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Theresa May seeks to match Macron influence in Africa

First sub-Saharan trip by a UK prime minister for five years

Joseph Cotterill in Johannesburg and Henry Mance in London

Theresa May lands in Cape Town on Tuesday to strengthen Britain’s post-Brexit “global partnerships”.

Travelling with her on the first UK prime ministerial trip to sub-Saharan Africa for five years is an entourage of 29 business leaders including Bill Winters, the chief executive of Standard Chartered, and LSE head David Schwimmer. She will describe African states as “on the cusp of a transformative role in the global economy”.

Mrs May will announce a boost to UK diplomat numbers on the continent alongside commercial deals as she visits first South Africa, then Nigeria and Kenya.

But the UK is widely seen as arriving too late to compete for significant influence. France’s Emmanuel Macron has visited 11 countries on his nine trips to the continent since becoming president last May — most recently Nigeria, a country at the heart of British strategic interests in Africa.

Chinese leaders have also regularly visited, as well as pumping in significant financing. Xi Jinping’s first foreign visit after becoming president in 2013 was to the continent. A typical four-nation trip last month took in South Africa and Rwanda, whose leader Paul Kagame, extols Beijing’s friendship as he builds a tightly-controlled developmental state in its image.

Although Mrs May will also talk about the big picture of the UK’s partnership with African countries, in South Africa, there will also be technical discussions over post-Brexit trade.

Britain voted to leave the EU in 2016 just as the bloc was finalising a wide-ranging trade preference deal with South Africa and other members of a regional customs union. While the UK will also leave this treaty when it exits the EU, it provides a template to draw up a post-Brexit stopgap while the UK and South Africa work out a future free-trade treaty.

“They will basically copy and paste it. There won’t be much resistance to doing that from South Africa,” said Peter Leon, a partner in the Johannesburg office of Herbert Smith Freehills. South African officials say they are focused on avoiding disruption after Brexit to wine, rooibos tea and citrus fruit arriving on supermarket shelves.

The timing could be working in the UK’s favour. With jitters over Donald Trump’s protectionist stance in the US, Cyril Ramaphosa’s government is likely to be more open to discussing a post-Brexit relationship, said Mr Leon.

But there are few templates for a future deal beyond the Brexit transition. South Africa’s recent EU trade deal focused on goods, not the services in which the UK would probably seek to expand its exports.

There is also realism about the size of the continent’s economies. The three countries that Mrs May is visiting may well be Africa’s powerhouses, but the combined nominal GDP of Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa barely matches the Netherlands.

Mrs May talks of inserting post-Brexit Britain into a “more prosperous, growing and trading Africa”. However, compared to existing trade with the EU, Mr Leon said that even South Africa for now “is infinitesimal”.

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