Global Britain? UK-Africa Relations Damaged by Visa System

Last week I travelled down to Westminster to attend the launch of a new report entitled ‘Visa Problems for African Visitors to the UK’. It is the product of seven months of evidence collection and has been jointly produced by three All-Party Parliamentary Groups (the APPG for Africa, the APPG for Diaspora, Development & Migration and the APPG for Malawi).

The report provides a damning critique of the experience of Africans seeking short-term visit visas to the UK. The headline data is that for a two-year period from September 2016, the refusal rate for African visitors to the UK was 27%, compared with an average across the board of 12% (page 8 of the report). Of course, this does not include data on how many people have been put off even applying in the first place, given a system which the report concludes “does not afford quality decision-making…and is doing tremendous damage to the image and interests of Global Britain” (page 43).

The evidence base for the report also includes a series of personal testimonies from a range of individuals and organisations. During the meeting last week, some audience members in their questions to the Minister for Immigration, Caroline Nokes, recounted their own traumatic experiences with the UK visa system. An online appendix to the report, available here, catalogues these and remains open for further submissions.

The report convincingly argues that the disparities experienced by African applicants are caused by underlying structural barriers. Decisions are perceived to lack fairness, with the evidence collected for the report demonstrating that in some cases applicants are being asked to go beyond the procedural guidelines. Applications are also costly and time-consuming. The UK currently has thirty-two Visa Application Centres (VACs) across the entire continent, which means that the residents of twenty-four African countries have to travel to a neighbouring country to submit their application (page 18). One example, cited in the report, is Mauritania, whose citizens have to apply for a visa to visit Morocco and travel over 4000 km, just to submit a UK visa application (page 20). There is also a lack of accountability in the system with no right of appeal to challenge refusals. Apart from pursuing a judicial review, the only option is to submit a brand new application.

Of course, the findings of this report exist within a wider context that has seen the UK Government employ its ‘hostile environment’ policy in an attempt to appear tough on immigration. More recently, the revelations around the Windrush scandal have highlighted the failings of the Home Office. A recent leak of a draft report of the ongoing investigation into this affair, suggests the “Home Office failed in its legal duty to counter racial discrimination when it implemented its anti-immigration hostile environment programme” (Guardian 27.06.19).

The impact of austerity and outsourcing is also an important backdrop. At the launch meeting, John Vine (former Independent Chief Inspector for Borders & Immigration (ICIBI)) reminded everyone that the Home Office has not been a ring-fenced Department during the years of austerity. He argued that as a result the volume of visa applications was not being matched by sufficient resources. This is despite the fact that applicants for a standard visitor visa to the UK have to pay £95 regardless of whether or not their application is successful (page 19). The report notes that there are now only two Decision Making Centres (DMCs) (in Pretoria and Croydon) for applications from the whole of Africa (page 17). The contract for running these DMCs, along with the VACs, was awarded to a private company (Teleperformance UK Ltd) in 2014. With staff being expected to assess 40-60 applications per day (according to John Vine) it is maybe no surprise that the use of an algorithm has been adopted, which labels applications ‘green’, ‘amber’ or ‘red’. The current ICIBI has raised concerns that as a result “decisions were not being made on the merits of the individual case but on a set of generalised and detached indicators” (page 21).

The report also identifies a number of recommendations. These cover measures to improve both the process of applying for visas and the decision-making procedures. At the launch of the report, John Vine reminded the audience that, during his time as ICIBI, he made very similar suggestions in his annual reports to the Home Office. Another panellist, Dr Robtel Neajai Pailey, suggested that things were so problematic that Africans should consider boycotting the UK visa system to engender effective changes.

In summary, the UK visa system will be a central part of our future relationship with Africa. I have visited both South Africa (on a number of occasions) and Kenya for work and my experience couldn’t be more of a contrast with those who seek to travel in the opposite direction. The APPGs involved in producing this report should be commended for cataloguing the ways in which the current system is failing our partners in Africa and the subsequent damage this is doing to their view of the UK. The full report is available to download here and if you are a UK citizen please do write to your local MP and urge them to read the report and ask questions in parliament on the issues raised.

Brexit, Democracy and UK Trade Policy

Last week the UK government published its Trade Bill, which formally starts the process of moving towards an independent trade policy. Member states of the European Union (EU) are part of a customs union. This means they operate a unified trade policy, which includes common external tariffs on imports from outside the EU. The UK government has already made it clear it intends to leave the customs union as part of the Brexit process. Prior to the start of the legislative process, the Department for International Trade published a Trade White Paper on 9 October 2017, which set out the principles guiding the UK’s future trade policy. This included numerous references to stakeholder engagement and as part of a consultation exercise it included an invitation for submissions on all aspects of the developing approach set out in the White Paper.

In this post I outline the major points of my submission to this consultation process. The deadline was Monday 6 November 2017 and it was therefore with some surprise that I discovered the following morning that the government was publishing its Trade Bill in parliament. This led to criticism from trade unions and NGOs who had also contributed to the consultation. For example, War on Want argued that given the timing of the publication of the bill it was clear that ‘the input of thousands of responses from members of the public could not have been considered’.

Given my long-standing research interest in the EU’s trade and development policy to African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) states, my response focused in the main on the fourth of the five principles outlined in the White Paper, namely ‘supporting developing countries to reduce poverty’. In doing so, I also explored some of the tensions between this ambition and the other four principles (‘trade that is transparent and inclusive’, ‘supporting a rules-based global trading environment’, ‘boosting our trade relationships’ and ‘ensuring a level playing field’).

My criticism of the White Paper ultimately rests on some of the problematic assumptions it makes about the relationship between trade and development. These assumptions were also demonstrated in an important speech made by Liam Fox, the Secretary of State for International Trade, in Manchester on 29 September 2016, where he suggested that ‘free trade is often a ladder to the top’. A similar claim was made by former International Development Secretary, Priti Patel, in her speech at the Conservative Party conference on 3 October 2017, when she boldly claimed that ‘trade, investment and free markets provide the route out of poverty’.

These claims are advanced in the first half of the White Paper where the role of trade in the global economy is discussed. The conclusion one is supposed to draw from this is that free trade was at the heart of the historical development of the British economy and hence this is something that should be recommended to developing countries today. However, as respected economist Ha-Joon Chang has convincingly demonstrated, Britain employed tariffs for a significant period before it was able to adopt a regime of free trade during the nineteenth century. Chang notes that ‘the overall liberalization of the British economy … of which trade liberalization was just a part, was a highly controlled affair overseen by the state, and not achieved through a laissez-faire approach’ (Ha-Joon Chang, Kicking Away the Ladder, p.24). Hence, what the White Paper suggests are protectionist measures (such as subsidies for domestic industry) could conversely be understood as legitimate development strategies.

The section of the White Paper on UK trade policy and how it can support developing countries includes a commitment that as the UK leaves the EU it ‘will maintain current access for the world’s Least Developed Countries (LDCs) to UK markets and aim to maintain preferential access of other (non-LDC) developing countries’ (p.32). This is to be welcomed. However, the aim of replicating the EU’s existing Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) is much more problematic. It is clear to anyone who has followed the EU’s negotiation of EPAs with ACP countries, that they met significant resistance from both many ACP governments, and civil society organisations (CSOs) across Europe and regions within the ACP. In part, their concerns relate directly to the assumptions noted above about the ‘policy space’ needed for development. Both the Tanzanian and Nigerian governments have indicated that they are concerned that signing an EPA will undermine their ability to adopt government policies to support industrialization. In Nigeria, the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria has been particularly effective in lobbying against the EPA, arguing that it will harm the domestic industrial sector.

Moreover, they have also voiced concerns over attempts by the EU to introduce the so-called ‘Singapore Issues’ (competition policy, transparency in government procurement, equal treatment for foreign investors, and trade facilitation measures) that were rejected at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 2003 at the Cancún Ministerial. There is therefore a potential conflict of principles in the White Paper between the expressed concern for developing countries and the suggestion that the ‘UK will look to secure greater access to overseas markets for UK goods exports as well as push for greater liberalisation of global services, investment and procurement markets’ (p.27). These are precisely the issues that African states and CSOs have identified as problematic because they would constrain the ability of ACP states to seek to diversify their exports and support the development of an industrial sector.

The White Paper’s strong support for the conclusion of the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA) also undermines the claim to be supporting developing countries. TiSA has emerged as a separate arrangement after talks on services stalled within the WTO due to resistance from developing countries. They have expressed concerns that it would allow transnational corporations to turn essential public services into commodities that can be traded.

It is therefore highly likely that the UK will meet significant resistance if it seeks to simply replicate EPAs. African states have been able to demonstrate significant agency in the EPA negotiations and there would be greater scope for this in negotiations with the UK. They have made it clear that rather than deep and comprehensive trade liberalisation, what they want is a gradual process of engagement with global markets, which if it is to be developmental, needs to be facilitated by state support. Therefore, a much better alternative would be for the UK to introduce an improved Generalised System of Preferences that goes above and beyond the EU’s current ‘Everything but Arms’ agreement with LDCs. Hence, I would support the recommendations made by Traidcraft in its February 2017 report for the adoption of ‘a preference scheme offering duty-free, quota-free market access to imports from economically vulnerable countries, including but not limited to the least developed countries’ (p.16).

My final concerns relate to the democratic accountability of any future UK trade policymaking. These were reinforced by the superficial nature of the process of consultation on the White Paper itself. While it is reassuring to note in the White Paper that there is a plan for regular engagement with stakeholders, it is unclear what is meant by the phrase ‘we will ensure that Parliament, the devolved administrations, devolved legislatures, business and civil society are engaged throughout’ (p.29). Prior to this there is reference to the need for a legislative framework that allows for the quick negotiation and ratification of trade agreements. Trade negotiations are notoriously long and difficult to conclude and this desire for speed should not come at the cost of democratic accountability. As I, and 54 other academics have argued in a recent letter published in The Telegraph on 20 October 2017, modern trade agreements cover a wide range of policy areas. It is therefore vital that government makes a clear and unequivocal commitment that parliament and the devolved administrations/legislatures will have a say in both formulating negotiating mandates and ratifying any future trade agreements agreed by the UK. Moreover, information related to trade negotiations should be made public so that stakeholders are able to provide proper democratic input into the process.

Reflections on ‘the left’ in South Africa

In recent years the electoral superiority of the ANC has begun to face its first real test since we entered the post-apartheid era in 1994. As the limitations of its neoliberal development strategy have become increasingly apparent, the question arises as to whether there is an effective leftist formation that could offer an alternative vision for the country. If so, who might constitute any such leftist formation?

The answer to this question has become ever more complicated in recent years. The domestic and global political terrain has moved significantly since I first conducted some research interviews on these issues in Cape Town back in 2011. Most notably, we have witnessed the so-called ‘NUMSA moment‘ when it was felt (maybe more in hope than reality) that the left had made a real breakthrough in South Africa. After a number of false dawns in recent years, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) has recently announced that it is planning to launch a new political party of the left.

This blog post is a summary of a much longer academic article, entitled ‘What’s left of ‘the left’ in post-apartheid South Africa?’, which was recently published in the journal Capital & Class. Free access to the full article is available here until the end of this month.

The article starts from the normative premise that there is an objective need for a revival and renewal of progressive forces in South Africa. It then seeks to assess the state of ‘the left’ in two complementary senses. First, it evaluates the health of a range of self-identified leftist social forces and then it passes judgement on the extent to which they can be genuinely considered ‘left’ in any meaningful sense. The overall conclusion is that at present, although there are a range of different ‘left’ actors, an effective political formation is not present in South Africa. There is some evidence of attempts at co-operation between a range of different groups. However, at present the challenge remains of how to connect these groups to the masses, which are instead engaged in localised protest and struggle that lacks co-ordination, direction and leadership.

The first half of the article, sets out what I call ‘the realities of post-apartheid South Africa’. What was clear from the research I did for this project is that those who self-identify as part of ‘the left’ in South Africa all tend to agree on what the central problems are: poverty, inequality and unemployment. Far less of a consensus is apparent on what the obstacles are to overcoming these challenges. While members of the South African Communist Party (SACP), who hold key positions in the government, argue that a shift in the growth path engendered by changes in government policy will address these concerns, others in the left outside of the Alliance, see the continued hegemony of the ANC as the main concern.

In this section of the article, I highlight in particular the persistently high level of unemployment, how the top 10% of the population continue to enjoy more than a 50% share of total income, and how the trajectory of the post-apartheid economy continues to rely on finance, mining and retail, whilst the industrial sector has become even less significant since 1994.

These realities have endured during a period when the ANC government has, despite the numerous new macroeconomic policy launches, pursued a consistently neoliberal strategy ever since it adopted the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) plan in 1996. In 2010 with the adoption of the New Growth Path (NGP) it did appear that maybe a change of direction was afoot. However, as I argue in the paper, there remain significant continuities in approach and moreover, the NGP has been largely superseded by the National Development Plan, which was published by the government in 2012.

The second half of the article then outlines three distinct, but not mutually exclusive, categories of the contemporary left in South Africa. In the analysis of each category I seek to evaluate both their significance and their leftist credentials. The three groups are as follows:

  1. The left within the tripartite alliance. Here I assess all three partners within the Alliance: the ANC, the SACP and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). Of these, COSATU has represented a more leftist stance compared to its  Alliance partners. However, it is constrained by its strategic political alliance with the ANC and SACP. As a result, COSATU has evolved from an organisation that pursued wider social transformation (social movement unionism) to one that increasingly prioritises collective bargaining within the parameters prescribed by post-apartheid labour legislation (political unionism). NUMSA (South Africa’s largest trade union) has been aware of such dilemmas and has long questioned the leftist credentials of the ANC government. It has now split from COSATU and is involved in the process of forming a new trade union federation. These developments may result in a more influential leftist formation that is independent of the ANC. However, NUMSA still tends to refer rather exclusively to the ‘organised working class’ and there seems only limited appreciation of the need to broaden its focus beyond those who are employed in the formal sector.
  2. The left outside the alliance. During the late 1990s in South Africa we began to see the emergence of what were then called ‘new social movements’. This marked a clear rupture in the South African left as a whole. Their significance lies in the fact that they operate independently of the structures of the ANC. Since the turn of the century we have also witnessed the rapid growth in so-called ‘service delivery protests’. What they demonstrate is that there is a level of resistance, however spontaneous and uncoordinated, to the neoliberal policies of the government.
    dlf-image-by-meraj-chhaya
    Image by Meraj Chhaya

    The formation of the Democratic Left Front (DLF) in 2011 was an attempt at coordination. The split of NUMSA from COSATU then culminated in the announcement on 2 March 2014 of plans for the formation of a broader leftist movement known as the ‘United Front and Movement for Socialism’. Ultimately it remains to be seen whether the impetus given to the United Front by NUMSA, will allow it to more effectively realise the kinds of linkages envisaged by the DLF.

  3. The remnants of a revolutionary socialist left. A number of small groups in South Africa are still following a revolutionary socialist agenda. The political position of these groups remains based on a complete rejection of reformism of any kind. As a result, most of these groups eschew working with organisations that fall within the other two categories of the left. While a new left project in South Africa clearly needs to offer an alternative to the largely rhetorical stance adopted by the ANC and SACP, given the failures of vanguardism, it also needs to adopt a strategy that is likely to attract widespread support.

The article concludes by noting that the dangers of the continued absence of an effective leftist mass movement are clear. These are most evident in the populist politics of Julius Malema, leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a new political party formed in 2013. Malema skilfully uses leftist rhetoric in speaking to precisely those people in society, the young and underemployed, who remain marginalised and disconnected from current leftist formations in South Africa.

In sum, I argue that efforts should be continued in the task of co-ordinating leftist formations outside of the Alliance. However this alone, without clear links to the mass base, will not lead to meaningful socioeconomic progress for the majority of South Africans.

Local elections in South Africa see ANC’s dominance under pressure as they lose control of key municipalities

Towards the end of the negotiated transition to democracy in South Africa, Nelson Mandela famously said ‘if the ANC does to you what the apartheid government did to you, then you must do to the ANC what you did to the apartheid government’. This quote was recently employed by Mmusi Maimane the current leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA), South Africa’s main opposition party, during his speech at the DA’s final rally before local elections, which were held recently on 3 August. The results of these elections indicate that an increasing number of South Africans are putting Mandela’s words into practice, despite the repeated assertion by Jacob Zuma (the current President) that the ANC will rule ‘until Jesus comes back’.

The 2016 vote resulted in a national picture that saw the ANC’s share of the vote fall by 8%, in comparison to the last municipal elections in 2011, to a historic low of 53.9%. The DA secured 26.9% to cement their place as the leading opposition party, while the Economic Freedom Fighters, only formed in 2013, were third overall with 8.2%.

Beyond these headline figures an even more challenging picture emerges for the ANC’s electoral future. A significant rural-urban divide is developing in voting patterns. Of the eight metropolitan municipalities, which include all of South Africa’s major cities, the DA held Cape Town with an impressive two-thirds of the vote and became the leading party in Nelson Mandela Bay (Port Elizabeth) and Tshwane (Pretoria). It has also gained control of Johannesburg, despite trailing the ANC in second place, because it has managed to secure the votes of the EFF and other smaller parties. Meanwhile, the ANC now only have overall control of three of the eight metros. Like many other countries in the developing world South Africa is experiencing rapid urbanisation. According to the government’s recently published Integrated Urban Development Framework 63% of South Africa’s citizens live in urban areas and this is projected to increase to over 70% by 2030. Hence, the urban vote is going to become increasingly significant in the future.

It appears that the ANC’s reliance on its credentials as a liberation movement is increasingly losing currency with South African voters. This ‘liberation legacy’ is something that the ANC has relied upon in its campaign strategies for both the most recent local elections and the national poll in 2014. It is therefore unsurprising that some research conducted by a team at the University of Johannesburg, suggests that the ANC is relying increasingly on the support of older voters, whereas the two main opposition parties appeal most to younger voters.

Much of the debate since the 3 August poll, both within and outside the ANC, has focused on whether the decline in support for the ANC is because of the increasingly toxic reputation of President Zuma, or whether it is a verdict on the ANC’s broader record on human development.  South Africa continues to face the triple challenge of a very high unemployment rate, rising income inequality and persistent levels of poverty. It appears that the initial debriefing within the ANC’s national executive committee refuses to accept either explanation. Any suggestion that the blame rests with Zuma is certainly not being made public and in fact the conclusion seems to be simply that some ANC voters stayed at home and that all the party needs to do is address their concerns. In fact, the turnout in the most recent poll was 58%, which is consistent with the figure for the previous local elections held in 2011.

Many analysts (e.g. Justice Malala) have celebrated the outcome of the recent municipal elections arguing that they are good for democracy in South Africa. It is certainly the case, from a procedural point of view at least, that having a less dominant ANC may well result in a more accountable ruling class. However, given the development challenges faced by South Africa, I would argue that what is most necessary is an effective leftist political programme. As a recent Afrorbarometer poll suggests, a majority of South African citizens would be in favour of the creation of a new workers’ party.

The EFF are at present the only effective electoral force offering something resembling such a programme, however, in reality they offer a populist blend of African nationalism and class-based politics. After the local elections the EFF faced the dilemma of being a potential kingmaker in a number of municipalities. It declared it would not enter into any formal coalition with either the ANC or the DA but it did decide to vote to support the DA’s candidate for mayor in Johannesburg. Given how orthodox the DA’s economic policies are, this is a decision that is remarkably inconsistent with the EFF’s radical leftist rhetoric.

UK-Africa Relations Seminar Series Part 7

A few weeks ago I flew out to Nairobi, Kenya for the last of a series of seminars looking at UK-Africa relations. The theme of the last meeting was ‘African Agency and UK-Africa Policy’. In this final blog post on the series I will provide a summary of the day and some of the key themes that stood out for me from the discussions, which were held at the very hospitable British Institute in Eastern Africa.

The first session considered the role played by African actors in security and defence relations. Kasaija Phillip Apuuli (Makere University) discussed the African Union (AU) and its significance as an African actor. He noted how the UK government has worked with the AU on combatting terrorism and violent extremism but also offered us some ongoing challenges, including the continuing existence of a number of unpalatable regimes in Africa, which undermine the AU’s coherence. We also heard from Jens-Peter Kamanga Dyrbak who works for the UK’s Department for International Development in Somalia. He observed how during the last decade the relationship between the UK and African governments has become much more of a genuine partnership, as attention has switched to supporting domestic processes of state building. The final presentation by Brigadier Mark Christie (Defence Advisor to the British High Commission in Nairobi) considered the UK’s defence footprint in Kenya. He suggested that military training is central to this relationship and that more is being done in an effort to increase Kenya’s agency.

After lunch we heard from Nic Hailey who is the current British High Commissioner in Kenya. He urged us to move beyond the narrative of Africa as a single coherent place and also introduced the important role played by the diaspora when considering agency.

The third session began with Alex Vines (Director of the Africa Programme at Chatham House). He switched attention from security to economic relations and in particular foreign direct investment (FDI). Alex considered the role of the UK (and the West more broadly) in Africa within the context of the so-called rise of the emerging powers and China in particular. He noted that the differences between these external actors can sometimes be overplayed and that often Chinese firms investing in Africa have the same concerns as UK firms. He argued that the story of the rise of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) in Africa should be tempered somewhat given that the top three sources of FDI into Africa are the US, UK and France according to the 2015 UNCTAD investment report. The result, he claimed, has been that African states (maybe with the exception of South Africa) are engaged in a politics of diversification in their external relations, rather than simply a ‘look East’ strategy.

Latif Ismael (CEO of Transparency Solutions) then gave us a more case-specific account of his experiences from Somalia. He outlined how Turkey has been very active over recent years, particularly in providing both humanitarian relief for the 2011 famine and providing scholarships for students to study in Turkey.

In the final session of the day we heard from Sally Healy (Rift Valley Institute) and Mary Harper (Africa Editor at the BBC World Service). Sally shared some thoughts from her extensive experience as a political analyst in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. She put current trends in UK-Africa relations into historical context and in particular the approach that New Labour took during its time in government. Sally argued that since 2010 the UK has moved away from a ‘saving Africa’ approach to working with specific countries where the UK has a comparative advantage.

Mary Harper then reflected on her time working for the BBC and the question of who can speak for Africa. She noted that during her time working for the BBC World Service there has been a proliferation of both domestic African radio and TV stations and alternative external players such as Chinese CCTV Africa and Al Jazeera.

It was a shame that some of the other Africa-based speakers who had been invited were unable to make it given the focus on African agency. Nevertheless, the day was another thought-provoking seminar that raised a number of interesting issues for me. I will just sketch out briefly three of these here.

  1. Dynamics of power within UK-Africa relations need to be considered in our analysis. During the seminar we heard a lot of talk about ‘partnership’ and notions of African agency. However, we should not ignore the fact that the UK’s relationship with Africa is forever shaped by its colonial past. During the rest of my brief stay in Nairobi this was abundantly clear to me. Put simply, ‘African agency’ is shaped by the past and should not be considered ahistorically.
  2. When thinking about African agency we need to think about which actors we are ascribing agency to. Africa is not a coherent voice and we heard during the day about some of the limitations of both the AU and the various regional organisations. While South Africa’s membership of BRICS represents an attempt to speak for the continent this is not something that is welcomed by other key states in Africa. At the very least we need to start from the ‘bottom-up’ by looking at specific actors and their ability to shape external relations with the UK.
  3. The rise of emerging powers in Africa means that UK-Africa relations should not be understood as a zero-sum game, whereby less influence from the UK simply equates to more African agency. During the seminar discussions we heard about China’s increasing influence across the continent and Turkey’s extensive impact in Somalia. What matters more for Africa is the impact that these external actors have. For example, the type of FDI and its potential to boost African development, matters more than where it comes from. Africa now has more choice in who it engages with than it did before, which has resulted in what Alex Vines called the ‘politics of diversification’ and this clearly poses challenges for the UK’s relations with the continent.

My blog posts on all of the six previous seminars are available here. There are a number of planned outputs and publications so watch this space! All the details of the seminar series are on the official website and for latest news you can also follow @UKAfricaSeminar on twitter.