Graham Robb's January column for The Journal
I started this year happy and optimistic on my honeymoon in a wonderful country that I had never visited - South Africa. It was a life-enhancing trip and has certainly given my new wife, Marie, and I some unique experiences and a wider view of the world.
I could use this column to promote South Africa, it’s beautiful landscapes, a climate warm and temperate climate and, coastal cities that are like the best European resorts during the summer. It is also populated with welcoming, hospitable and kind people. It is optimistically called the 'Rainbow Nation' and people from all backgrounds are proud of its new democracy, which was founded in 1994 when Nelson Mandela became president in the country's first election conducted under universal suffrage.
However, this column is not a tour guide. During my visit, I couldn't help thinking how, in our post-Brexit years, countries like South Africa will become even more important to the U.K. The Institute of Directors has a long track-record of advocating increased trade with African countries. We have sister organisations in African countries and see the region as a place of growth and opportunity, a view clearly shared by China, which is investing in African infrastructure and exporting goods to the continent in vast numbers.
South Africa competes for the title of largest economy in Africa with Nigeria, depending on oil prices and exchange rates Nigeria sometimes comes first. South Africa is the only African member of the G20 and while I was visiting it was reported that growth is expected to be 2.9%. The last decade has seen rapid growth across Africa with six of the ten fastest growing economies in the world being on the continent. For those of my generation, who grew up with images of starving children, military coups, and drought, the idea of sustainable African prosperity can sometimes seem far-fetched. But even Ethiopia has been growing economically; as a result its last drought was not fraught with the mass-starvation that led to Live Aid in the mid-1980s.
There are clearly obstacles to growth and success in Africa. From developed countries like South Africa, to underdeveloped economies, corruption is endemic. All of South Africa's newspapers regularly report allegations of corruption, nepotism and bribery. During my visit I read stories about the President, who has allegedly spent public funds on luxury villas and swimming pools, to more junior ministers who have given pay rises to their lovers to serious suggestions that poorly qualified teachers are able to maintain sinecure jobs despite failing pupils that are in serious need of greater literacy and numeracy skills. No person I met had a good thing to say about President Zuma and the ANC is in a quite acrimonious succession race. It is even possible a new party, the centrist Democratic Alliance, might gain power.
I was struck by the serious inequality in South Africa, the prosperous communities I visited as a tourist live side by side with townships, many of which we would regard as slums. Housing affects so many aspects of life. A solid home, with running water and sanitation is the bedrock of a modern community. Many of the townships are being rebuilt, but shanty-like structures are still there for all to see. I spoke to people who lived in them, they tend to walk miles to work as cleaners and janitors in the big hotels and want to see the improvements promised in a post-apartheid world.
Africa is an enterprising place and trade would be preferred to aid any day. It is undoubtedly good that the British Government will soon be free to strike a unique trade deal with South Africa. And it should put it on its Brexit priority list.
In Newcastle I came across one example of how the North East can get involved. North East entrepreneur Tim Cantle-Jones has been given small seed funding by the UK Government to help remote communities in South Africa receive electricity. He is preparing the case and coordinating efforts to provide solar farms off the electricity grid with a modest tariff for those people without electricity at the moment, but only want power during daylight hours and the higher tariffs for others who want 24-hour electricity and are prepared to pay for reserves stored up in batteries. Electrification will help conquer the very worst inequality and bring outlying communities rapidly up to speed with the rest of developed South Africa. Tim's enterprise could be the start of something big, it will certainly help South Africa's rural economy and is a good use of UK taxpayer support. By warming up business contacts like this, the UK Government will provide ample opportunities for future trade to benefit both countries.
The next two years could see us obsessed with Brexit, but, for many in business and the Government, the work of looking at the world beyond EU negotiations, is just as important.