Theresa May. Picture: REUTERS
Theresa May. Picture: REUTERS

Perhaps the most remembered moment of UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s visit to SA will be her dance moves at the ID Mkhize High School in Gugulethu.

The Guardian newspaper described her as "doing an impression of a wobbly fridge".

Perhaps it will be her awkward answers to a Channel 4 interviewer who asked her, just before visiting Robben Island, what she had done to help secure the release of Nelson Mandela. She kept on answering that the important thing was what the UK government had done, not for the first time answering a specific question with a generality.

It is extraordinary what a terrible retail politician May is; we are so familiar with the urbane, erudite model of the British political leader. Yet, if May’s missteps are the only thing South Africans take from the visit, it would be a terrible pity, because behind the scenes the visit was much more important than the public moments might suggest.

The most important announcement of the trip was that the UK will carry over the EU’s Economic Partnership Agreement with the SA Customs Union and Mozambique once Brexit takes place.


The UK is negotiating with a dozen or so other counterparties to ensure the continuation of the EU’s trading deals, and the Southern African deal is the first to be agreed. Because the UK cannot negotiate new deals while it is still part of the EU, the deal is no different to the one that exists with the EU.

But already British diplomats are signalling that procedures exist within the existing agreement to make amendments once Brexit takes place.

The advantage for SA is that there is a whole range of products that the UK might be prepared to allow into its market at reduced tariffs that the EU does not. The most obvious is wine, which the UK does not produce in quantity but which EU countries do. Consequently, the EU tries to restrict SA’s wine imports, but the UK would have no reason to do so after Brexit.

The other interesting item is that the UK is now officially, or at least more vocally, supporting a permanent African presence on the UN Security Council. The issue is a diplomatic hot potato because the existing permanent members of the council wield disproportionate power within the UN structures through their veto rights.

At the moment, there exists a kind of compromise in which the Security Council has a number of extra rotating positions. But everybody knows this is not a permanent solution and that the current situation cannot continue, since the council’s membership, which was settled by the victors of World War 2, no longer reflects the modern world.

The third important aspect of the trip concerns investment. May announced that the UK, already a generous provider of development aid, would add another R50bn to the investment pot of the Commonwealth Development Conference to be invested in the continent over the next four years.

This is not small change.

In May’s speech, she took an implicit dig at China, saying "while we cannot compete with the economic might of some foreign governments investing in Africa, what we can offer is long-term investment of the very highest quality and breadth".

Rubbing salt in the wound, she pointed out that British investors respect ethical practices, comply with local laws, contribute to local economies and build long-term local capability.

Britain, of course, is SA’s former colonial power, and some will focus on this distant history. But the fact remains that in 2018, the economies of the UK and SA are complementary, with UK services matching SA’s products. The result is an even trade balance and a good regulatory match.

Only the willfully destructive would throw away that facility.