Labour accuses Tories of reviving memories of apartheid with South Africa aid decision

Ivan Lewis says the move to end aid will leave a "bitter taste", comparing it to the Tories' decision to oppose sanctions on apartheid South Africa.

Did the UK announce the end of aid to South Africa without having the courtesy to inform the South African government first? The British government and Pretoria are offering very different accounts this morning. The South African international relations department said that "proper consultations" had not taken place and denounced the "unilateral" decision. Its statement read:

This is such a major decision with far reaching implications on the projects that are currently running and it is tantamount to redefining our relationship.

Ordinarily, the UK government should have informed the government of South Africa through official diplomatic channels of their intentions and allowed for proper consultations to take place, and the modalities of the announcement agreed on.

But on the Today programme this morning, William Hague insisted that the move "shouldn’t have been a surprise" since discussions had been going on "for some months". He added: "No doubt there is some confusion or bureaucratic confusion about that, perhaps, on the South African side. But I’m not going to fling accusations about that. "

International Development Secretary Justine Greening announced the decision to end direct aid, currently worth £19m a year, at a conference of African ministers and business leaders in London yesterday. "I have agreed with my South African counterparts that South Africa is now in a position to fund its own development," she said. 

"It is right that our relationship changes to one of mutual co-operation and trade, one that is focused on delivering benefits for the people of Britain and South Africa as well as for Africa as a whole."

In the context of an international development budget of £11bn, the decision to end £19m of aid to a country worth $408.2bn (GDP) might not seem particularly notable, but Labour has seized on the accusation of bad faith. The shadow international development secretary Ivan Lewis declared this morning that it would "reinforce some of the feelings about the apartheid years", later tweeting: "Tories opposed sanctions against apartheid S africa and now end aid to democratic S africa in shabby way. Leaves bitter taste". In a statement issued last night he said: 

Justine Greening has serious questions to answer – her claim that her decision was made with the agreement of her South African counterparts has been completely contradicted by the South African Government.
This looks like a serious breach of trust with one of our most important strategic partners. Justine Greening must explain why she is saying one thing about her conduct while the South African Government is saying another.
Behaving in what looks like a high-handed and patronising fashion towards South Africa is no way to treat one of the world’s key emerging nations and is not in Britain’s national interest.
But beyond the question of whether the South African government was properly consulted, there is a bigger argument here about whether the UK should continue to provide aid to so-called "middle income countries". Having previously ended aid to India, Greening has made her position clear, but as Lewis pointed out on Today this morning, 75 per cent of the world's poorest people now live in middle-income countries, not poor countries. "If we are going to withdraw from every middle-income country in terms of our aid programme, we are not going to be getting to many of the poorest people," he noted.
This argument has the benefit of moral consistency but it's not an easy one to make when the public are already so sceptical of aid spending. A recent ComRes poll showed that just 8 per cent believe the aid budget should be increased, while 77 per cent believe it should be cut. 
The figure of £19m may not appear economically significant but the Tories will use this as another example of why Labour would still be big spenders, not wise spenders.
South African president Jacob Zuma speaks with David Cameron on July 18, 2011 during a press conference in Pretoria. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Does the UK care enough about climate change to admit it is part of the problem?

The government’s energy policies make can make it hard to decipher its commitment to emissions reduction.

“People tell me it’s ridiculous to be flying for a climate change project but you have to get real with it, I mean I can’t cycle across the Southern ocean,” says Daniel Price, an environmental scientist from London. As founder of Pole-to-Paris, Price is about to complete a 17,000km bike ride from the Antarctic to the Arc de Triomphe.

Price came up with the idea in an effort to raise public awareness of COP21, the UN Climate Change Conference taking place in Paris next week. During the trip he’s faced a succession of set-backs: from the discovery that boats were prohibitively expensive, to diplomatic tensions scuppering his Russian visa plans. Yet the darkest moments were when he became overwhelmed by the magnitude of his own mission. “There were difficult times when I just thought, ‘What is the point of this’?” he says. “Cycling round the world is nowhere near enough to engage people.” 

As world leaders descend on Paris, many questions remain unanswered. Not least how much support developing nations will receive in tackling the effects of climate change. New research commissioned by Oxfam claims that such costs could rise to £1.7tn a year by 2050. But with cuts kicking in at home, the need to deliver “climate justice” abroad feels like a bigger ask than ever.

So does Britain really care enough about climate change to accept its full part in this burden? The government’s energy policies make can make it hard to decipher its commitment to emissions reduction. In September, however, it did pledge £5.8bn from the foreign aid fund to helping poorer nations combat climate change (twice that promised by China and the United States). And there’s evidence to suggest that we, as a public, may also care more than we think.

In America attitudes are much darker; in the dismissive words of Donald Trump “It’s called the weather”. Not least since, as a recent study proves, over the last twenty years corporations have systematically spread scepticism about the science. “The contrarian efforts have been so effective," says the author Justin Farrell, a Yale sociologist, "that they have made it difficult for ordinary Americans to even know who to trust.” 

And what about in China, the earth's biggest polluter? Single-party rule and the resulting lack of public discussion would seem to be favouring action on the environment. The government has recently promised to reach "peak" emissions by 2030, to quadruple solar installations, and to commit $3.1bn to help low-income countries adapt to the changing world. Christiana Figueres, the UN’s chief climate official, has even lauded the country for taking “undisputed leadership” on climate change mitigation.

Yet this surge of policy could mask the most troubling reality of all: that, when it comes to climate change, the Chinese are the least concerned citizenship in the world. Only 18 per cent of Chinese see the issue as a very serious problem, down 23 percentage points from five years ago, and 36 points behind the global median.

A new study by political economist Dr Alex Lo has concluded that the country’s reduced political debate could be to blame for the lack of concern. “In China popular environmentalism is biased towards immediate environmental threats”, such as desertification and pollution, Lo writes, “giving little impetus to a morally driven climate change movement”.

For the international community, all is well and good as long as the Chinese government continues along its current trajectory. But without an engaged public to hold it to account there’s always a chance its promises may fade into thin air.

So perhaps the UK’s tendency to moan about how hard it is to care about the (seemingly) remote impacts of climate change isn’t all bad. At least we know it is something worth moaning about. And perhaps we care more than we let on to each other.

Statistics published this summer by the Department of Energy and Climate Change reveal that three quarters of the British public support subsidies for renewable energy, despite only 10 per cent thinking that the figure is that high. “Even if the public think the consensus is not there, there are encouraging signs that it is,” says Liz Callegari, Head of Campaigns at WWF. “Concern for climate change is growing.”

As Price puts it, “You can think of climate change as this kind of marathon effort that we have to address and in Paris we just have to get people walking across the start line together”. Maybe then we will all be ready to run.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.