THE UK’S new man IN SA
Nigel Casey’s appointment as high commissioner brings him back to a country that must maintain a strong diplomatic relationship with Britain
The day British voters went out to cast their ballots for the second time in a year, their new high commissioner to South Africa spoke isiZulu. Sadly, Nigel Casey’s isiZulu is nowhere near as good as his Russian – the career diplomat of 26 years has also been posted in Moscow – and he laughed instead of repeating what he was groomed to tell President Jacob Zuma upon accepting his diplomatic credentials in Pretoria on June 8.
Later that evening, his official arrival was celebrated at a function that doubled as an elections watch party. He had government officials from the current and previous administrations, diplomats and other hangerson in stitches when he recalled meeting Nelson Mandela when he was based in Johannesburg as viceconsul. He said he had a Madiba moment, but couldn’t prove it, when he attended a Queen’s birthday celebration at the official residence in Waterkloof, Pretoria, soon after arriving in South Africa in 1993.
Nelson Mandela made a speech at the party and met every staff member, from the ambassador to the chefs.
“Unfortunately, the official photographer didn’t think that was a sufficiently historic moment to record,” Casey said wryly. “They didn’t have digital cameras, and they had to be careful how they used their film.”
As a consolation prize, Casey is now living in the house, which is still decorated with pictures of Mandela. Back in 1993, the house was occupied by ambassador Anthony Reeve, who was close to Madiba.
“It was a very great honour to meet Mandela,” Casey said. “I subsequently met him a number of times at [then ANC headquarters] Shell House and on the election trails.”
Casey also had to facilitate official visits by the Queen and then prime minister John Major.
Casey’s easy demeanour will come in handy as the UK enters interesting times. Two-year-long Brexit talks started in Brussels on Monday after the election results the week before unexpectedly weakened Prime Minister Theresa May’s hand.
City Press spoke to Casey on Wednesday in his large office in Greystoke, a grand, century-old home wrapped in burglar bars and hidden behind a high fence and three sets of security gates. He said the next couple of years wouldn’t only be significant for the UK, but would also be an important time in South Africa as Zuma’s second and final term ends in 2019.
Casey wouldn’t say how Zuma’s possible successors – the business-friendly Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, no-nonsense Nkosazana DlaminiZuma, or even someone from the current opposition – could affect relations, and said the diplomatic relationship “goes well beyond party politics”.
“We will work with whomever, it goes without saying,” he said.
Britain’s exit from the EU, through which it has channelled its trade, will have an affect on its international relationships – including with South Africa.
It was possible that Commonwealth relations could become more significant, Casey said, and optimistically added that relations could be reshaped “to the best advantage of both countries”.
During Casey’s first posting to South Africa at the end of apartheid and as it was transitioning to democracy, the country experienced some “bleak and difficult days”, he said, but it came out “stronger on the other side, with the acclaim of the international community”.
This gave him a “long-term view” on diplomatic relations between the countries, which had remained as “broad and deep” as it was two decades ago, he said.
According to the SA Reserve Bank, a third of South Africa’s foreign investment – R739 billion – comes from the UK, which made it the biggest foreign investor in the country, Casey said. The trade relationship with South Africa is worth £10 billion (R164 billion) a year.
Casey knows the political importance of stressing that this is a two-way thing, and that Britain didn’t only look to South Africa for raw materials, but also went higher up the value chain by buying “the best quality South African wine” – and Ford Rangers.
Many South African companies have also set up shop in London.
“It’s a dynamic and living relationship that is changing all the time,” he said.
Casey leaves the UK amid a spate of terror attacks, reflected by the tight security that is in place around the high commission.
Last year, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office joined the US in saying there was a “high threat from terrorism” in places frequented by foreigners in Johannesburg and Cape Town, and relations were strained when the South African government reacted with indignation.
Casey would not be drawn into saying how he would handle similar spats, but said the UK had “a good dialogue with South Africa about the global threat”.
The recent deadly attacks in London and Manchester were a reminder that the terror threat was shared and could also affect South Africans who went to London, he said.
The next four years will not be all work for Casey, his wife and two children. It’s the whole family’s first time in the country, and Casey said South Africa was “full of fabulous places” to go to – which was why about 400 000 British tourists came here each year.
South Africa’s “amazing experience of the wild” was unique – as was the food, he said, singling out Durban curry and the boerewors served at a welcoming staff braai.
The mopani worms he ate two decades ago also got a mention (yes, he swallowed), but that’s one dish he’s in no hurry to try again.
GLOBETROTTER Nigel Casey took up his new post at the beginning of this month