South Africa

South Africa

UK/SA diplomatic weather: Cold, danger of frostbite

UK/SA diplomatic weather: Cold, danger of frostbite

On Sunday the Presidency was forced to issue a statement denying that President Jacob Zuma had decided to cancel his planned trip to the UK because of a perceived snub by British Prime Minister David Cameron. Both the Sunday Times and the City Press had front page stories claiming Cameron had refused to meet with Zuma, and Zuma, partly in a huff and partly for logistical reasons (i.e. who pays for security when a visit is not “official”) had decided not to go. While both the Presidency and International Relations are going to deny there was any snub, it is clear the official relationship between our government and that of the UK has been cooling for some time. Now it’s officially frosty, and we have mostly ourselves to blame. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

On Thursday last week the Presidency officially confirmed that President Zuma would be going to the UK to take part in what’s called the “InnovaBRICS” conference. Why it was to be in London has never been properly explained, but perhaps the choice of location meant that Comrade Vladimir Putin had refused to come. Then, just a day later, came the statement that Zuma was to “skip” the conference and that he was confident the other ministers going would be able to represent the country… you know the rest.

There is plenty that is odd about this statement. If the visit was publicly announced, presumably planning was at an advanced stage. To cancel just a day after the announcement surely means that something has gone wrong. And then there’s wording of the statement itself. To use the word “skip”, in the headline of the statement is an odd choice of words. Diplomacy has a language all of its own. “Skip” is not part of its vocabulary.

The other odd thing about this document is that no reason is given for not going. While there’s the usual guff about how Zuma is sure the visit by the other ministers will go well, it’s not explained why he himself is not going. In the same way that we knew our government was pissed off as hell with the Nigerians because it neglected to thank them for their help after the church collapse there, here we suspect that there is a diplomatic issue, because the reason for the cancellation is not given.

There isn’t even an attempt to give a reason like “other commitments” or “health reasons”.

And then there’s the context in which this happening.

Just a few weeks ago Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba confirmed that British diplomatic officials coming here would need to get visas first. This is part of a row that’s been going on for years. It’s basically part of a tit-for-tat reprisal because Britain since 2010 requires that South Africans going there must get visas first. Our government knows insisting on visas for British tourists will hurt our markets, and so it’s going this route, rather than insisting on visas for British tourists.

While our government (and many South Africans who have to pay for a visa) are hugely irked at this, it’s important to remember that they had been warned for years that there were problems with our passports. It wasn’t just a willy-nilly decision; it was because Britain was worried about terrorism. And while there is a conversation to have about whether that claim is justified, the fact is our Home Affairs department did nothing to solve the problem. In the end the visas were enforced. And we, of course, are still stung by that.

Then there’s the 2013 decision by Cameron’s government to cut some of the aid it gives to South Africa. Essentially the decision was that new projects wouldn’t be funded; the old ones funded by the UK would continue to receive money. Our government massively over-reacted to this. International Relations spokesperson Clayson Monyela talked about how this was “tantamount to redefining our relationship”. In short, it seemed that the claim from Pretoria was that it was “our money” that was being cut. Which is, of course, bollocks. It was never our money, it was their money, and they had decided, of their own free will, to give it to us. If they then wanted to change that decision, they were perfectly within their rights to. Of course you could argue that Britain had a moral duty to give South Africa money, because of our history. But there was certainly no legal duty; any money that came was probably because of a sense – well-placed, perhaps – of guilt. But that is all. And guilt generally doesn’t drive foreign policy.

At the same time, the Brits are quite within their rights to look at where their development budget is going, and ask if we are really the best place to spend it. After all, our economy is growing (albeit slowly), most citizens receive enough money to live (barely) and we are not as poor as many other places that need the money more than we do. And there may also, just perhaps, be concerns about where the money is actually going, once it’s sent to South Africa. If we can spend over R230 million on a house for just one man, are we really the best place to give aid money to?

Foreign policy, as my history teacher told me more than once, begins at home (I’ve always suspected it wasn’t his line originally). At some point, you have to ask: what would be the domestic political benefit to Cameron of seeing Zuma, even briefly?

Even if there were very little benefit, Cameron might consider seeing him just as a courtesy. But our government doesn’t appear to go out of its way to treat his government with much courtesy. And sometimes we come across as just downright silly.

It’s no secret that in diplomatic circles there is some competition to have the biggest, best – and, vitally – attended by the most important players – party ahead of the opening of Parliament in Cape Town. Every year the British High Commission puts in tons of effort (and money) and usually scores. It helps that they have a fantastic property in the city for the occasion. This year, just ten days before Parliament was to be re-opened after the elections, the date of Zuma’s speech was changed. This is the kind of thing that is planned months in advance. It was sheer ineptitude on the part of somebody that the date had to be changed. The Brits went ahead with their party on the date that they had originally planned. But it surely must have felt a little flat. This is the kind of tiny thing that adds up over time. And it certainly doesn’t show us in a positive light.

This little fracas will blow over, and we’ll all move happily along to the next scandal, Zuma or otherwise. But it is clear that our relationship with the UK is now distinctly frosty. It’s probably up to us to ensure it doesn’t become frozen. DM

South African President Jacob Zuma (R) reacts to a point by British Prime Minister David Cameron (L) during a joint press conference at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, South Africa, 18 July 2011. Cameron is leading a two-day working visit with a large business delegation with the goal of doubling trade between the two countries by 2015. EPA/JON HRUSA


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