Kings, Queens and Presidents

ANTHONY BUTLER: Watch the politics behind the eccentricities of state visits

First published in BusinessLive, 6 October, 2022

The announcement that President Cyril Ramaphosa will undertake a state visit to the UK from November 22-24 brought an immediate deluge of snarky commentary from political journalists, newspaper columnists and the lower orders of society more generally.

This is unfair. The pomp and ceremony may be ridiculous, but such jaunts should also be taken seriously. Every country has its own corny protocols for visiting dignitaries. In the US visitors disembark to a “flight line ceremony” at Joint Base Andrews. They are then greeted on the south lawn of the White House, where they endure a 21-gun salute. After munching their way through a state dinner — possibly pizza and chips under Bill Clinton — they are obliged to listen to a washed-out crooner such as Frank Sinatra.

In the Russian Federation heads of state are greeted at Vnukovo International Airport, enjoy a grim welcome at St George’s Hall in the Kremlin, sit for hours on end in the “Czar’s box” at the Bolshoi. They then wander around Lenin’s Mausoleum and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier before enjoying a state banquet — perhaps followed by a relaxing massage in the presidential suite of the Russian leader’s official hotel.

Britain’s offerings are no less eccentric. A ceremonial welcome on Horse Guards Parade from inappropriately dressed soldiers. A trip in a horse-drawn carriage to the palace (especially useful during a transport workers’ strike). Twenty-one-gun salutes (106-gun if you are China’s president Xi Jinping). And a state banquet that requires a dozen pieces of cutlery to transfer the rubber chicken from plate to mouth, probably served with an obligatory SA wine — but not Chateau Libertas.

While such flummery may appeal to insecure politicians, the invitations originate in the murky depths of the foreign, commonwealth & development office, and one can generally discern some rationale behind them.

Then US president Donald Trump’s visit in 2019 was apparently designed to reignite the “special relationship” between the two countries, given reasonable doubts about its existence. Xi’s trip in 2015 was part of a major effort on the part of the opium dealer to recast relationships with its nonconsenting former user.

What does Britain want from Ramaphosa’s SA? While the eurozone and China now eclipse the UK as trading partners, the UK remains an active and important investor. Beyond business-oriented meetings there is much to discuss with regard to climate change, emerging blocs in international power politics, and access to the mineral resources of the postcarbon global energy regime.

Most striking of all, however, are the carefully crafted and personalised elements of such a visit, most of which take place outside the full glare of publicity. The new monarch will probably take Ramaphosa around a specially curated exhibition of items from the royal collection at Buckingham Palace — many of them unfortunately stolen from former colonies — which reflect the enduring and complex relationship between the two countries.

Jacob Zuma visited the house in north London from which Oliver Tambo led the ANC’s diplomatic campaign against apartheid for 30 years. He expressed more sadness than nostalgia: “Some of us used to come here to give reports and bring messages. It does bring back those days when we could not speculate about when would be the day of freedom.”

Ramaphosa has his own memories and personal relationships in the UK, from business dealings to the Northern Ireland peace process, and above all from the politics of international labour union solidarity. It will be interesting to see where his royal and diplomatic hosts decide to take him. It will be more fascinating still if Ramaphosa uses these interactions to set out his own agenda for the future relationships between these two states.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

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