Mondli Makhanya: An opportunity to reset

The old cliché that’s much loved by taxi drivers, who stick it on their vehicles, goes as follows: “When days are dark, friends are few.”

Quite why taxi drivers love this saying so much is a mystery. While it is true that they have very few friends, the reason for that is their driving habits, not because days are dark. Anyway, let’s let them be. One day, when this lowly newspaperman is invited to a taxi drivers’ convention, he will be able to probe directly and report back on his findings. That’s a promise.

For British Prime Minister Theresa May, however, days are indeed dark and the number of friends is diminishing as a result of her country’s decision to exit the EU.

So, with these days being so dark, May headed for Darkest Africa in search of new friends. The aim of the visit was very clear. The UK is repositioning itself for a post-Brexit future in which it must remain a global power outside of the EU club.

So, the road to 2019 will see May and her top ministers globe-trotting and stopping off in faraway parts of the world. Fences will be mended where unnecessary tensions once got in the way. Where good ties exist, they will be strengthened. Neglected friendships will be reignited.

May’s visit was primarily about the last two. In the case of South Africa, the relationship has generally been good. Save for a few areas of tension, the worst being disagreements over the approach towards former Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe’s tyrannical rule, the two countries have had close cooperation. Trade is strong, investment both ways is healthy and cultural relations are good.

With Kenya, the relationship has been one of maintenance of a friendship that has not been nursed as well as it should have been. Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta suggested as much when he chided May for the fact that the last British premier to visit the country was Margaret Thatcher in 1988 – a full 30 years ago.

The UK’s relationship with Nigeria has also been just okay, with trade and investment strong but pretty much a one-way street.

In May’s tour-opening speech in Cape Town, which was billed as one of her most important post-Brexit reset addresses, she pointed out that Africa was critical to Britain because the continent had five of the fastest-growing economies in the world this year, is likely to double in gross domestic product size by 2030, and will house a quarter of the world’s consumers by 2050.

She stated that she wanted to spearhead the creation of “a new partnership between the UK and our friends in Africa, one built around our shared prosperity and shared security”.

“As prime minister of a trading nation whose success depends on global markets, I want to see strong African economies that British companies can do business with in a free and fair fashion. Whether through creating new customers for British exporters or opportunities for British investors, our integrated global economy means healthy African economies are good news for British people as well as African people,” she said.

To this end, she would ensure the continuation of the EU’s partnership with southern African nations even after her country had left the union, move to make the UK the “G7’s number one investor by 2022” and make sure that British firms help African countries capacitate themselves in terms of technological development and corporate governance systems. The UK, said May, would also “radically expand” its presence in Africa, “opening new missions and bringing in trade experts, investment specialists and other policy experts. The UK will also be campaigning for a permanent seat for Africa on the UN Security Council, help the continent fight terrorism and aid in stemming the flow of illicit finance from African countries.”

The post-Brexit reset and reheating of the relationship with former members of the British empire began in earnest at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (Chogm) in London earlier this year. Prior to this year’s summit, the value of the Commonwealth had been in decline, seen by many as a relic of Britain’s colonial past. British governments treated the organisation as one of those nice-to-haves and the Chogms as burdensome get-togethers where everyone got to chuckle.

This year, the Chogm was a serious affair. Britain pulled out all stops to ensure that it was substantive and that members of the Commonwealth felt like a real family. In a world in which it will no longer wield influence alongside fellow EU countries and in which China is marching on aggressively, the revival of the Commonwealth is pivotal.

Some will react to May’s tour with cynicism and just see it as handshaking and a photo opportunity by the British leader. Others will even treat it with suspicion and regard it as an imperialist sojourn by the head of a world power.

Both would be wrong. This was arguably the most important visit by a G7 leader to our shores in recent times. May did not come here to be nice and chatty. She and her country need friends and markets in a recalibrated world. This puts Africa in a stronger position to drive good deals and peer relations than in the past. It is not an opportunity to be wasted. For South Africa it is also an opportunity to be a bit selfish. We do not need to do everything as a continent.

What will also be key in the evolution of the revitalised relationship is that our leaders tell May never to pull those Helen Zille dance moves on these shores again. Our 56 million citizens are still recovering from the trauma of seeing Zille jive. This week brought back all those horrible memories.