Zuma's UK visit

2010-03-09 00:00

PRESIDENT Jacob Zuma’s first state visit to the United Kingdom last week was high profile for both good and bad reasons. There was as much publicity for Zuma’s personal morality as there was for propects of revitalised relations between the two countries.

Actually, days before Zuma landed in London, sections of the media at home and in the UK were speculating that polygamy and children born out of wedlock would mar Zuma’s diplomatic mission.

In the process, indications that South Africa is consolidating relations deemed strategic for economic and political reasons were largely ignored. These prospects arise from Zuma’s willingness to strengthen relations that serve South Africa’s economic interests and in the process de-emphasise disagreements on political questions like Zimbabwe, nuclear nonproliferation and Iraq. This attitude to bilateral diplomacy gives meaning to the fact that the Department of Foreign Affairs was changed to the Department of International Relations and Co-operation.

The UK is no ordinary partner for South Africa. It is a former colonial power with strong economic and cultural links with South Africa. London was a major centre of international solidarity with the struggle against apartheid. Many white South Africans hold British passports. Even larger numbers of British citizens frequent South Africa as tourists, while some work and live in South Africa temporarily. South African emigrants in their hundreds of thousands live and work in the UK. Some South Africans hold senior positions in British companies.

The volume of trade between the two countries rose by 173% between 1997 and 2008, making the UK South Africa’s largest trading partner. The UK is the largest source of international tourists who account for significant cash flows into South Africa. There are a number of UK companies doing business in South Africa in almost all sectors of the economy. After the dawn of democracy, a number of South African conglomerates were also listed on the London Stock Exchange.

As Zuma pointed out in his speech to the British parliament, the two countries have co-operated on a range of important international issues, including climate change, energy security, Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and education. Both countries are active in the G20, which is a new platform for agenda setting globally comprising developed countries and emerging powers like Brazil, India and South Africa. Relations with the UK enable South Africa to play its bridge-builder role between the developed and developing world with reasonable prospects of success.

Of course, the two countries have in the past allowed disagreements over issues like the role of the UN Security Council and international finance institutions, Zimbabwe and Iraq to affect relations negatively. Zuma’s visit was aimed at rejuvenating relations by emphasising areas of agreement and engaging in mature dialogue on those on which they disagree, especially Zimbabwe. So, Zuma had one mission in mind: to reinvigorate relations between the two countries and thus establish a sound basis for South Africa’s position as a consensus actor in global affairs.

It is risky to attach too much importance to the declaration signed by the British prime minister, Gordon Brown, and Zuma, given the fact that Brown’s Labour Party is likely to lose the imminent general elections to the Conservatives.

Yet, it is an important indication of the broad set of a substantive menu of issues to inform stronger SA-UK relations. Joint work on the reform of global-governance institutions like the UN, IMF and the World Bank is one such issue. This entails co-operating in strengthening the capacity of the G20 to make this a reality.

A new initiative unveiled involves the two countries co-operating in making the improvement of educational outcomes the centre of the global agenda in the same way that United States initiatives have made health outcomes a major international issue.

The two countries also share a commitment to making regional integration work. The UK committed £67 million towards improving transport infrastructure, while South Africa committed to open a one-stop border post with Zimbabwe to reduce costs associated with intra-regional trade.

The points of convergence over Zimbabwe clearly lie in the two countries’ commitment to see free and fair elections at the end of the transitional inclusive government currently in place. They also both condemned continued harassment of dissenting groups and individuals in Zimbabwe. The two countries also committed to explore ways of encouraging positive change in Zimbabwe.

Lastly, they agreed to strengthen people-to-people linkages through educational exchange and the establishment of a Next Generation Forum for young people from both countries.

This menu of issues of agreement provides a good basis for the actual work on relations and co- operation that must happen in the coming years. Ultimately, it is how rejuvenated SA-UK relations contribute to South Africa’s fight against poverty and inequality at home that will count. This should come from stronger trade and exchanges on education.

Work on this will require more than government efforts to succeed. Non-state actors need to find space for themselves in this work, even if it is to monitor and evaluate work that is done by state and business in this regard.

• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue, but writes in his personal capacity.

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