3 March 2010
Thomas Cargill
(Former Chatham House Expert)


South African President Jacob Zuma's state visit to Britain comes at a time when both countries are grappling with global challenges and are struggling to balance high expectations of their citizens, against increasingly stretched budgets.

The financial crisis has severely impacted both Britain and South Africa, with job losses, businesses closed and infrastructure frayed. Both countries have political leaders that were carried in on a wave of anger at the previous incumbents. President Zuma has come under mounting criticism regarding his perceived indecision, as he struggles to hold the left and right wings of his party together. A similar story appears in Britain, though President Zuma's disarming charm has less of an equivalent in the UK.

Perhaps more fundamentally, both countries are undergoing a generational shift, as an age group emerges that has limited personal experience of apartheid, colonialism and the various struggles that dominated the bilateral relationship between South Africa and Britain for so long. That era still resonates, but for the emerging leadership generation, the television show Big Brother, a hit in both countries, and of course the 100 days count down to the World Cup, are as likely to be a point of common experience as is Mandela's long walk to freedom.

This shift can sometimes appear lost on those in both countries who built close relationships around the anti-apartheid movement. Yet both Britain and South Africa require a different sort of leadership that is comfortable with globalisation. Both countries feel a sense of wider international responsibility, and share a desire to 'punch above their weight'. In similar time zones, positioned in strategically equivalent positions in the northern and southern hemispheres, and sharing commonwealth and language links, both South Africa and the UK are well placed to coordinate on a number of issues.

Yet with all these common interests, there is a constant undercurrent of frustration and irritation in bilateral relations. Much of the resentment comes from a sense that the UK talks down to South Africa, and that Britain, the US and their allies too often assume that South Africa is 'one of us'. This is irritating for many in South Africa, as it assumes an answer to a question many South Africans do not have a simple answer to: Is the South African Government the standard bearer of the kind of international struggle for justice which brought it to power - which was essentially anti-western and anti-imperialist? Or is it there to represent more narrow practical South African interests in a world not of its own making and, for now, dominated by the interests of larger powers, including the US with which South Africa must cooperate? By constantly assuming the answer is the latter, UK policy makers risk creating self reinforcing tensions and reactions that could, if left unchecked, drive relations ever further apart.

This is the only state visit in 2010 and underlines the importance of South Africa to Britain. Although celebrating shared history matters, such as South Africa buying former ANC leader Oliver Tambo's house in London, it is common vision that counts. President Zuma's visit offers a great opportunity for both the UK and South Africa to work out what they want from each other in the future.

Further resources

South Africa's Continuing Leadership Challenges: Will the Real Jacob Zuma Please Stand Up?
James Hamill, The World Today, February 2010

Intelligence Bound: the South African Constitution and Intelligence Services
Laurie Nathan, International Affairs, January 2010

South Africa: Against the Odds
Tom Cargill, The World Today, March 2009