May kicks off first Africa tour as British PM

British Prime Minister Theresa May touched down in Cape Town Tuesday as she kicked off a tour of the African continent where she hopes to lay the foundations for post-Brexit trade deals.

May is facing pressure at home from so-called Remainers sceptical of her ability to forge trade deals once Britain severs ties with Brussels, as well as from Brexiteers fearful she will not deliver a clean break.

Her tour of South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya — May’s first to the continent since becoming premier in 2016 — will be seen as an effort to stamp her authority on her embattled premiership.

“As we prepare to leave the European Union, now is the time for the UK to deepen and strengthen its global partnerships,” May said in a statement.

“Africa stands right on the cusp of playing a transformative role in the global economy,” she added.


May will use a speech in Cape Town to set out how Britain can bolster its partnership with Africa, “particularly by bringing the transformative power of private sector trade and investment from the UK”, her office said.

Former foreign minister Boris Johnson, whose July departure from the cabinet brought May’s government to the brink, said in his resignation speech that May’s current Brexit policy would hamper London’s ability to strike independent trade deals.

World War I sacrifice 

May will then present President Cyril Ramaphosa with the bell from the troopship the SS Mendi, which sank in the English Channel in 1917 drowning more than 600 mainly South African troops who were preparing to join the Allied forces fighting in World War I.

It was the worst maritime disaster in the African country’s history, and has become a symbol of its Great War sacrifice.

The bell was given to a BBC reporter at a British seaside resort in 2017 following an anonymous tip, according to the broadcaster.

The prime minister is also expected to visit Robben Island where former president Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for decades to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his birth.

May will head to Nigeria on Wednesday for meetings with President Muhammadu Buhari in the capital Abuja and with victims of modern slavery in Lagos.

On Thursday she will meet Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, shortly after his return from seeing US President Donald Trump in Washington and before he travels to China to meet President Xi Jinping.

The prime minister will then see British troops in training action and tour a business school, before concluding the trip at a state dinner hosted by Kenyatta.

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Gregory Walton
Gregory Walton
Southern Africa correspondent at AFP

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