LETTER FROM LONDON: A snub and a murder raise unfortunate headlines | Columnists | BDlive
SA made the headlines in the UK for all the wrong reasons again on Monday morning. The top news items, rightly so, were on the killing of Bafana Bafana and Orlando Pirates captain Senzo Meyiwa.
His death is a loss too great to quantify for his family, loved ones, fans and the nation. But it is the manner of his death that reinforces the view that SA is a violent, gun-crazy nation, where life is cheap.
From the Marikana massacre to the killing of Reeva Steenkamp by Oscar Pistorius, much of the news coverage here is about violence in SA. It’s tough to get a positive message out amid all of that.
And there are many positives about our country — we’re not exclusively about crime and violence. This week, SA’s image was to be burnished by a series of planned events.
Instead, diplomatic relations between SA and the UK have become rather awkward.
President Jacob Zuma’s decision to cancel his trip to London this week because he could not secure a meeting with Prime Minister David Cameron derailed hard work behind the scenes to improve ties and boost trade. That is a fact.
Despite what you may be told by officials from both governments, who are loath to admit the details of the diplomatic wrangling that led to this latest snafu, damage has been done to the relationship between the two countries. It will take some work to repair. But it is definitely not beyond repair.
If you’ve been in your fire pool or bapsing in Bapsfontein for the past few days, then let me break it down for you.
On Friday evening, the Presidency issued a statement saying that Zuma would not be travelling to London due to an unspecified change in his diary. Zuma was meant to be the keynote speaker at the InnovaBrics summit in London on Monday morning (spare a thought for the poor event managers).
What prompted the change in his diary was not, and has still not been, explained by the Presidency — not even in the obligatory "deny, deny, deny" Sunday press statement issued by Zuma’s office.
Perhaps he’d forgotten that he had a standing appointment with the Guptas in Saxonwold every Monday afternoon, as described by Mondli Makhanya in a Sunday Times column last year titled, "It’s Monday afternoon. Guess where the president is…".
Nonetheless, Downing Street appears to have balked at freeing up Cameron’s schedule for the usual "handshake picture" with Zuma.
Zuma’s office felt Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, the junior partner in the coalition government, was not a suitable alternative, even though Downing Street offered Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond as a sweetener. So the meeting with Clegg and Hammond was turned down.
Downing Street hit back by warning that, without the cover of an official meeting, Zuma’s visit would be seen as a private one and the UK would not be able to extend state protocol to him, which includes security. And so Zuma’s office cancelled his trip.
In snubbing Cameron, Zuma also snubbed the InnovaBrics summit, of which SA is a sponsor through BrandSA, broke commitments to the South African Chamber of Commerce in London and forced Chatham House to cancel a public lecture and issue an embarrassed apology for having to do so.
Down the drain went the hopes of diplomats and people of goodwill who desperately wanted to see SA get its "open for business" message through in London. An opportunity lost. This is the second London visit Zuma has cancelled.
In February, Zuma was meant to attend the memorial for former president Nelson Mandela at Westminster Abbey. But Zuma cancelled and sent former president and deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe instead. Neither the Union Buildings nor Downing Street come up roses in this debacle. The bottom line seems to be that Cameron’s just not that into Zuma. In that he’s not alone — there are quite a few South Africans who feel the same.
And our president, who sits at the right hand of Vladimir Putin when he visits Russia, appears to be unconcerned. He’s putting his faith in Brics and mortars.