UK axes aid to South Africa, says it's time for partnership of equals

The UK will eliminate all aid to South Africa by 2015, the government announced this week. But some say Britain isn't done paying for history.

Louafi Larbi/Reuters
South Africa President Jacob Zuma

•A version of this post ran on the blog A View From the Cave. The views expressed are the author's own.

The United Kingdom announced this week it is going to eliminate its aid to South Africa by 2015.

South Africa is one of the world’s "emerging" BRICS nations. The decision follows in the footsteps of Britain’s decision to wean India off UK aid in favor of promoting domestic development to take hold. The British government says it would rather refocus its energy toward investments in these nations.

South African officials, as well as some aid organizations, appear none too happy with this turn of events.

UK Secretary of State for International Development Justine Greening unveiled the plan in a speech on Tuesday.

“I have agreed with my South African counterparts that South Africa is now in a position to fund its own development. It is right that our relationship changes to one of mutual cooperation and trade, one that is focused on delivering benefits for the people of Britain and South Africa as well as for Africa as a whole,” she said.

Some people were surprised and disappointed by the move, but the real shock is that the most important partner says it did not agree. That would be South Africa. Greening’s remarks made it appear that the two countries arrived at the agreement together, a sort of mutual divorce.

But it turns out that South Africa and the UK were not on the same page. South Africa’s Department for International Relations and Cooperation followed up the Greening announcement with their own statement.

The South African government has noted with regret the unilateral announcement by the government of the United Kingdom regarding the termination of the Official Development Aid to South Africa as from the year 2015.

This is such a major decision with far reaching implications on the projects that are currently running and it is tantamount to redefining our relationship.

According to the UK, the problem is a bureaucratic one rather than a disagreement between the two countries.

“Discussions have been going on about that for some months – it therefore shouldn’t have been a surprise,” said UK Foreign Secretary William Hague to BBC Radio 4.

Mr. Hague resisted stronger accusations, but said that it must have been some confusion on the side of South Africa. Opposition members seized on the gaffe by calling into question the relationship between the UK government and the government of South Africa.

“This looks like a serious breach of trust with one of our most important strategic partners. Justine Greening must explain why she is saying one thing about her conduct while the South African government is saying another,” said shadow international development secretary Ivan Lewis.

Miscommunication aside, the writing was on the wall, writes Lawrence Haddad of the Institute for Development studies. A 2011 UK Department For International Development bilateral aid review pegged official development assistance at £19 million ($30 million) a year through 2015. That should have been plenty indication that the UK was on track to make the cut.

The decision has also reignited a conversation about the appropriateness of ending aid to South Africa. People hashed out many of the same arguments when it came do determining the future of UK aid in India.

Jeremy Kuper of Gateway to Africa Magazine makes the case in the Guardian that the UK should continue giving aid to South Africa. He argues that the history of the two countries, the strategic interest of South Africa, and the work that remains all mean that aid flows should continue.

“There is just not enough money available to fix South Africa overnight. Britain is definitely partly responsible – had it applied sanctions as the Americans did, apartheid may have ended earlier. The inequality this aid is intended to address would have been less pronounced. And this is not something that happened centuries ago, but in the 1980s,” writes Mr. Kuper.

The strategic gains in the partnership are echoed by Labour Party minister of parliament Peter Hain in his own opinion piece in the Guardian. He too makes mention of a "historic obligation" to South Africa, citing apartheid support, but focuses on the interests of the UK. South Africa is the gateway to the continent, Mr. Hain argues. A fractured relationship with South Africa and a country that is not growing is a detriment to the UK.

"[T]his threatens the gateway the country provides to vast African markets – where it has close ties of friendship and mutually beneficial trade and investment agreements. It offers a solid base from which companies, including Britain’s, can develop their operations across Africa.

Mr. Haddad of the Institute for Development Studies argues that the level of aid is already so low that the cuts may not really cause any harm.

“Given that ODA is relatively small ($138bn) it has to be prioritised. So I think DFID has gotten this one right on substance, whatever the rights and wrongs of the process,” he writes.

Problems of inequality persist in South Africa and the country – despite earlier comparisons – is not on the same track as India. Finally, there is the political angle of the move. Haddad and others on Twitter noted that the upcoming local council elections that take place today may be a part of the motive for the announcement by the coalition government.

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