Alex Vines
Research Director, Area Studies and International Law; Head, Africa Programme

& Elizabeth Sidiropoulos, Chief Executive, South African Institute of International Affairs

South Africa obviously needs to diversify its relationships to reflect new global trade and political realities, but this does not need to occur by neglecting old relationships that remain strategic.

South Africans may not appreciate that a diplomatic bilateral forum between South Africa and the UK is something unusual for the British. Pretoria has many similar arrangements and it can be difficult to keep track of them all, but for the UK it is rare and in Africa, it occurs only with South Africa.

The 10th SA-UK Bilateral Forum was held in Cape Town on 10 September. Fresh from meeting US Secretary of State John Kerry on Syria at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Britain's Foreign Secretary, William Hague, jumped on a plane for a less than 24-hour trip to Cape Town to lead a senior British ministerial delegation to the forum.

A week ago, Hague was considering cancelling the trip because of Syria (he cancelled a trip to South Africa in 2011 because of Libya) but this time British democracy saved the day, as parliament in London voted against any direct British military engagement in Syria.

South Africa is the UK's largest trading partner in Africa, and although the UK has dropped to being South Africa's seventh largest export market, it remains the largest source of foreign direct investment. Brits love touring South Africa: 438,000 visited South Africa in 2012.

South African brands are also penetrating British markets impressively: Nando's, Appletiser, even rooibos tea. In central Aberdeen, Scots are feasting in the newly opened Spur Steak and Grill. South Africa remains one of the top 20 exporters to the UK and exports are growing. More than 200 South African companies have an established presence in the UK. A statue of Nelson Mandela stands in Parliament Square in central London.

Yet despite the important people-to-people relations, trade partnerships and cultural ties, the South African government is investing more in new partnerships, such as within BRICS, and is often perceived to be neglecting important established ones. In a multi-polar world, South Africa obviously needs to diversify its relationships to reflect new global trade and political realities, but this does not need to occur by neglecting old relationships that remain strategic.

Far from retreating from Africa, the UK is reopening embassies on the continent, in countries such as Somalia, Madagascar and Ivory Coast. Africa is South Africa's priority and engaging with key external actors such as the UK on African peace and security, especially at the UN Security Council, is crucial. Equally, at the G20 and the G8 the UK has often taken up African developmental causes, most recently around getting northern countries’ tax affairs in order, to curb illicit financial flows from Africa. African governments are increasingly looking to London for financial investment and opening embassies there, as Burundi, Gabon and Mauritania have recently done.

In the City of London it is striking that many analysts see South Africa as a matured market facing comparative decline in Africa, and consider Nigeria – despite all its problems – to be a better long-term investment return.

The lesson for South African officials to draw from this is not to ignore London, but to engage with it better. The bilateral forum is one way of doing this.

In 2011 the UK and South Africa agreed to double trade between 2011 and 2015 (an impossible target, as trade hovers around £10billion – R157bn – currently). The SAUK Business Forum that was launched in Cape Town at the bilateral forum might help and the British prime minister has appointed Baroness Scotland of Asthal as his trade envoy to South Africa. But both sides will need to work hard to ensure that this business council does not go the way of others that South Africa has established previously, such as with India or Russia, to name but two.

In the dying days of the previous UK Labour government, the state visit of President Jacob Zuma to Britain in 2010 was intended to lift relations following differences over Iraq and Zimbabwe and the introduction of a visa regime in 2009 for South Africans (due to the ease of foreigners fraudulently acquiring South African passports).

The state visit achieved little and the coalition Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government in Britain today is further handicapped as it lacks ties to and history with the ANC; there is no Peter Hain, Paul Boateng or Lord Hughes among the Conservatives.

In theory, this should increasingly matter little, as South Africa soon celebrates 20 years of democracy and a newer generation of South Africans rise into leadership positions, but it still seems to matter.

William Hague talked about the importance of 'collective understanding and mutual trust' at the British high commissioner's reception in Cape Town at the end of the forum. These are the biggest challenges of this SA-UK relationship.

As the forum was under way in Cape Town, the UK's Secretary for International Development, Justine Greening, was in Pretoria meeting Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, trying to repair the damage she caused to bilateral relations by making a unilateral announcement in April regarding the phasing out of UK official development aid to South Africa.

Her blunder is a reminder to British politicians and their South African counterparts of the need to invest in this relationship, seek collective understanding and build up mutual trust.

The 10th SA-UK Bilateral Forum suggests that perhaps both governments are beginning to find common understanding. On less political issues like science, climate change, education and empowering youth, they made progress, although sharp differences on foreign policy approaches to Syria and Zimbabwe were apparent.

While bilateral UK aid might be phased out, the two countries will be co-operating on regional and global development goals through the soon-to-be-established South African Development Partnership Agency. Britain is also less fussed about the proposed ending of its bilateral investment treaty with South Africa than some of its European counterparts, and wants to help South Africa develop an identity system that is more secure so that a visa process is not needed.

One idea is to have a passport and national ID card requirement for UK entry. It will take time, but British policymakers understand that UK-South Africa trade and tourism would benefit from this, including maintaining London as a South African business gateway for European markets.

Follow-up is under way. South Africa's Deputy President, Kgalema Motlanthe, will visit the UK on 17 September, including speaking at Chatham House.

And two new high commissioners will shortly be in their posts, Judith Macgregor for Britain and Obed Mlaba for South Africa, adding fresh enthusiasm to upgrading bilateral ties.

Our hope is that when the UK-SA Bilateral Forum meets again in London in 2015, SA-UK diplomatic relations will be more vibrant so that they reflect the truly deep family, historic, business and tourism links that make the relationship so close.

In a multi-polar and increasingly networked world, better diplomatic relations are in the strategic interests of both South Africa and the United Kingdom.

This article originally appeared in the Cape Times and is republished with kind permission.