South Africa is an important regional partner for the UK, but one which it has too often taken for granted. That South Africa’s President Ramaphosa will undertake the first state visit of the new King is more down to practicality than strategy – longstanding plans were interrupted by COVID-19 – but it nonetheless comes at a critical moment in the bilateral relationship.
It brings with it the opportunity to build a new foundation for a relationship that has all too often been soured by acrimony and suspicion. Setting the right tone will be crucial. Most notably, London must avoid the temptation to lecture South Africa about its United Nations (UN) voting on Ukraine.
South Africa has signalled it feels Western powers’ ‘with us or against us’ approach on Ukraine has been disrespectful of their sovereign agency to determine their own position. The UK must be a good host and listen to its guests.
Partnership not preaching
South African reasons for neutrality are complicated: narratives of Soviet support for liberation are projected onto a lattice of personal relationships between some South African and Russian political and business leaders. More importantly, South Africa felt let down by the faltering response to calls for assistance from the West during COVID-19, including on vaccine distribution and manufacture at the height of the pandemic.
The South African government and citizens alike felt personally bruised by the UK’s red listing of South Africa for a second time in November 2021, in response to the Omicron variant – decimating the critical tourism sector for a second year in a row. Preaching at the visiting delegation will only widen the divide.
Instead, the state visit is an opportunity to supersede immediate geopolitical concerns and reset a historic, but often problematic relationship. It will give high level impetus to a fledgling operational partnership. A UK-South Africa bilateral forum was held in 2021 – the first for six years – and planning is ongoing for the next in 2023.
The UK South Africa chamber of commerce in London is growing in success, and a new All Party Parliamentary Group on South Africa has been formed. UK expertise has also been advising the Ramaphosa regime on implementing universal health coverage.
Energy and green transition
Climate change is a personal passion for the new king, who has been a long-time champion of environmental issues. As a young man he travelled in the Kalahari with the Afrikaner philosopher conservationist Laurens van der Post, who would later become Prince William’s godfather.
Discussions will include the international Just Energy Transition Partnership with South Africa. The UK is the largest state contributor to the $8.5 billion pledged by Western partners to help South Africa transition away from its dependence on coal. President Ramaphosa presented his investment plan at COP27 in November in Egypt.
The state visit offers the UK an opportunity to hear from the president on the political realities of transforming the world’s 13th worst carbon-emitting economy. Solutions are complex, given that coal mining is a significant employer amid high South African unemployment, and is one sector that has seen ownership transferred into the hands of the previously disadvantaged black population since the advent of democracy in 1994.
The Commonwealth and the politics of monarchy
The visit will also offer an opportunity for the new king to discuss his vision for the Commonwealth. South Africa was a founding member and inspiration of the institution in 1931, but withdrew in 1961 following its declaration as a republic and pursuit of racial segregation under apartheid which was condemned by the Commonwealth’s expanding membership of emerging independent Africa states.
South Africa re-joined in 1994 and hosted the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in 1999 with then President Mbeki becoming the first chair-in-office. However, many South African leaders, ministers, and the ruling ANC party harbour a scepticism of the organization and the monarch at its head.
This reflects a wider aversion to the institution of the monarchy within the ruling party in South Africa. Ramaphosa will be the fourth of five post-apartheid presidents to embark on a state visit to the UK.
The experience of his predecessor President Jacob Zuma, who was insultingly mocked by the British press, soured the relationship for the rest of his term in office. He complained of being judged and sneered at by a country with a hypocritical attitude towards its former colonies.
The UK should acknowledge that Ramaphosa is expending significant political capital in accepting the invitation to Buckingham Palace. He faces a party leadership vote in December, and while the South African press are broadly uninterested in the content of the discussions, many are waiting for the handshake images that will provide ammunition for the president’s detractors to portray him as a puppet of Western interests.
The spectre of domestic politics – on both sides
Domestic politics have repeatedly hampered Ramaphosa’s engagements in London.