nkoana-Mashabane said, referring to Hague as her “friend”.

From his side, Hague paid tribute to the “great diversity of our relationship”.

Next year will mark the 20-year anniversary of formal diplomatic relations between the ANC government and the UK. We can’t resist reminding you, at a time when the West’s relations with Africa may appear to be shifting, that the traditional 20-year anniversary gift is China. DM

Read more:

  • SA, UK trade target not on course, on IOL

Photo:  William Hague and Maite Nkoana-Mashabane (Reuters)

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