Whither South Africa-UK relations?

2013-05-21 00:00

THE SA ambassador to the UK and former minister of Social Development, Zola Skweyiya, arrived in London in 2009, a few months after the UK government had decided to impose visa requirements for South Africans travelling to the UK. Much has been done to revive relations, including a presidential state visit in 2009, and political dialogue sessions at official and ministerial levels.

Things looked like they were improving in the past two years. However, as Skweyiya’s term ends, relations have descended to another low, due to the UK decision to cut aid to South Africa in 2015, which was announced earlier this month.

Skweyiya will look back and wonder what he could have done to avoid this anti-climax in his short diplomatic career. He represented a wise move on the part of the president in sending a very senior figure, who enjoys the ear of the president and has the political stature, in order to signal to the UK that SA takes it seriously.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that Skweyiya worked hard to strengthen relations, including being able to draw President Jacob Zuma into a rare state visit outside of the Bric and African countries within a few months of Zuma’s presidency.

Skweyiya is said to have been open to engaging with business from both sides and thinkers who influence UK policy circles. He has battled against the tide of freezing politics in the UK, following the election of a Conservative Party-dominated coalition government and major changes in its international priorities, in which SA hardly featured.

The 2008 decision shocked South Africans, who travel in large numbers to the UK. It dismayed the SA government as it indicated that the UK had a low opinion of our immigration control and security systems, and therefore the integrity of our travel documents. This was partly triggered by news headlines about forged SA passports landing in the hands of international terrorists at a time when the UK was still reeling from the shock of the London bombings.

The decision caused South Africa to look closely again at its immigration and security systems and standards in terms of citizenship documents. It identified gaps in the system and set about finding innovative and technology-based solutions, including a better use of biometric instruments. This was all for the benefit of SA citizens.

The decision to discontinue the allocation of Official Development Assistance (ODA), or aid, to South Africa, was ostensibly because the country is a middle-income country that is a member of the Brics and the G20. The government threw tantrums, not about the decision per se, but how it was communicated. The government felt that this should have been discussed through proper diplomatic channels first, before the public was informed. At this point, it seemed that the SA-UK relations had not become as warm as we had assumed. How otherwise do you explain the fact that the two governments did not formally discuss this? Of course, the UK has dismissed this, indicating that they did inform SA.

With regards to the visa regime, it has emerged that the two countries are in discussion to remove the visa requirement again, while SA is also threatening reciprocating, by requiring UK citizens to get a visa for SA travel. Such an action would most likely sink relations even lower. Businesses and travellers already suffer, and they will suffer more.

The ODA matter can be easily resolved by getting both parties around the table to discuss the motive of this and modalities. Skweyiya is likely to have started conversations in London about this.

But the SA-UK relations have gone beyond the level where the two countries do damage control and crisis management. It is time that the relationship is redefined, as it is due for a reset. This would need someone of the calibre of Skweyiya to draw the countries towards a frank and candid discussion about the current state of things and how the future looks.

Such a discussion must bring out the deep-seated suspicions and mistrust in order to lay the basis for a lasting and elevated relationship. SA also needs to work closely with NGOs, such as the homecoming movement and others, as well as business formations, in this regard.

This looks unlikely to happen before our elections next year, so Skweyiya will have to watch from the sidelines like the rest of us. This will place a huge burden on Zuma to choose a new envoy carefully, with the sophistication needed to work this revival of relations, energy and will. One hopes that it will not be a reckless political deployment.

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