Prancing Politicians, Dancing Diplomacy: Theresa May and her Colonial Post-Brexit Agenda

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Zophia Edwards

There is something uniquely comical about seeing politicians dance at diplomatic engagements. From George Bush to Boris Yeltzin to Hilary Clinton, the list of politicians’ painful-to-watch dance steps is longer than it should be. They may be unlucky victims of social pressure to become performers. I, however, happen to believe that very little is left to spontaneity on foreign diplomatic tours; that politicians are desperate to have the public perceive that they are cool, regular, down-to-earth people who can connect with average folks on the ground–that these dance moves are deceitful attempts to demonstrate cross-cultural openness and acceptance of “the other” as a way of securing their economic and political interests. The most recent spectacle of duplicitous dancing diplomacy is Theresa May, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

Several weeks ago, May danced her way across Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa–if you can call what she did “dancing.” As Britain negotiates its withdrawal from the European Union, it is facing tremendous economic uncertainty. Desperate to ensure a stable a post-Brexit British economy, May is scrambling not just to hold on to, but to increase British economic ties to African countries. She promises a “fundamental shift” in the relationship between sub-Saharan African countries and the UK and a “new partnership” that will enable the UK and the African countries with which it engages to secure their “mutual interest.” But what exactly is so “new” about this proposed “partnership”? A comparison of the UK’s old economic strategy toward African countries and its post-Brexit aims reveal that very little has changed in the UK’s approach to African countries. Just as before, the new policies wreak of centuries-old patterns of economic exploitation through trade, aid, foreign direct investment, and debt-creating loans, and racism and racial exclusion. Leaving the dancing aside, the UK’s plan seeks to extend the historical methods of profiteering into the post-Brexit period.

First and foremost, May’s trip is more an act of desperation than a proactive, ambitious attempt to establish a “new” way of engaging with African nations. No British prime minister has visited any African country in five years. The last leader to do so, for the funeral of Nelson Mandela, was David Cameron. Meanwhile, China, France, Germany, Japan, and Turkey, scrambling as they are, have long-term strategies and have increased their efforts to deepen economic ties with the region. For May and the UK government, Africa was treated as an afterthought, only now increasing in relevance and urgency because the UK is in desperate need of guarding against the loss of trade partners when it withdraws from the EU. As such, May’s post-Brexit Africa plans reflect a determination to take the well-traveled road and build on its imperial history of domination. Even though, in her Cape Town speech, she congratulated the continent on being home to five of the world’s fastest growing economies, she visited none of these countries. According to the IMF’s real GDP growth rates in 2018, she should have visited Ethiopia, Cote d’Ivoire, and Rwanda, the three sub-Saharan African countries that have the highest growth rates in the world. But, these countries do not have a colonial connection to England, so that would require additional effort. To be fair, the countries she visited–Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa–are among the largest African economies by GDP, but the choice to have not even one of the fastest growing economies on her itinerary indicates no intention to be bold, creative, or novel. Rather, it indicates that the UK is bent on maintaining the same old approach of relying on former African colonies to be the bedrock of its economic security.


May spent much of her time in these African nations emphasizing greater opportunities to increase commerce and trade. But what exactly are these supposed “greater opportunities?”  The new Trade Bill promised by the May government will “replicate the effects of the ‘Economic Partnership Arrangements’–development focused trade deals with Africa, Caribbean and Pacific countries which will minimize disruption to current trading arrangements.” This offers nothing new to African economies. May already confirmed in her speeches that the EU’s agreements with the South African Customs Union (SACU) and Mozambique will be carried over to the post-Brexit UK trade agreements. Similarly, the Taxation (Cross-Border Trade) Bill lays out trade preference schemes for developing countries as the UK exits the EU. It is intended to allow the UK to establish standalone trade regimes with trading partners. However, the May government indicates that African economies will receive the same level of access as the current EU trade scheme for developing countries and tariff-free access for the world’s least developed countries. This is no different from what most African countries already receive in EU arrangements. Under the Everything But Arms agreement, a quarter of African countries already trade entirely tariff-free with the EU. On top of this, EU trade agreements with African states have been heavily criticized for their coercive and hegemonic neoliberal approach that restricts rather than fosters the development goals of African countries (Hurt 2003; Lagan and Price 2015). The post-Brexit UK-Africa plan is an old plan.


The UK’s Africa policy has always emphasized aid for trade, and the post-Brexit strategy still stresses this position. In her trip to these three African countries, May pledged to continue spending 0.7% of gross national income on aid (official development assistance) in order to support Britain’s private sector. To be clear, this is not an increase in aid spending; the UK has been spending this proportion of GNI on ODA since 2013. Furthermore, she did not specify whether and by how much the proportion of this ODA going to African economies will be increased. Despite her grand proclamations, most analysts expect that a weakened British currency in the post-Brexit economy will in fact reduce the amount of British aid that can even be made available to African countries.

On top of this, the post-Brexit aid plan is intended to benefit British interests more so than the interests of the citizens of African countries. The UK had a long history of “tied aid” or aid that obligates recipient countries to buy from donor countries. While the tied aid policy was formally banned in 2002 (although in practice it was a different story), May’s unabashed proclamation that British aid must benefit British interests seems to suggest a formal revival of the tied aid policy. May said, “I want to put our development budget and expertise at the center of our partnership as part of an ambitious new approach–and use this to support the private sector to take root and grow.” In her Cape Town speech, she explicitly said, “I am also unashamed about the need to ensure that our aid program works for the UK. So today I am committing that our development spending will not only combat extreme poverty, but at the same time tackle global challenges and support our own national interest. This will ensure that our investment in aid benefits us all, and is fully aligned with our wider national security priorities.” For May, this includes cracking down on illicit finance, opening new embassies in Niger and Chad to help battle terrorism and political instability, and of course, reducing the inflow of migrants to the UK. Decades of scholarship has shown that foreign aid retards economic development in recipient nations (Bornschier et al. 1978). British aid has never been about ameliorating the most pressing of issues within the African recipient nations, such as land concentration in South Africa. It has always been about securing British interests.

Foreign direct investment

Just as the post-Brexit trade and aid proposals signal no shift in the UK approach to relations with African countries, the foreign direct investment (FDI) plans echo more of the same. May declared that Britain is aiming to be the largest G7 investor (stock) in Africa by 2022. But in which countries will it invest? And in which industries? According to ONS statistics, South Africa is currently the largest recipient of UK FDI and more than half (54.4%) of UK FDI in South Africa goes to the mining and quarrying industry. Dependence on FDI results in a range of negative impacts: it results in profit expatriation rather than local re-investment (Bornschier 1980) and limits state autonomy to pursue development interests that may not align with foreign corporations’ interests (Amin 2001; Perelman 2003). For mining and quarrying specifically, these are extractive sectors that do not generate significant levels of employment, and resource-exporting countries in the periphery benefit comparatively less from their resources but bear greater costs of environmental degradation (Bunker 1984; Jorgenson et al. 2009). This is a long-standing colonial pattern that shows no indication of undergoing significant change in the post-Brexit period.

Furthermore, UK foreign investors have been involved in a range of scandals, which Theresa May has not attempted to address in her post-Brexit agenda. The CDC Group, a UK government-owned emerging markets private equity investor, sees Africa as the next private equity financial frontier. In fact, Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa are already among the top five countries with the largest proportions of CDC investments. But the CDC has been entangled in several nefarious acts across the continent, particularly in the countries visited by Theresa May. For instance, the CDC was implicated in the money laundering activities of Nigerian politician James Ibori. It has also invested heavily in luxury hotels in Nigeria, the Garden City shopping complex in Nairobi, Kenya, and elite boarding schools in Mauritius, which benefits local business elites and wealthy shoppers, but does little for the poor. The CDC justifies these projects claiming the construction jobs are open to the poor and semi-skilled; nevermind that they are short-term jobs with no benefits. This is a far cry from the aims of African governments. For example, Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya aims to improve food security, introduce universal healthcare and affordable housing, and increase manufacturing, not build more shopping malls. In May’s post-Brexit vision, FDI in Africa will follow old patterns of extracting natural resources and bolstering the local elites rather than enabling African countries to shift their position in the world system.

Loans and debt

In May’s speeches, there was little talk about new commercial and bilateral loans and even more silence on debt repayments in the post-Brexit plans. According to the IMF, Sub-Saharan African countries are slipping into a new debt crisis. Many African countries received debt cancellation of IMF/World Bank/Paris Club loans through the 1996 HIPC initiative and the 2005 G8 multilateral debt relief initiative. However, over the last 18 years, external debt stocks in African countries have crept back up to the pre-cancellation levels; this time involving accumulation of debt in the private sector of these countries as opposed to the public sector characteristic of the period of debt crises. The rising debt is being driven by a combination of factors: commercial lenders have sought high-yielding assets; a slump in commodity prices and exports, in large part dependent on China’s growth; governments and lenders have not adequately monitored the legitimacy and productivity of borrowers; U.S. interest rates have been rising; and so on. Mozambique, Ghana, and Zambia are among the countries suffering under the high interest loans to private lenders. While African countries are now taking on more and more loans from China, all the UK talk of “mutually beneficial relationships” has not touched on the opportunity to rid affected African countries of decades-long burdens of UK debt. Jubilee, a coalition of organizations lobbying for the debts of developing countries to be cancelled, for example, has called on the UK to pass legislation to promote transparency in lending and borrowing and to restructure, where necessary, debts contracted under English law. This never came up in May’s proposals about a “new partnership” with African nations.

Racial exclusion

In addition to the post-Brexit Africa agenda being an extension of colonial patterns of trade, aid, FDI, and debt, there is the enduring racism undergirding the entire Brexit agenda. Gurminder Bhambra has written extensively about the fact that the UK referendum for continued membership in the UK was a proxy for debating race, citizenship, and migration. According to Bhambra (2017), since its conception, “There has been no independent Britain, no ‘island nation’; . . . [but rather,] a racially stratified political formation that Britain led to its own advantage.” As such, the UK does not perceive or treat African people, or people of darker hues in general, as people deserving of the same rights and privileges as white British citizens. The UK has a long history of enacting anti-black racist immigration policies. As Bhambra notes, the Commonwealth Immigration Acts of 1962, 1968, and 1971 were designed to restrict the freedom of movement of darker peoples. From musicians to IT workers to laborers, it is very difficult for citizens of African countries to get visas to visit and/or do business in the UK.

Theresa May herself, during her tenure as Home Secretary, presided over a number of immigration policies designed, in her own words, “to create here in Britain a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants” (“illegal” murkily defined). This invariably meant the exclusion of black and brown immigrants. When Britain was an EU member, May refused to participate in refugee relocation and resettlement programs as well as naval rescue missions for those making the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean. Her UK-Africa partnership speeches emphasize the UK’s aim to prevent African migrants from entering the UK, not to facilitate it. President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya, as much as a year ago, was already pressing for the establishment of a visa processing center in Nairobi, but there was no mention of this in May’s 2018 “new partnership” plans. Of course, to ease the visa application process for black Africans seeking to visit/relocate to the UK would be the antithesis of the Brexit agenda. After all, the entire Brexit narrative was that “these people should not be here!”


Theresa May’s dancing should not only be viewed as comic relief; it is emblematic of the UK’s deceptive approach to its dealings with African nations: pretend to appreciate African people and culture in order to ensure that the UK maintains its position in the world system. This attempt to maintain unequal ties to African countries in the post-Brexit period may not necessarily spell doom for the latter. Brexit might provide new fortuitous opportunities for African countries that were not open to them in the past. Desperate to project a strong and united EU, EU negotiators have adopted a largely unwavering stance toward the UK’s efforts to retain the benefits of EU market access and agreements without actually maintaining membership. The UK might hope to simply roll over EU free trade agreements with African countries, but without leverage and with fewer economic allies, African nations may be able renegotiate agreements that are more tilted toward their favor. If they are unable to, the words of Walter Rodney, dependency theorist and author of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1981: 22) will continue to resonate with those of us who are not fooled by Theresa May’s disturbing and delusive dancing:

Mistaken interpretations of the causes of underdevelopment usually stem either from prejudiced thinking or from the error of believing that one can learn the answers by looking inside the underdeveloped economy. The true explanation lies in seeking out the relationship between Africa and certain developed countries and in recognizing that it is a relationship of exploitation.


Zophia Edwards is an Assistant Professor at Providence College. Her research examines the impacts of colonialism and local labor movements on state formation and long-term development in the Global South, with a particular focus on resource-rich countries.


Bhambra, G. K. 2017. ‘Locating Brexit in the Pragmatics of Race, Citizenship and Empire.’ Pp. 91-100 in Brexit: Sociological Responses, edited by W. Outhwaite London: Anthem Press.

Bornschier, Volker , Christopher Chase-Dunn, and Richard Rubinson, R. 1978. “Cross-national Evidence of the Effects of Foreign Investment and Aid on Economic Growth and Inequality: A Survey of Findings and a Reanalysis.” American Journal of Sociology 84(3): 651-683.

Bunker, Stephen G. 1984. “Modes of Extraction, Unequal Exchange, and the Progressive Underdevelopment of an Extreme Periphery: The Brazilian Amazon, 1600–1980.” American Journal of Sociology 89(5): 1017–1064.

Hurt, Stephen R. 2003. “Co-operation and Coercion? The Cotonou Agreement between the European Union and ACP states and the End of the Lomé Convention.” Third World Quarterly 24(1): 161-176.

Jorgenson, Andrew K. 2007. “The Effects of Primary Sector Foreign Investment on Carbon Dioxide Emissions from Agriculture Production in Less-developed Countries, 1980–99.” International Journal of Comparative Sociology 48(1): 29–42.

Langan, Mark and Sophia Price. 2015. “Extraversion and the West African EPA Development Programme: realising the development dimension of ACP–EU trade?” Journal of Modern African Studies 53(3): 263-287.

Rodney, Walter. 1981. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Washington, DC: Howard University Press