Royal diplomacy

Charles III hosts first state visit as king, aiming to bolster South Africa ties

Issued on: 22/11/2022 – 08:23

The Mall in London decked in the flags of South Africa and the Union Jack to mark Cyril Ramaphosa’s state visit. © Maja Smiejkowska, Reuters

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King Charles III hosts South African President Cyril Ramaphosa from Tuesday for his first state visit since ascending the throne following the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II. The three-day trip will be aimed at “celebrating cooperation” between South Africa and its former colonial power.


Although is the ’s biggest trading partner on the African continent, it is “one which it has too often taken for granted”,  Christopher Vandome, a Senior Research Fellow with Chatham House’s Africa Programme. It is therefore quite significant that ’s first state visit will be to welcome South African President and his wife Dr. Tshepo Motsepe from Tuesday to Thursday.

The British High Commissioner to South Africa has heralded this visit, saying: “This will be the first State Visit hosted by His Majesty. It reflects the importance of the relationship between South Africa and the United Kingdom. The visit will offer a chance to celebrate our modern-day partnerships delivering prosperity and security for both countries, as well as to set out how we can work together bilaterally and globally to strengthen those links for the future.”

South Africa held symbolic importance for . She delivered a speech there pledging her life to the ’s service as a 21-year-old princess. Charles III himself visited South Africa on numerous occasions and attended ’s funeral in 2013. Only time will tell what kind of relationship this new monarch, who has already met with several African leaders including Nigeria’s President and Ghana’s , will have with the continent following this first state visit. 

‘Where South Africa goes, other countries follow suit’ 

Inviting Ramaphosa on a state visit is part of the UK’s post- Global Britain initiative. This was implemented by former prime minister  “to resolidify its Commonwealth foreign policy, as Britain’s ambitions are to have closer, more profitable relations with members of the Commonwealth”, says Douglas Yates, a political scientist specialised in African politics who teaches at the American Graduate School in Paris.

Queen Elizabeth II had organised this visit, which was postponed due to the , because “of the difficult position that she found herself in regarding the Commonwealth”, explains Mario Aguilar, a professor of religion and politics at the University of St Andrews who has expertise in South African politics. At least six Caribbean countries: Belize, the Bahamas, Jamaica, Grenada, Antigua and Barbuda, and St. Kitts and Nevis expressed a desire earlier this year to become republics and remove the queen as their head of state. 

South Africa left the Commonwealth in 1961 to later rejoin in 1994. According to Aguilar, the late queen’s aim with this visit was to encourage South Africa to remain part of the association of nations. The country has played a central role in the African Union since Mandela was in office and exerts a considerable amount of influence on other African nations. As Aguilar explains, “where South Africa goes, other countries like , and so on follow suit”.

Yates says Elizabeth II had hoped to “maintain good relations with South Africa because as head of the Commonwealth, she saw each member as important and she may have been concerned about the potential for the war in Ukraine to alienate Johannesburg”. He adds: “Britain’s Conservative government led by (former PM) Boris Johnson was supporting , while South Africa wasn’t. The Commonwealth gives Britain a chance to maintain good relations with countries that aren’t supporting Ukraine.”

Bolstering the Commonwealth

This visit will mark Charles III’s first as head of the Commonwealth, a position he “lobbied for extensively during the last decade of his mother’s reign as he feels the Crown can maintain real foreign policy interests through this role”, says Yates. Following the queen’s death, there has been growing concern that the association has run its course and so Charles will certainly be using this visit to “consolidate his position as head of the Commonwealth”, he adds.

Although Aguilar acknowledges that “it is possible that the Commonwealth will face challenges under King Charles III, at the moment, there is no indication that it might end as a structure of cooperation”. Yates agrees: “People are afraid as Queen Elizabeth II has been the only head of the Commonwealth and times have changed. But, at the same time, Charles III been preparing for this job his whole adult life and the Commonwealth has actually been growing and even attracting countries that aren’t former British colonies,” such as and .

Ramaphosa will also be seeking to consolidate his position back home. The South African leader, who replaced  as president on the promise of clean government, is now facing accusations of . He is hoping this visit will legitimise his position and that of his party, the ANC, ahead of its leadership vote in December and South Africa’s general election in 2024. According to Yates, the South African Democratic Party, the opposition, has become steadily more popular with each election as it uses issues such as high inflation and poor energy infrastructure to “question the ANC’s effectiveness, thus becoming more popular and presenting itself as a viable alternative”.

Ramaphosa will get his wish, delivering a 20-minute speech about his vision of the world to both the House of Lords and Commons on Tuesday afternoon in the Royal Gallery of the House of Lords. “This is a rare honour as most state visits don’t include this,” Aguilar explains. “This is a vote of confidence in Ramaphosa, one that wasn’t even extended to [French President] , for instance, despite the close relationship between France and the UK.”

‘Celebrating cooperation’

Yates and Aguilar both agree that this visit will be about “celebrating cooperation” and that although the new king may bring up the issue of the war in Ukraine, there is “nothing to suggest that the visit will be uncomfortable or about lecturing Ramaphosa on his stance”. Yates says this is a smart approach to adopt as “the UK is never going to get South Africa to position itself just with the West, because it is playing a double game of aligning itself with both and the West”. Russia is a long-time ally of the ANC, supporting it during its fight against apartheid in South Africa. There has also been “a lot of anti-Western rhetoric coming out of South Africa recently as the country feels the West is behaving in an imperialistic way by expecting African nations to toe the line” regarding the war in Ukraine.

South Africa, like 16 other African countries, recently abstained from voting on the resolution condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Furthermore, Ramaphosa refused to condemn Russia’s invasion. South Africa is part of the BRICS group, composed of , Russia, , and South Africa, countries that are seen as the world’s leading emerging market economies. While Russia’s February 24 invasion resulted in widespread condemnation from countries and their allies, the only BRICS country to support the UN resolution was Brazil, with South Africa, China and India abstaining.  

The UK will also be keen to bolster ties with a major trading partner at a time of economic turmoil. As of November 18, 2022, in goods and services between the UK and South Africa amounted to £10.7 billion (12.3 billion euros), an increase of 6.3% from 2021. Further developing those ties will be high on the agenda when Ramaphosa meets Prime Minister on Wednesday. Britain’s new prime minister will hope to renew the trade agreement between the two countries to include lower tariffs to help with the UK’s financial crisis. 

“South Africa is already the UK’s biggest trading partner on the continent, and we have ambitious plans to turbocharge infrastructure investment and economic growth together,” Sunak said ahead of the visit. “I look forward to welcoming President Ramaphosa to London this week to discuss how we can deepen the partnership between our two great nations and capitalise on shared opportunities, from trade and tourism and security and defence.”

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