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South Africa

Volume 838: debated on Tuesday 21 May 2024


Asked by

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs what are his priorities for working with the government of South Africa after their forthcoming general election.

The United Kingdom enjoys a long-standing and close partnership with South Africa. In November 2022, His Majesty the King welcomed the President of South Africa to London for the first state visit of his reign. We look forward to continuing this relationship after South Africa’s elections on 29 May. Priorities would include boosting trade links, which are already worth £10.4 billion; tackling climate change and energy security; and working together to promote democracy and peace as South Africa looks forward to its G20 presidency in 2025.

I thank the Secretary of State for his Answer. In recognising South Africa’s significant role and potential as a global partner, does he agree that with a new Government there is an opportunity to renew momentum and engagement through existing aid programmes in supporting NGO and important strategic church partnerships, particularly as they further their endeavours in ongoing reconciliation and bridge-building? Is it also an opportunity for His Majesty’s Government to find additional ways to support South African aspirations for economic equality, especially in light of the extreme hardship arising from financial disparities in the country?

Every new Government is an opportunity to start the partnership afresh and see what more can be done. We have to wait for the outcome of the elections in South Africa. The most promising avenues are in trade and, particularly, climate change and energy, where the Just Energy Transition Partnership is in place with South Africa. Having been to South Africa relatively recently, I think the other area where we need to help it is in the fight against corruption and state capture and the problems in its energy system that have led to the blackouts and difficulties that it has been having.

My Lords, at the United Nations, in stark contrast to South Africa politics under Nelson Mandela, South Africa has increasingly voted with the so-called axis of resistance as it relates to the wars either in Ukraine or in Gaza. The signing of the co-operation deal between South Africa and Iran last year shows a clear shift towards Russia, Iran and China. Will the Foreign Secretary ensure that HMG make it clear to the South African Government that this shift is both undesirable and unhelpful?

As I say frequently in speeches, we are living in a competitive and contested world, so it is even more important than ever that Foreign Ministers and our diplomats get out there and compete and make the arguments for why Ukraine is in the right and Russia is in the wrong, and why investment in South Africa and elsewhere from the United Kingdom and western partners should be an alternative to that from China. I agree with the noble Lord about some of the recent South African stances. Any comparison between the liberation movement in South Africa and what Hamas represents in Israel is well wide of the mark. I cannot believe that Nelson Mandela would ever have supported anything like what Hamas did on 7 October. When he is prayed in aid, it makes me wonder.

My Lords, 30 years ago when South Africa had its first free democratic elections, most of us watched those scenes on TV with huge emotion as people queued for hours outside polling stations to exercise their democratic vote. Many of us are quite envious that they have elections in May this year and we may have to wait a little longer. Can I put it to the Foreign Secretary that the relationship between the two countries—whether we agree or disagree—transcends elections and Governments and we should have in place a framework that allows for honest, genuine dialogue whichever Governments are in power?

The noble Baroness is absolutely right. We have a framework of co-operation and a close partnership, and I met my South African opposite number in February this year. The point I was making was that when we think about how we try to build those partnerships, it is often more difficult to build them in the run-up to an election. Obviously, the South Africans are very close to their election. Waiting for that election and the new Government—whatever it may be—would be a good opportunity to re-engage on our shared agenda.

My Lords, does the Foreign Secretary share my regret that, notwithstanding the state visit by President Ramaphosa, over recent years the relationship between the UK and South Africa, both politically and economically, has declined significantly, with the value of UK exports less than a third of what it was when he was Prime Minister? Will he take steps to show that we value the relationship with South Africa by urging the Prime Minister to visit South Africa following its elections and by accepting the invitation himself to attend the service of thanksgiving and commemoration for 30 years of democracy in Westminster Abbey on 16 July?

I will certainly look at my diary for 16 July. However, that might be the week of the EPC so I think we will be extremely busy welcoming about 50 Heads of State and Foreign Ministers to the UK. We work hard at this relationship. Obviously, where it went into reverse in some regards was during the period of President Zuma and the problems of state capture when, quite rightly, Britain sanctioned a series of individuals involved in that episode. President Ramaphosa has been trying to recover from that. That is why I said in my answer to the right reverend Prelate that we should try to help South Africa deal with some of the things that took it backwards under President Zuma.

My Lords, the Foreign Secretary will no doubt have noted with concern the growing relationship between South Africa and Iran. What is his assessment of the potential threat from that axis?

When we look in Iran’s region, it is obvious that it supports Hamas, the Houthis, Hezbollah and a whole series of malign actors that are responsible for terrorist attacks or attacks on navigation for destabilisation. While it is important that we try to have a dialogue with Iran and deliver some very tough messages to it, it is quite clear that its influence in the region is malign, and we make that clear at every opportunity.

My Lords, it is a pleasure to address the former MP for Witney. I taught in South Africa, in Witwatersrand, and I think that one of the important aspects of this is not so much diplomatic or political but our soft power. The links between South African universities and British universities were very powerful and people were well aware of them when I was there. For reasons we heard in an earlier debate, the number of graduate and undergraduate students from South Africa has declined and I wonder whether the Foreign Secretary has thought about how this could be improved.

The noble Lord is right that soft power and people-to-people links are incredibly important. I caught the end of the previous debate. The point I would always make, even before the introduction of the graduate route with the ability to stay on for two years, is that Britain has an incredibly clear offer to international students from around the world. If students have an English language qualification and a place at a British university, there is no limit on the numbers that can come. While we have important debates in this House about the rules we should put in place, that message needs to go out loud and clear to every country, including South Africa, with which we have so many great links.

My Lords, soft power is a very important aspect of how Britain projects its power across the world. We have mentioned the remembrance service at Westminster Abbey and the links between South African and British universities. This may sound like a superficial point, but it is not. When I went to the Chelsea Flower Show yesterday, I asked a gardening expert which garden was the best to visit. She said, “It’s the South African garden. It’s the first time they’ve been here for four years”. It may sound odd for me to say it, but I suspect that the Foreign Secretary would get the best headlines in South Africa this year if he went to visit that garden with the South African high commissioner. Is this not an example of how, while there are hard issues we have to debate with our friends and allies across the world, soft power also goes a long way in enabling those conversations?

I am embarrassed to admit to my noble friend that I have already been. Indeed, I enjoyed a very nice glass of South African white wine while looking around it.

My Lords, the noble Lord was right when he said that we are living in a contested world. In Africa—I come from Uganda—Russia and China are the greatest investors; they build hospitals, schools and roads. A lot of money used to be spent by people in this country, but I am afraid that Russia and China are taking over. I suspect the reason is that some of the new Governments and their politics find it easier to deal with the two new colonial powers. What do we need to do to reawaken ourselves? “Made in Britain” used to be great when I was growing up as a little boy in a village in Uganda.

That is a very important question. In fact, I discussed this with the Gambian Foreign Minister this morning, who made the point about how much more democratic and equal the Commonwealth was than the Francophonie, and how much he enjoyed the Gambia being back in the Commonwealth. That is one of the frameworks we can use.

Larry Summers famously quoted an African leader saying, “The trouble is that when you come, you give us a lecture and when the Chinese come, they build us a road”. I think there is sense in that; we have to demonstrate that we are a willing and effective partner. Perhaps particularly on the Russian threat, we need to show that the UK can be a very effective security partner in helping to build capacity in countries that want it. Particularly in the Sahel, that could be an approach we can give some attention to.