Britain’s belated charm offensive in Africa
British PM, Theresa May attempting a boogie with some pupils at a school in Cape Town, South Africa during her maiden African trip (AFP)
London, September 1, 2018 (AltAfrica)-JUST as actors should never work with animals, so politicians should probably never dance, at least in public. Nelson Mandela could carry it off. But Theresa May’s attempt at a boogie with some pupils at a school in Cape Town at the start of a three-day tour of the continent merely looked awkward—much like Britain’s wider relationship with Africa these days.
The prime minister’s visit this week to South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya, with 29 business people in tow, was another attempt to shore up Britain’s position in the post-Brexit world. With long-standing links to many sub-Saharan countries—a legacy, often, of colonial rule—if “Global Britain” can’t prosper in Africa then the outlook more generally will be pretty bleak. Thus one of Mrs May’s first announcements was that Britain had succeeded in rolling over the current trade deal that the European Union has with Mozambique and the South African Customs Union (comprising South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia and eSwatini, formerly known as Swaziland) to Britain when it leaves the EU.
To strengthen Britain’s hand in Africa, Mrs May promised a further £4bn ($5.2bn) in support for the continent. Most of this will be channelled through CDC, the government’s overseas investment arm, reflecting a shift in priorities away from spending on poverty reduction and towards creating more businesses. The prime minister also promised more help in areas where Britain has acknowledged strengths. In both Kenya and Nigeria, British armed forces have been involved in combating Islamist insurgencies.
As Lord Boateng, a former high commissioner to South Africa, pointed out, Britain is “late to the party”. In the past decade, other countries have been more proactive in extending their influence in Africa. This is partly reflected in the number of diplomatic missions that countries maintain on the continent. Britain has 31, and is due to open two new ones in Niger and Chad. But Germany has 39, China 46 and America 49. France says it has 42 in Sub-Saharan Africa alone. In July, India announced that it would open 18 new embassies. Turkey had just 12 in 2009; now it boasts 39.
“We have been visibly absent, and the Africans notice this,” argues Nicholas Westcott, head of the Royal African Society, a British organisation which promotes the continent. More than in most places, personal connections matter. Whereas Mrs May’s trip was the first by a British prime minister to Africa since 2011 (excepting David Cameron’s dash to Nelson Mandela’s funeral in 2013), Emmanuel Macron has already visited eight African countries in his year and a bit as France’s president. China’s top leaders have made 79 trips to Africa since 2007. Britain has churned through six Africa ministers since 2012, to the exasperation of African diplomats.
All this adds up. Mrs May’s arrival made little impression in South Africa, where politicians are busy preparing for a China-Africa jamboree in Beijing. Africa’s trade with Britain is worth $36bn, a fifth the value of its trade with China and a tenth that of its trade with the EU. Britain still carries heft only in terms of aid, where it is more generous than almost anyone, and direct investment, where it lies just behind America (and aims to overtake it by 2022, Mrs May said).
Furthermore, the prime minister declined to fix Africans’ particular bugbear with Britain: the cost and difficulty of getting a visa to work, study or just go on holiday there. In South Africa Mrs May talked about “the partnerships and ideas that will bring benefits for generations to come”. That may ring hollow to the young Africans who have been turned away by the Home Office. The number of African students in Britain has fallen from 17,815 in 2012-13 to 13,990 in 2016-17. As one observer puts it, Britain puts on a smiling face but slams the door.