Britain’s new relationship with Africa?

Credit: Royal African Society
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On 2 November, the Royal African Society marked its 120th Anniversary with a celebration of Creative Africa at The Shard in London. It was a great event, entertaining our 300 guests with African fashion, film, food and music, and an auction of contemporary African artworks.

But it also marked three other important shifts.

Firstly, over those 120 years, the history of the Society has reflected Britain’s changing relationship with the continent. Started by people who were genuinely interested in understanding Africa as it was at the beginning of the 20th century, interested in listening to African voices and welcoming Africans as members, it rapidly came under the influence of the imperial ideology of the time and effectively became the voice of the British empire in Africa. From the 1940s, however, African voices returned. The Society provided a platform for Africa’s nationalist leaders and, after independence, for its new presidents and ministers, and supported the academic study of Africa in the UK. Since 2000, it evolved again to become, as it is today, the place where Africa and Britain meet, where all those of African heritage and all those interested in Africa can share their interests, express their views, and enjoy Africa’s creative renaissance.

This is the second theme, reflecting Africa’s emergence as a growing creative force in the world. One of the artists who performed at the Gala, Shingai, is a Zimbabwean singer who lives in London and who has just recorded Africa’s anthem for this year’s football World Cup. African music is everywhere, influencing styles across the world. African fashion too is a growing force, illustrated in this year’s exhibition at the V&A Museum in London as well as by the leading designers who presented their latest fashions at the event – Alphadi, Shadae Thomas-Fahm and Yemi Kosibah.

The event also coincided with our biennial Film Africa festival, which highlighted Africa’s role as an original contributor to world cinema. The winner of this year’s Audience Award was a South African film, The Umbrella Men, and the Baobab Award for the best Short Film went to the Kenyan film Baba, about a young street boy living in Nairobi, directed by Mbithi Masya.

Thirdly, the celebration demonstrated how African companies operating in the UK are now as integral a part of the Society as British companies operating in Africa. The Society has always maintained active links with the private sector as well as with academic and political groups involved with Africa. Africa’s own private sector, particularly in the tech and finance sectors, is becoming increasingly global in outlook. Companies like Flutterwave, Airtel, Ecobank and Access Bank are looking beyond the shores of Africa for expansion, and the UK is a hub of interest to them. In the same way Indian companies expanded from the sub-continent to Britain and across the world, African companies are starting along the same path.

The event showed that, at the level of people to people, business to business, Britain and Africa are growing closer together. But that has not been the case with government to government links. Until now.

At last, there seems to be a British government willing to respond to these trends, to the growing importance of Africa in the world. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s parents lived in East Africa before migrating to the UK, and for the first time Britain has a Foreign Secretary of African heritage (James Cleverly’s mother is from Sierra Leone). The minister responsible for development and Africa, Andrew Mitchell, who also attends Cabinet, knows both the continent and development policy well having dealt with them before as a previous Secretary of State at DfID.

Speaking on the BBC’s Today programme on 23 November, Cleverly acknowledged that Britain had to engage more closely with Africa, noting that the President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, was making the first inward State Visit of King Charles III’s reign. He acknowledged the difficulties of Britain’s past relationship with Africa but believed these should not dominate the present. On issues like climate, the state of the global economy and on regional security, working more closely together was essential. This is encouraging.

Even so, caution is needed. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has already indicated that current fiscal constraints mean the government will not reverse the decision to reduce aid from 0.7% to 0.5% of GDP – itself now a shrinking number. And migration will remain a dominant preoccupation and contested policy area. The Home Office still needs to do more to respond to the APPG for Africa’s 2019 report on Visa Problems for African Visitors to the UK, and the Department of Education to act on the recommendations in this year’s report on Africa in the Educational Curriculum.

But for ten years, the financial cuts in aid have been compounded by political neglect. If that is at last to be reversed, with a genuine political engagement, it can lead to a more fruitful and respectful relationship and begin the process of restoring Britain’s reputation in Africa. It has certainly taken a battering.

Nicholas Westcott is the director of the Royal African Society.

This post first appeared on the excellent Royal African Society website. Check it out here.

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