Theresa May’s recent visit to a trio of African states has highlighted the decline of British imperialism and the crisis facing the capitalist class as the Brexit cliff edge looms.
Last week, Prime Minister Theresa May embarked on a three-day jaunt across Africa, visiting South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya. The purpose of May’s whistle stop tour (aside from showcasing her inimitable dance moves) was to strike up post-Brexit trade relations with Africa’s “emerging economies”. The visit was a cringe worthy affair that saw May shuffle awkwardly from one public relations blunder to the next.
With the Brexit deadline in March 2019 rapidly approaching, a no-deal scenario is looking increasingly probable. While May has assured voters that this would “not be the end of the world”, Chancellor Philip Hammond was less sanguine, predicting the result of a car crash exit would be a 7.7 percent hit to GDP over the next 15 years: worse than after the 2008 financial crash.
May will have to fill the vacuum that Brexit will leave in Britain’s trade portfolio. This problem is made all the more acute by the fact that Donald Trump shows no sign of giving May any special treatment. And this despite her sycophancy during the president’s UK visit in July.
Unable to count on the old “special relationship”, the Prime Minister – and British capitalism – urgently need to forge new trade and geopolitical alliances.
The African ruling classes also have reason to seek common cause with May. Trump’s trade tariffs on aluminium and steel, despite being targeted at major competitors like China, will inflict second-hand damage on smaller economies. As the Kenyan proverb goes, “When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers”.
In South Africa, for example, steel imports to the US totaled $950m in 2017. Though this represented only about 1.4 percent of total US imports that year, it was a quarter of all South African-US exports.
South African steel is set to be hit with heavy duties in the States, while the country is already running a significant production surplus; this despite the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) arguing its relatively limited steel exports pose “no national security” concerns to America. The DTI correctly described this impact on South Africa as “collateral damage in the trade war of key global economies.”
Losing the US market could put 300,000 tons of steel production at risk, along with 7,500 South African jobs in the steel and manufacturing supply chain. As ever, protectionism is the export of unemployment.
The fallout from Trump’s tariff war means South African President Cyril Ramaphosa needs support from UK and countries in Europe in order to create new markets in which to sell South African goods. As such, all past enmity between the Tories and ANC was forgotten as the two leaders agreed to forge a “closer relationship” in the future.
Dancing around Apartheid
May displayed her familiar, easy charm in her Cape Town address, in which she spoke of an Africa that was “very different to the stereotypes”. She also played to the Tories’ Brexiteer base by pointing out that, as commercial partners, African countries are “less likely to export terrorists or illegal immigrants” than European or Middle-Eastern nations.
The UK Prime Minister’s affable tone was matched by some sections of the African bourgeoisie. Aly-Khan Satchu, financial analyst in Nairobi, described the “mood music” around the trip as “quite sweet”. He was also the only public figure to praise the Prime Minister’s dancing in Cape Town, in addition to pointing out that Britain’s colonial history gave it strong “brand equity” on the continent.
This “brand equity” came up again in an agonising interview with Channel Four News, in which May was forced once more to dance awkwardly – this time around the issue of Tory policy during the Apartheid era.
Asked by Michael Crick what she “personally” did to help end the Apartheid regime, May was forced to concede: “I think you know full well that I didn’t go on protests, Michael”. This stands in stark contrast to Jeremy Corbyn, who – despite enduring endless accusations of racism from his parliamentary colleagues – was arrested for protesting against Apartheid in the 1980s.
Following the interview, May was due to visit Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years. Asked whether, as a “loyal member of the Conservatives”, May agreed with Thatcher’s description of the ANC and Mandela as terrorists, the Prime Minister could only bleat platitudes about Mandela’s “immense statesmanship”.
Scramble for Africa
May stated that she wants the UK to be the G7’s number one investor in Africa by 2022. She was accompanied on her trip by a cabal of 29 business figures representing the interests of British capitalism, including the Chief Executive of the Standard Chartered Bank, Bill Winters.
The Commonwealth Development Corporation (CDC), a UK government-owned private equity group – backed by Bob Geldof – will also invest up to £3.5bn in African projects in the next four years as part of the pledge.
Far from being a philanthropic organisation, the CDC is a brute capitalist enterprise. In 2010, it emerged that it was soaking up massive profits from schemes such as the construction of hotels and shopping centers that enriched its managers while bringing no benefit to the poor.
Fundamentally, May’s visit reflects a breaking up of the old order in a period of world economic crisis. Under the present conditions, where global economic demand is squeezed, the ruling classes of all nations are clamouring for new markets and new alliances as the old ones break apart and world relations shift. This is all the more pressing for Britain, due to the crisis posed by Brexit.
China remains the biggest foreign player in Africa, and is developing its nascent imperialist interests through infrastructural investment in Zambia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and various countries in central Africa.
But the bourgeoisie of many other nations are now tripping over themselves to get a piece of the continent. In addition to May: Modi, Macron, Erdogan and Merkel have all visited Africa since June.
France is the most important actor amongst the G7 (Macron has made nine visits since taking office). But French influence in Africa is declining, creating space for countries like the UK. South Africa and Nigeria alone represent 50 percent of GDP for the entire continent. If May can establish a foothold in these countries, the African market would be wide open.
Whiff of desperation
The problem is, it’s not enough. It’s not merely a case of the capitalists securing new markets, but profitable markets.
While May described South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya as “key partners” for the UK on the continent after Brexit, their combined GDP — about $770bn according — is barely equal to the Netherlands. Moreover, half of Nigeria’s 180m people live on less than $1.90 a day, meaning few could afford British goods and services.
Dipo Salimonu, the chief executive of a Nigerian fuels storage company, was quoted in the Financial Times as saying “it’s futile to look for consumers to replace [the EU] in this part of the world.”
Indeed, British capitalism has 45 percent of its markets in Europe. The entire African continent currently accounts for just 3 percent of all UK goods and services exports. It is no serious alternative to the European market – nor will be any patchwork of similar, small-time trade deals.
Britain will also struggle to obtain the most favourable deals from Africa next to EU member states that have Brussels’ economic and political clout behind them.
To sweeten the deal, May tried bribing the Nigerian ruling class with chickenfeed – specifically a £10.5m donation to help fight “terrorism and trafficking”. But she endured open mockery in Kenya, where Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta said he was happy a British head of government had “found time” to visit after 30 years. To rub salt in the wound, he claimed not to remember former-Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s name, calling him “the bicycle guy”.
Salimonu aptly noted that May’s attempts to court African states carried the “whiff of desperation”. It is undeniably satisfying to watch the wretched and degenerate British ruling class going cap-in-hand to a continent it once dominated and pillaged.
The current economic turmoil can only spell further misery for African workers and peasants, however, who are caught between the effects of Trump’s protectionism, the opportunism of their own bourgeoisie, and the interests of second-rate imperialist powers like Britain.