19/04/2018 04:38 SAST | Updated 19/04/2018 09:34 SAST

Big Commonwealth Questions: Who Needs It? And What's It For?

Useless vestige of a shattered empire, or a global governance grouping with potential to change the game?

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II presents 1990s correspondence between herself and Nelson Mandela regarding South Africa's return to the Commonwealth as a gift to President Cyril Ramaphosa during an audience at Windsor Castle, Berkshire on April 17, 2018, on the sidelines of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting.
Britain's Queen Elizabeth II presents 1990s correspondence between herself and Nelson Mandela regarding South Africa's return to the Commonwealth as a gift to President Cyril Ramaphosa during an audience at Windsor Castle, Berkshire on April 17, 2018, on the sidelines of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting.


With 37 medals in the bag, South Africa's athletic superstars return triumphant, having blazed a trail at the Commonwealth Games [CG] in Australia that included the sixth-best tally of golds, with (parts of) the world watching in awe.

A few days on, South Africa's current political superstar stands before a congregation of London elites, reiterating the "critical role" of the Commonwealth of Nations in "forging a common future... for the 2.4-billion citizens [it] collectively represents".

Despite the rhetorical efforts of many member states' leaders including our own, put it to citizens of the 53 countries constituting the Commonwealth to explain why it exists (and for what or whom), and most would simply shrug, The Economist wrote dismissively in 2016.

In a poll conducted a few years ago on whether people in Commonwealth nations cared about their country's membership, the Royal Commonwealth Society noted respondents in the U.K., Australia and Canada were largely indifferent towards the grouping. Elsewhere, few knew about it, and a quarter of Jamaican respondents reportedly thought its figurehead was Barack Obama.

In practice, the Commonwealth evidently remains for many nothing more than an anomalous name for an athletics tournament, consigned to the shadows of the Olympics, hosted every four years in one or another former outpost of the British empire.

REUTERS/Jeremy Lee
Athletics - Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games - Men's T12 100m - Medal Ceremony - Carrara Stadium - Gold Coast, Australia - April 12, 2018. Gold medalist Ndodomzi Ntutu of South Africa, silver medalist Hilton Langenhoven of South Africa and bronze medalist Muhamad Afiq Mohamad Ali Hanafiah of Malaysia on the podium.

Why all the fuss then?

Although dismissed by many as a peculiar postcolonial club, the organisation does have all the trappings of a multinational grouping vying for some sort of political relevance in the 21st century: a U.N.-style charter cementing its commitment to democracy and human rights, a secretariat, regular meetings (every two years), and of course, spectacle – most notably in the form of the CG.

But if the modern Commonwealth's origins were questionable – and its original formation as a settler colony solidarity group (the "Dominions") simply contemptuous – from the 1970s the organisation did eventually gain some favour in global councils for its role in advocating democracy and human rights, and later in observing elections.

Earlier, by the 1960s, it also began to ramp up pressure on the apartheid regime, ultimately leading to the South African government's withdrawal from the body and further isolation internationally.

In recent decades, it has styled itself as a forum not only for promotion of good governance and peace, but further into the realm of economic, technical and environmental cooperation.

But for all, or any, successes it may have to its name, it's been "dead, absolutely dead, for the past eight years", according to Richard Dowden, director of the Royal Africa Society.

At worst, antagonism from some of its own members – most notoriously from Zimbabwe – has in recent decades jeopardised the carefully crafted veneer of post-imperial friendship and mutually beneficial relations. Following a Commonwealth proposal that Gambia create commissions protecting human rights and media freedom, for example, the former colony in 2013 terminated its strained relationship, lambasting the organisation's efforts at "the extension of colonialism" by other means.

Robert Mugabe, amid a similarly deteriorating set of relations, pulled Zimbabwe out of the grouping much earlier in 2003, after its membership had been suspended the previous year.

But a reversal of fortunes may yet be in order.

The fall of Mugabe and the presence of Zimbabwe's foreign minister at the Commonwealth summit in London this week indicated a possibility of re-entry for the former pariah nation following a protracted adversarial relationship with Britain. Gambia – under new leadership, too – made a U-turn in February this year, reversing the shock pullout of five years ago.

Ramaphosa and the realpolitik

Slightly improved existential prospects aside, the Commonwealth remains an idiosyncratic, largely neglected or snubbed feature of the international system. What, then, does South Africa have to gain by cosying up to, or within, an organisation that few outside elite political circles care or even know about? And what's in it today for its architect the U.K., for that matter?

President Cyril Ramaphosa's speech at the Commonwealth business banquet on Tuesday showed that he believes continued Commonwealth membership and (the veneer of) friendship with Britain, despite its waning political and economic significance, remains a currency worth collecting.

REUTERS/Simon Dawson
South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa is seen next to Lloyds of London chief executive officer Inga Beale during the Commonwealth Business Forum Banquet at the Guildhall in London, U.K., April 17, 2018.

While the speech indeed paid homage to the importance of the Commonwealth here and there, the bulk of his address was really just an appeal to the investor class in the room and beyond, and the Commonwealth Business Banquet was a prime opportunity to put SA Inc. on display and up for grabs (so to speak).

READ: We're Here For the 💰💰💰, Ramaphosa Tells London Elite

Addressing the banquet, Ramaphosa said, "When I used to attend the Commonwealth Business Forums then, we used to say this was a place where you moved from contact to contract as a business person."

"I hope it still has that great alloy to it; that great potential where you are able to do real good business deals. For I, as the president of South Africa, I am here to do good business deals; to attract investment to South Africa and indeed to Africa, our continent".

May and the mechanics of a 'Global Britain'

Apart from the opportunity to profile Ramaphosa's "new dawn" for South Africa and flirt with powerful capitalists with investment power, the president in all likelihood views Britain's precarious political and economic positions vis-a-vis the European Union as an opportunity to be exploited.

U.K. prime minister Theresa May – fully aware of the potential looming blow to Britain's economy following finalisation of the Brexit divorce – has been at pains to stress the significance of the Commonwealth in its post-Brexit trade and economic relations.

Dominika Zarzycka/NurPhoto via Getty Images
U.K. prime minister Theresa May giving her opening remarks at the Business Forum opening session on 'Delivering a Prosperous Commonwealth For All' during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London, U.K. April 16, 2018.

As noted by BBC reporter Robert Plummer, "Whenever the word 'Brexit' is mentioned, the word 'Commonwealth' is usually not far behind." The jury's still out on whether the potential loss of access to the single market would mean automatic doom and gloom for the U.K., even with substantially boosted trade and economic ties with Commonwealth partners.

If Britain indeed sees the Commonwealth as its future trading empire – "sadly deluded" it may be, as argued by Guardian columnist Ian Jack – Ramaphosa and many other eager leaders in the grouping no doubt will hope to exploit Britain's snub of Europe in favour of their own trade relations and investment prospects.

Ramaphosa's ode to the Commonwealth this week, then, was above all a well-timed and politically convenient opportunity to bolster his investment roadshow, and less (if at all) a signal of any attempt from South Africa's end to ramp up the Commonwealth's multilateral relevance in the 21st century.

After all, does South Africa need the Commonwealth? If the starting assumption (emphasis on assumption) is that attracting foreign direct investment and boosting trade under current global arrangements with other Commonwealth nations is among the key mechanisms for local prosperity, then better in than out.

For Britain, perhaps a lot more than trade and new economic hotspots is at stake: whether the Commonwealth as a multilateral organisation functions or not, sacrificing the U.K.'s (highly profitable) symbolic and cultural power in the world at the same time as its economic position wanes is an eventuality it won't be willing to accept.

If Harry Potter, letting your former colonies beat you at most of the sports you invented, or the appeal of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle aren't enough, a smiling Queen Elizabeth passing letters written by a former liberation hero to the most powerful African leader in the Commonwealth is perhaps one other way to keep this power from slipping away.