Theresa May is right – who cares about Europe? South Africa will want to be our best friend now she's performed her special dance

The prime minister managed an expression that may never have been given before at Robben Island: awkward and utterly unmoved, the face someone over 70 pulls when a teenager hands them controls of a PS4 for a game of 'Call of Duty'

Mark Steel
Thursday 30 August 2018 18:39 BST
Theresa May dances with children on trip to South Africa

How Britain’s rulers have declined: 200 years ago they arrived in Africa and said “give us all your raw materials, you belong to us now”. In 2018 they get there and their leaders say “maybe we’ll help you out of your mess by trading with you, but first you must dance, bitch”.

Even so, the prime minister should be relieved that the South African president didn’t start their meeting by saying: “First of all, have you got your documents going back thirty years? If not, you’ve got to go straight back to England. I know you’re only here because we invited you, but we’ve decided to create a hostile environment, so if you haven’t got the papers we never gave you in the first place, get out.”

Instead Theresa May was taken to Robben Island, to visit the cell in which Nelson Mandela was jailed.

Thousands of people have visited the jail since he was released, and experienced a wide range of emotions. But she displayed her talent for originality, and managed an expression that may never have been given before within the cell; awkward and utterly unmoved, the face someone over 70 pulls when a teenager hands them controls of a PS4 for a game of Call of Duty.

She seemed so bemused, if she was told about Mandela’s years in the jail, she’d have said “That’s shocking. It must have been very expensive, wasn’t there somewhere you could have deported him to?”

Maybe she thought of saying: “I find the jail very poignant, because Nelson Mandela was a hero to many people. And my hero called Nelson Mandela a terrorist, so while the details may differ, there’s a strong hero connection to him, and that’s what matters.”

Part of her may have been grateful Boris Johnson wasn’t with her, as he’d have said: “At least it proves prison works because once he got out he didn’t do any more crimes did he?”

But then came her tricky moment, when she was asked whether she’d supported any campaigns against apartheid. And she replied: “I supported the work that the United Kingdom government did to ensure that it did give support where that support was needed.” What a shame The Specials didn’t think of this slogan, as it’s much catchier than Free Nelson Mandela.

This is why it’s unfair to accuse the Conservative Party under Margaret Thatcher of abandoning Africa, as it did give support. The support it gave was to the apartheid government, but they were Africans so we shouldn’t quibble about which Africans they gave support to where that support was needed.

May has never suggested any criticism of Thatcher or her ideas, although Thatcher opposed sanctions against the regime, and referred to apartheid leaders as her close friends. But May said it was a “privilege” to have visited his cell.

So what did she mean? Maybe she meant it was a privilege to get in the shade, because she likes warm weather but Africa is too hot, but it’s cool in there with a refreshing breeze through the bars.

Or she meant it was a privilege to see the wonderful architecture close up, as she’s always admired the solid stonework and thick metal door, an intriguing brutalist design that offers a fascinating contrast between the firmness of the concrete, and the delicacy of the slit that the food came through.

I visited Robben Island once, as one of a group of tourists, most of whom were smothering themselves in sun cream, and taking pictures on their trip to a fun landmark. But the guides who showed you round were ex-inmates of the prison. At one point our guide told how one day, he was summoned by the governor to be told his father wouldn’t be visiting today as scheduled, because he’d been shot by someone who turned out to be in the police. “Then,” he said, “I was ordered back to work.”

By the end of his account, the giggling students and chirpy families in bright backpacks were silent, clasping each other’s hands, gazing and contemplating, before shuffling on behind the guide.

The power of that place had moved the most unlikely targets, and you can only guess what each person was thinking. But most likely it was “I supported the work that the United Kingdom government did to ensure that it did give support where that support was needed.”

And this is Theresa May’s strength. She is so soulless and devoid of passion, she has no idea how pointless she is.

To her, mischief is running through wheat. Asked how she’d spend her ideal girls’ night out, she said it would be staying focussed on what’s good for Britain. She visits Robben Island and it does nothing to her. She’s not sure where she’s meant to look, what she’s meant to say or be.

So she ends her day there by assuring us she’s securing a marvellous deal for Britain, with all the opportunities from a Brexit she insisted shouldn’t happen.

Because we might be falling out with the whole of Europe, but that doesn’t matter because we’ll be better mates with South Africa, as long as they forgive us for supporting the people that kept them in jail.

She’d have been better off arriving in Cape Town and saying “No one in Britain should worry about the trillions of pounds down the plug when we leave Europe. I can make up for it now. I’ve brought my old toaster, you can have that for a tenner. And I found some Average White Band records the charity shop wouldn’t take. Go on Mister president, three quid the lot.”

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in