A FAMOUS GROUSE
TO Whitehall, and a Foreign and Commonwealth Office networking event aimed at improving my working relationship with Her Majesty’s government.
There, amid the gilded Victorian splendour of the FCO’s Locarno reception suite, I drifted from table to table, amiably swapping business cards and chatting with press officers and media officials from the Prime Minister’s Office, the Ministry of Defence, the Office for the Secretary of State for Scotland, the Department for International Development and a bunch more besides.
Over at the Home Office table, for example, I blithely mentioned the alleged deportation of Zimbabwean nationals and was bluntly informed that a statement in this regard had been issued some days earlier.
Zimbabweans across the UK have in recent months been asked to attend interviews at Home Offices centres only to find officials from Harare waiting to question them, prompting allegations that the Home Office was colluding with President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government in the deportation of said nationals, who face possible arrest and torture upon their return.
According to the Home Office, such “routine re-documentation interviews” are often undertaken to establish identities so that travel documentation can be issued. “Where a decision has been made that a person does not require international protection,” the Guardian quoted a spokesman as saying, “removal is only enforced when we and the courts conclude that it is safe to do so, with a safe route of return.”
On to other tables. The National Crime Agency’s people filled me in about their intelligence work, tracking international criminal syndicates, money launderers, human traffickers and the like. I briefly wondered if they considered the ANC’s national executive persons of interest. Silly question. Of course they did.
Over at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, I inquired about the rationing that would be introduced with the post-Brexit shortages, but was told, emphatically, that, no, the food won’t be running out anytime after March 29.
I was not entirely convinced. Earlier in the week, the UK government met to discuss the reduction of food waste and, in a bid to encourage frugality, the prime minister, Theresa May, revealed to colleagues that she does not throw away jam that has grown mouldy but rather scrapes off the fungus as the rest of the jam is “perfectly edible”.
There followed some public debate. The New Statesman’s political editor, Stephen Bush, is something of a foodie and believes mouldy jam is unlikely to be harmful. “Its high acid content means the mould is largely skin deep,” he wrote on the magazine’s website, “but you must make sure to cut away a large chunk to avoid getting spores on your knife and spreading it to the healthy food.”
The experts, however, are having none of that. The spores are practically invisible and the mould, which could be any of a number of species, is capable of producing toxins that infect all of the jam, and not just the top. As Dr Andreas Karatzas, associate professor of food and nutritional sciences at Reading University, told The Times of London: “It is better to throw it away.”
This was obviously a matter to dwell on over a cup of tea, which I took in a room dominated by an enormous portrait of a previous prime minister, one Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, the third Marquess of Salisbury. Considered by many to be a mastermind of Victorian imperial supremacy, he served three separate terms of office, the last being from June 1895 to July 1902. During this time he was, until November 1900, also secretary of state for foreign affairs.
In other words, and given he was in charge at the time of the Anglo-Boer War, Lord Salisbury was as much responsible for the turmoil that resulted in the modern South African state as anyone else.
He had strong views about the former colony, which he visited only once, in 1851, as a young man in poor health. That voyage, first to the Cape and then on to Australia and New Zealand, had been a deeply upsetting experience.
At Oxford, where Cecil had studied law at Oxford, he had greatly admired “high Anglicism” and “high Toryism”. Out at sea, though, his faith in the social and political status quo was greatly undermined and all about the ship there were worrying notions of “democracy”.
His biographer, Andrew Roberts, writes: “From an entirely sheltered social background, this sickly, fastidious and still shy young man was plunged into a heaving world of ex-convicts, prospectors, bootleggers, soldiers and settlers.” For the first time in his life, Cecil encountered serious drinking and foul language, and worse still, sailors who openly flirted with the women passengers in steerage.
Matters didn’t improve after landing in Cape Town. The women were impudent, the men indolent, vulgar, illogical and shallow. The Boers, in particular, were “so stupid you could not talk to them”.
He did however have a soft spot for some South Africans. Roberts writes:
“In contrast to his dislike of the Boers, whom he regarded as inbred, dishonest, brutal, illiterate, stubborn slave-drivers, Cecil considered the K*****s ‘a fine set of men — whose language bears traces of a very high former civilisation’, which he thought not unlike Italian in its melody. He thought the K*****s ‘an intellectual race, with great firmness and fixedness of will’, but ‘horribly immoral’ as they lacked all idea of theism. By October 1851, his diary was sardonically recording tales of settlers’ adultery and incest, as well as the social torture of ‘tiffin with Lady Smith’, the wife of Cape Colony’s Governor, the Peninsular War hero Sir Harry Smith, of whose campaigns against the K*****s Cecil held a particularly low opinion…”*
Speaking of low opinions, there didn’t seem to be much enthusiasm at the tables over more recent developments in South Africa.
Mention, for example, of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s increasingly desperate investment drives to the exterior drew a bemused response at the Department for International Trade table. “Yes,” I was told. “We had noticed.” And they would no doubt have also noticed that, as far as Eskom was concerned, the light at the end of that particular tunnel has now gone out, thanks to load-shedding.
Of course, they do have problems of their own. The drive to roll over beneficial European Union trade deals beyond Brexit has not resulted in much: so far, agreement has been reached on only £16-billion (about R291-million) of the almost £117-billion (R2.12-trillion) of the UK’s trade with the countries involved.
Despite what has been described as “frenetic efforts” by ministers to ensure such business continues after leaving the EU, deals have only been secured with seven of the 69 countries that the UK currently trades with under preferential EU trade agreements which will end after Brexit.
South Africa is the seventh-largest of those particular trading partners and exports goods worth about R56-billion to the UK — but no post-Brexit agreement has been reached in this regard.
It is a matter of some urgency that these deals be secured.
There is widespread concern that the UK will be greatly weakened after Brexit. In a withering assessment, the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, told European journalists this week, “It is already weakening, it is a waning country compared to two or three years ago. It is going to become an economy of middling size in the Atlantic Ocean. It is neither the US nor the EU. It is too small to appear on the world stage on its own.”
South Africa, not unfamiliar with the weakening and waning stuff, may share those concerns. But better a trade deal with a middling economy than none at all. We must act fast, though. The bad jam madness is escalating, and after March 29, no-one here will be untouched by it.
* Roberts’s Salisbury: Victorian Titan (Faber & Faber, 2000) is a fairly recent publication, and the use of this outdated and offensive term does seem unnecessary considering he was not quoting his subject directly. If it’s of any consolation, the incredibly obese Lord Salisbury died in August 1903after falling out of a chair.
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