Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 164-179)

2 MARCH 2004


  Q164 Chairman: Good morning and welcome to the Committee. Mr Mullin, will you please introduce your colleagues?

  Mr Mullin: On my left is Andy Sparkes, former Deputy High Commissioner at Pretoria. On my right is Andrew Lloyd, Head of Africa Department, Southern.

  Q165 Chairman: As you know we are conducting an inquiry into South Africa and our bilateral relations ten years after the landmark elections of 1994. This is your first time before the Committee in formal session. As you know, the Committee has been to South Africa from 8 to 13 February and we thank your colleagues and the diplomatic staff who looked after us so well during that visit, which, I believe, was successful. Just to set the scene a little, could you begin by telling us a little about your assessment of the current state of UK/South African relations?  Mr Mullin: They are pretty good. We have a large common agenda which cuts across a whole range of issues: conflict resolutions, poverty reduction, combating organised crime, money laundering and counter terrorism. We have good relations with our opposite numbers on all those issues. In addition there are enormous bilateral trading links, as I am sure you are aware, about £6 billion worth of trade in both directions each year. Britain has about £12 billion worth of investments in South Africa and there are about 750,000 British citizens living in South Africa. In addition we have strong sporting, tourism and cultural links. I would say our relations are pretty good and comprehensive. Q166 Chairman: We will be coming on to some of the irritants between our two countries in foreign relations particularly Zimbabwe, Iraq and Cancun. What are the difficulties which you see in the bilateral relations between ourselves and South Africa?  Mr Mullin: I think one of the strengths of our relationship is that where difficulties do arise—there is obviously a different set of tactics, for example, in relation to Zimbabwe (which no doubt we will get onto at some stage)—we can talk about them frankly. It is quite a mature relationship. There is a difference of opinion over Iraq, for example, but again it is one we can talk about later. Q167 Chairman: I would like to focus now on the domestic matters, particularly bilateral UK/South Africa relations where there are, in your view, difficulties.  Mr Mullin: I am not aware of any, but try me. Q168 Chairman: We do not want to raise difficulties which do not exist. Moving on, we have heard much about a special relationship between the UK and South Africa. Do we still believe there to be a special relationship and in your judgment do our South African colleagues believe there to be such?  Mr Mullin: Yes, I think there is and it arises partly from the enormous goodwill that I think exists among people of all shades of opinion in this country towards South Africa, especially for what they have achieved in the last ten years. I do not think any of us sitting here, certainly twelve or fifteen years ago, could have predicted that there would be a smooth transfer of power from the earlier regime that existed there before to a modern, responsible, democratically accountable government that exists there today. Q169 Chairman: If there is a special relationship, in what way does that manifest itself compared, for example, with the relations between South Africa and France or Germany?  Mr Mullin: I think the scale of our historical interest there dictates that under almost all circumstances even if there was not this great good will—which I think extends to France and Germany as well—most outside observers are greatly heartened by the way in which the first ten years of democratic government have gone in South Africa. I have been reading recently Anthony Sampson's biography of Nelson Mandela[5]and he quotes what our newspapers—and no doubt other people's newspapers—were predicting in the immediate run-up to the change of power (bloodbaths, etc). It is easy to forget all that now, but if one reads what much of our press was predicting—and, indeed, some more serious observers—some of the assessments were extremely pessimistic at that time.Q170 Chairman: I believe Alistair Horne's book on Algeria, A Savage War of Peace,[6] was widely read by the whites.Mr Mullin: Indeed, and none of it has come to pass and that is really a great achievement on the part of those who managed the transition in South Africa. I think that is one of the reasons for the good will. Q171 Mr Olner: Perhaps we could not turn to one of the irritants: South Africa probably takes a diametrically opposed view to ours on the war in Iraq. I just wondered whether that has done any long-term damage to our relationship.  Mr Mullin: Not that I am aware of. It is certainly true that there have been some robust exchanges of views on that issue, but we do not, by and large, address each other through megaphones which is a sign of a mature relationship. Of course, we have had disagreements with other countries as well on that issue. I do not get the impression that it has irretrievably damaged our relations with South Africa. Q172 Mr Olner: Having recognised that there are these diametrically opposing views, have you done anything special to help to explain the UK position in Iraq better?  Mr Mullin: I would not say that we have done anything special, but I think no day goes by both at home and abroad without us, for one reason or another, we have to explain our views on Iraq. Q173 Mr Olner: Could we turn to another irritant that we perhaps get a little blame for—although it is not bilateral, we deal with the EU—and that is the collapse of the reform of the CAP[7]and the talks at Cancun. There was a lot of very deep feeling when we were over there a couple of weeks ago.  Mr Mullin: It is certainly an issue that South Africans feel strongly about. On the other hand, I think there is a recognition that we played a fairly honourable role. At Cancun we have been pressing very hard for trade liberalisation and the fact there was a failure was no fault of ours. I think that is widely recognised. Similarly, within the EU we have played a leading role in campaigning for doing away with the CAP and reforming the agricultural subsidies. Q174 Mr Olner: Do you think our position is as widely known as it should be? Does it get fudged with the other EU countries alone the line? Obviously we have an allegiance to both.  Mr Mullin: You would have to ask the South Africans but in my view it does not and I do think they recognise that we have played a fairly good role. I have to say that there is an EU and South Africa Trade and Development Corporation Agreement which will come fully into effect in April this year. It includes a free trade area, financial assistance and development cooperation; it has a range of trade-related measures in it and I am told that by 2010 95%—by value—of all South African export to the EU will be free of tariffs. If so, that is quite a big step forward. Q175 Mr Olner: Perhaps we ought to be saying it a bit more loudly.  Mr Mullin: I say it now and no doubt you will reflect that in your Report. Q176 Mr Hamilton: As you will know, Minister, the Department for International Development announced two months ago—in January—that aid would be reduced for the southern African nations, the so-called middle income-nations. While we were in South Africa we saw projects in Soweto and Alexandra which are going to suffer from the reduction in aid and I was wondering what consultations took place between DfID and the Foreign Office prior to the announcement being made of the reduction.  Mr Mullin: I was actually in South Africa when the announcement was made and I did talk to Hilary Benn at the time. It is quite true to say that the South Africans were irritated—you were looking for irritants a moment ago—by that. It is possible to exaggerate the amount of aid we already give because South Africa, as you will know, is an enormous economy and inevitably if the whole billion a year that we put into Africa were put into South Africa it still would be a relatively small sum compared with the size of their economy. The reduction as you, yourself, mentioned have mainly to do with the fact that it is DfID's policy to concentrate on the poorest people in the poorest countries and South Africa is a middle-income country. However, one thing that we do acknowledge—and it is a point that the South Africans make—is that South Africa is a middle income country and if you divide Gross National Product by the population you get quite a high figure, but that disguises an enormous gulf between the rich and the poor. The poor of seven or eight million live at third world standards. All of that is quite true, but actually the reduction in our aid budget is quite modest, down from £35 million to £30 million over a period. Q177 Mr Hamilton: That was a source of some irritation and clearly, while we were there, we learnt that a third of Africa's entire GDP is accounted for by South Africa's economy. They have four and a half per cent of the population; I think Mr Sparkes told us that when we were in Pretoria. Given that you, yourself, acknowledge that some damage has been done here—even though it is a relatively small amount—what are you doing to repair and reverse that damage?  Mr Mullin: One of the reasons I think it proved to be a slightly larger irritant than it might otherwise have been was because some of the media insisted on linking it to Iraq which, of course, opened up another front. However, when you calmly explain to people what the figures are and the size of our relationship with South Africa, I think it is actually a fairly minor irritant and it will pass. Q178 Mr Hamilton: Can I move onto a different subject, which is the brain drain from South Africa. When Professor David Simon gave evidence to this Committee, he told us of the concern about skilled labour and professionals leaving South Africa to come to the UK. What are the Foreign Office trying to do to tackle this perceived brain drain and, if necessary, reverse it?  Mr Mullin: There are two brain drains, of course. There is the one you did not mention which is that South Africa, being by far the richest economy in southern Africa—and, indeed, in Africa—is drawing in professional people from all over Africa (from as far away as West Africa) to work there because of the income available. It is a global phenomenon; it is happening all over the world. South Africa is both a beneficiary and, to some extent, a loser as well. As you know, there was a particular issue some years ago over health workers being attracted to this country by favourable terms—indeed in Sunderland, which I represent in Parliament, we had some South African nurses—and the Department of Health did reach a Memorandum of Understanding (I will not read it out to you but I have it available if you are interested) with the South Africans on that issue.[8] Indeed, I think the NHS agreed to stop actively recruiting from South Africa but, of course, that does not stop agencies that supply the NHS from actively recruiting. It is very hard to ban that because, as I say, it is a feature of global economy. We can certainly try to make sure that some ethical standards apply and we can try to make sure that there is a two-way fertilisation between our two health services, which is one of the things that this Memorandum of Understanding attempts to address. I will just repeat the point I made at the outset, South Africa is, to quite a degree, a beneficiary of this trend as well as a loser. On balance, for all I know, it may be an overall beneficiary. Certainly there are an enormous number of professional people—for reasons we can all think about—who come from Zimbabwe who now work in South Africa.Q179 Mr Hamilton: It would be quite interesting to know whether that was the case and whether they were a net gain or a net loser, but that is obviously not for you. Moving on to my final point, when Professor Simon from the University of London gave evidence to us he suggested that there may be cuts in the number of Chevening scholarships available to South African citizens. Is that true?  Mr Mullin: Not that I am aware of. No decision has been taken so far as I know. We had a good Chevening programme with South Africa and, overall, Chevening is expanding rather than contracting so I am not aware of that.

5   Mandela, by Anthony Sampson, (London 1999). Back

6   A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-62, by Alistair Horne, (London 1987). Back

7   CAP-Common Agricultural Policy. Back

8   Please refer to the supplementary memorandum submitted by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Ev 95. Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2004
Prepared 18 May 2004