Voices

Africa: A silver lining for Brexit

2017-01-18 16:14

On Tuesday, Theresa May delivered a much-anticipated speech outlining her goals as she prepares to trigger Article 50 and withdraw Britain’s membership of the European Union. I believe there are two important takeaways from the prime minister’s declarations.

First, there is now absolute clarity that Britain will forfeit membership of the single market. Second, May will not be bullied into a bad deal by the other 27 member states of the EU and she effectively handed them an ultimatum.

I lived for this moment. For months, I had hoped that May would reveal her strength and she did not disappoint. She made it clear that the EU needs a relationship with Britain but that if they are going to be difficult during negotiations, she will walk away.

I think she is right and as a South African I am particularly looking forward to a future where Britain enters into stronger trade deals with our country and the continent more broadly once the UK is legally able to do so.

The prime minister presented a 12-point plan for Brexit and what piques my interest is the ninth objective which relates to new trade agreements with other countries.

Since taking office, May has positioned herself as a proponent of free trade and we got a glimpse of that in her speech. When she speaks of a “Global Britain”, she appreciates that post-Brexit the UK will find itself having to reach out to countries across the world and in particular with the fastest growing markets in the world, many of which are in Africa. South Africa is Britain’s largest trading partner on the continent and this is a relationship I believe needs to be strengthened.

Our department of trade and industry reported that the UK was South Africa’s eight-largest trading partner last year, with local exports to the UK at R41 billion and imports at R35 billion. As the UK seeks new trade deals, South Africa will benefit from the less harsh importation policies I suspect the UK will adopt and as an existing major partner I hope we will be at the front of the queue when these deals are pursued.

Ideally, I envision Britain entering into a trade deal similar to that which some Sub-Saharan countries enjoy with the United States under the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa). Under Agoa, these countries have duty-free access to the US market for certain goods and this agreement has been extended to the year 2025. A similar deal would benefit both Britain and Africa.

For example, through Agoa, more than 100 000 jobs have been created in the US and an estimated 62 000 jobs have been created in South Africa.

When we consider the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, 1.3 million indirect jobs have been created. Through such a deal, Britain will have increased access to some of the biggest and fastest growing economies in the world which would be welcome news for British exports.

I hope May explores this route.

It is true that the referendum divided Britain and some of the sentiments expressed during the campaigns are still thriving. It is also true that the road ahead will be bumpy and naturally some who voted to remain in the EU want to avoid this. The reality that May appears to understand is that to give effect to the result of the referendum, Britain needs to grin and bear it. Her focus on the opportunities rather than the challenges is encouraging and Africa should be ready to seize the moment.

» Mondli Zondo is a Mandela Washington Fellow; the flagship programme of President Barack Obama’s initiative for young African leaders. He is also the director of legislative research for the National Freedom Party in the KwaZulu-Natal provincial legislature. He writes in his personal capacity.

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October 15 2017