/ 22 July 2011

Cameron comes calling — briefly

Cameron Comes Calling Briefly

The headlines that flowed from British Prime Minister David Cameron’s visit to South Africa this week were about anything but Africa. But for me, a British journalist caught up in the media pack, his visit said much about the United Kingdom’s relationship with the continent.

Arriving on Nelson Mandela’s 93rd birthday may have given Cameron speech material but it also kept him off the top slot on the breakfast news.

Although he was accompanied by two ministers and a trade delegation of business leaders it was hard to get over how decidedly low key the whole event was.

I was embarrassed to see the band noisily warming up outside the Union Buildings as his delegation left, more than hinting they were not the day’s main event.

Frankly, South Africa seems to care more about Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey.

Confirmation of Cameron’s visit, which, at one point we were told, was indefinitely postponed, only trickled through on Friday evening.

There were no details, just a time and place for the press conference, and the subject line, “President Zuma to receive UK Prime Minister on a working visit to South Africa”.

An hour later another email revealed that Zuma was “looking forward” to the “historic” state visit of Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete on Tuesday, noting Tanzania’s contribution to South Africa’s struggle for liberation.

Weighing heavily against Cameron was the ongoing phone-hacking scandal. The drama back in the United Kingdom had reached such a pitch that he was forced to cancel his visits to South Sudan and Rwanda and shorten his Nigeria itinerary.

Hounded throughout by embedded Westminster reporters, Cameron spent more time defending his trip and responding to questions about the resignation of senior police officers than promoting British trade.

He answered questions thrown at him calmly, defending his absence during a crisis by saying he was looking to bolster his injured economy.

But the cold reality — that a former colonial superpower now needs Africa — echoed sharply around the stone courtyard where we sat.

Zuma looked on, slightly bemused, during the crossfire — relieved, one imagines, that for once he was not the focus of media hostility.

The media pack shuffled out through the side entrance, wondering what to file. We’d have to wait to see what Cameron had to say at his next stop, a round table on entrepreneurship hosted by the JSE.

He filed in alongside Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, JSE chief executive Russell Loubser and doctor-turned-businesswoman Precious Moloi-Motsepe. Radio talk-show host Redi Tlhabi chaired a short discussion about how to build entrepreneurial capacity.

Inevitably, a reporter from the British Daily Mail grabbed the microphone, asking Cameron whether he should be considering his position. He was drowned out by boos and barks of “give it a rest”.

A few hours later, with Cameron safely on his way to Nigeria, I attended the launch of the India Africa Business Network hosted by the Gordon Institute of Business Science’s newly formed Centre for Dynamic Markets. This is an economic grouping for the Brics countries — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — and other emerging economies, including Indonesia, Turkey and Nigeria. Neither Britain nor any other European country made the guest list.

In his keynote speech, to a buzzing crowd of South African and Indian bankers and entrepreneurs, South African Trade Minister Rob Davies talked about changes in geopolitical and economic relationships.

Davis mentioned that he had met the British trade delegation that morning, with whom he’d had “fruitful discussions”. However, he said, trade between South Africa and the UK had fallen by 37% in 2009, while exports to Bric countries had quadrupled between 2006 and 2010.

He said the British trade team had suggested more co-operation within the automotive sector but, turning to senior executives of Tata Africa and pausing for effect, he pointed out that flagship British models such as Jaguar and Land Rover were now Indian owned.

Cameron’s visit merely underlined the fact that the UK seems to be losing global relevance almost as quickly as the News of the World story is moving back home.

The UK has pledged $52-million to relieve famine in the Horn of Africa and I have seen excellent projects led by Britain’s department for international development across the continent but, as journalist colleagues tweeted the next day, “Who could have imagined a British prime minister cutting short a trip to Nigeria to deal with corruption at home?”