Opinion: Cameron’s Africa visit should focus on Zuma and Mugabe

(c) World Economic Forum

Georgia Lewis

For the last five-and-a-half years, I’ve lived the expat life. First as an Australian in the UAE and then, 15-odd years after most of my fellow countrymen do the working holiday in London, I am now living in the UK. In this time, I’ve been fortunate to meet people from all over the world and in my experiences, the expats who feel the strongest call to go home are South African.

Having visited South Africa, I can see why – it is a gloriously beautiful country, the weather is good, the beer is cheap and, if you’re lucky, you can have a wonderfully relaxed lifestyle.

The other thing that unites my South African friends is a deep love and respect for Nelson Mandela, who is celebrating his 93rd birthday this week. It is indeed a miracle of modern times that he is still alive and it is definitely a good thing that he is still a hero, a role model, a symbol of the ideals that motivated the end of apartheid.

David Cameron has been in Johannesburg this week to hold talks to strengthen business links between the UK and South Africa but the phone hacking scandal has led him to cut the trip short. This is unfortunate because as well as any economic advantages that may have come out of the visit, Cameron could have used the time to lean on Jacob Zuma over the human rights abuses that are taking place in Zimbabwe under the regime of Robert Mugabe.

Earlier this month, Zuma clashed with Mugabe when he said Zimbabwe may not be ready for safe, secure elections this year and that violence, hate speech, harassment and political arrests had to stop. This was uncharacteristically bold of Zuma, a man who has been accused of supporting Mugabe and could have been the catalyst for some frank conversations between South Africa and Britain.

But it seems human rights is a tricky subject when it comes to Britain’s relations with countries where the people do not enjoy the same freedoms we do here. The pressure was on Cameron to take China to task on extensive human rights abuses when Premier Wen Jiabao visited – and it seems he was about as forceful as a slap on the wrist with a piece of wet lettuce when the issue was raised.

Likewise, western nations, including Britain, are notoriously weak when it comes to challenging Saudi Arabia over issues such as women’s rights where effectively a gender-based apartheid exists. Another case of economics over human rights.

The opportunity could have been right for Zuma and Cameron to have some serious discussions about the ongoing Zimbabwean situation. The phone hacking scandal is, for Cameron, a seriously urgent, government-threatening situation and it is no surprise the South African trip had to be cut short.

But while it is essential that the outcome of the News International investigations is a fairer UK press and a government that is not held to ransom by one powerful billionaire and his cronies, it is important to remember that we are still part of the wider world. Any opportunity to put forward a strong case for human rights improvements should be taken.

It seems that Cameron has missed his chance on his South African trip but with Zuma speaking out against Mugabe, the potential is there for both nations to unite and help the people of Zimbabwe finally enjoy a strong, credible democracy. This may sound hugely idealistic but with these events taking place in the shadow of Nelson Mandela’s birthday celebrations, we  are fortunate to still have a living embodiment of how idealism can ultimately triumph.

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