Charles III hosts first state visit as king, aiming to strengthen South African ties

King Charles III is hosting South African President Cyril Ramaphosa starting Tuesday for his first state visit since succeeding his mother, Queen Elizabeth II. The three-day trip will aim to “celebrate the cooperation” between South Africa and its former colonial power.

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Although South Africa is Britain’s largest trading partner on the African continent, it is “one that it has too often taken for granted,” writes Christopher Vandome, senior research fellow with Chatham House’s Africa Programme. It is therefore quite significant that King Charles III’s first state visit will be to welcome South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and his wife Dr. Tshepo Motsepe from Tuesday to Thursday.

British High Commissioner to South Africa Antony Phillipson has announced this visit, saying: “This will be the first state visit hosted by His Majesty. It reflects the importance of the relationship between South Africa and the UK. The visit will offer a chance to celebrate our modern partnership that delivers prosperity and security for both countries, as well as outlining how we can work together bilaterally and globally to strengthen these links for the future.”

South Africa had symbolic importance for Queen Elizabeth II. She gave a speech there, pledging her life to the service of the Commonwealth as a 21-year-old princess. Charles III himself visited South Africa on numerous occasions and attended Nelson Mandela’s funeral in 2013. Only time will tell what kind of relationship this new monarch, who has already met with several African leaders including Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari and Ghana’s Nana Akufo-Addo, will to have with the continent after this first state visit.

“Where South Africa goes, other countries follow”

Inviting Ramaphosa for a state visit is part of the UK’s post-Brexit Global Britain initiative. This was carried out by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson “to consolidate his Commonwealth foreign policy, as Britain’s ambitions are to have closer and more profitable relations with members of the Commonwealth”, said Douglas Yates, a political scientist specializing in African politics who teaches at the American Graduate School in Paris .

Queen Elizabeth II had organized this visit, which was postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, because of “the difficult situation she was in regarding the Commonwealth”, explains Mario Aguilar, professor of religion and politics at the University of St . Andrews who has expertise in South African politics. At least six Caribbean countries: Belize, Bahamas, Jamaica, Grenada, Antigua and Barbuda and St. Kitts and Nevis earlier this year expressed a desire to become republics and remove the Queen as their head of state.

South Africa left the Commonwealth in 1961, later rejoining in 1994. According to Aguilar, the late Queen’s aim with this visit was to encourage South Africa to remain part of the Commonwealth of Nations. The country has played a central role in the African Union since Mandela was in office and exerts significant influence on other African nations. As Aguilar explains, “where South Africa goes, other countries like Nigeria, Kenya and so on follow”.

Yates says Elizabeth II had hoped to “maintain good relations with South Africa because as head of the Commonwealth she saw every member as important and she may have been concerned about the potential of the war in Ukraine to alienate Johannesburg”. He adds: “The UK Conservative government led by (former prime minister) Boris Johnson supported Ukraine, while South Africa did not. The Commonwealth gives Britain a chance to maintain good relations with countries that do not support Ukraine.”

Strengthens the commonwealth

This visit will mark Charles III’s first as head of the Commonwealth, a position he “lobbied for heavily in the last decade of his mother’s reign because he feels the crown can maintain real foreign policy interests through this role,” Yates said. After the Queen’s death, there has been growing concern that the union has gone its own way and so Charles will certainly use this visit to “consolidate his position as head of the Commonwealth”, he adds.

Although Aguilar admits that “it is possible that the Commonwealth will face challenges under King Charles III, there is currently no indication that it could end up as a collaborative structure”. Yates agrees: “People are scared because Queen Elizabeth II has been the sole head of the Commonwealth and times have changed. But at the same time, Charles III has been preparing for this job all his adult life and the Commonwealth has actually grown and even attracted countries that are not former British colonies’, such as Togo and Gabon.

Ramaphosa will also seek to consolidate his position at home. The South African leader, who replaced Jacob Zuma as president on the promise of clean government, is now facing corruption charges. He hopes this visit will legitimize his and his party’s, the ANC’s, position ahead of its leadership vote in December and South Africa’s 2024 general election. According to Yates, the opposition South African Democratic Party has grown steadily more popular in each election because it uses questions such as high inflation and poor energy infrastructure to “challenge the effectiveness of the ANC and thereby become more popular and present itself as a viable alternative”.

Ramaphosa will fulfill his wish and deliver a 20-minute speech on his vision of the world to both the House of Lords and the Commons on Tuesday afternoon in the Royal Gallery of the House of Lords. “This is a rare honor because most state visits don’t include this,” Aguilar explains. “This is a vote of confidence in Ramaphosa, one that was not even extended to [French President] Macron, for example, despite the close relationship between France and Britain.”

“We celebrate collaboration”

Yates and Aguilar both agree that this visit will be about “celebrating cooperation” and that while the new king may raise the issue of the war in Ukraine, there is “nothing to suggest that the visit will be unpleasant or about to lecture Ramaphosa on his stance”. Yates says this is a smart approach to adopt because “Britain will never get South Africa to position itself only with the West, because it is playing a double game to align itself with both Russia and the West”. Russia is a long-time ally of the ANC, supporting it during its struggle against apartheid in South Africa. There has also been “a lot of anti-Western rhetoric coming from South Africa recently because it feels the West is behaving in an imperialist way by expecting African nations to stand on the sidelines” regarding the war in Ukraine.

South Africa, like 16 other African countries, recently abstained from voting on the UN resolution condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Ramaphosa also refused to condemn Russia’s invasion. South Africa is part of the BRICS group, which consists of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, countries seen as the world’s leading emerging market economies. While Russia’s February 24 invasion resulted in widespread condemnation from the G7 countries and their allies, the only BRICS country to support the UN resolution was Brazil, with South Africa, China and India abstaining.

Britain will also be keen to strengthen ties with a key trading partner at a time of economic turmoil. On 18 November 2022, total trade in goods and services between the UK and South Africa was £10.7bn (€12.3bn), up 6.3% from 2021. Further developing these ties will be high on the agenda when Ramaphosa meets Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Wednesday. Britain’s new prime minister will hope to renew the trade deal between the two countries to include lower tariffs to help Britain’s financial crisis.

“South Africa is already Britain’s largest trading partner on the continent, and we have ambitious plans to drive infrastructure investment and economic growth together,” Sunak said ahead of the visit. “I look forward to welcoming President Ramaphosa to London this week to discuss how we can deepen the partnership between our two great nations and take advantage of shared opportunities, from trade and tourism to security and defence.”

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