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The Commonwealth in Botswana & Africa, interview with Sir Alan Haselhurst M.P.

Safari Consultants recently interviewed Sir Alan Haselhurst M.P. (Chairman of the UK Commonwealth Parliamentary Association), about The Commonwealth’s role in Botswana, and more widely across the continent of Africa; from the legacy of the past, to hopes for the future.


OC: “Recently, I travelled to the picturesque Essex market town of Saffron Walden, to interview Sir Alan Haselhurst M.P. about the role of the Commonwealth in Botswana and in Africa more widely.

OC: Sir Alan, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed today, and for taking time out of your busy schedule. You’ve been the Member of Parliament for the Saffron Walden constituency since 1977, that’s an amazing ’37 not out’ by my reckoning! In 2010 you became Chairman of the UK branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, and I’d like to talk to you about the Commonwealth. Could you give a brief synopsis of the history of the Commonwealth, and maybe explain how the organisation came into being?”

AH: “Well, whether you would call the Commonwealth an organisation or not, I’m not sure. It’s an association of friends, almost a family. That term is often used about the Commonwealth: the family of nations. It quite clearly emerged from the British Empire, and as states became independent in the post-war period, they were of their own accord, pleased to be still associated with the UK in what then became an expanding body of countries, for a while known as the British Commonwealth, later simply as ‘The Commonwealth’. The English language was quite a useful part of the ‘glue’ which held these nations together, but as a result of history, there were a certain set of common values if you like, that were there, and sometimes the basis of administration which British rule put in place and has developed since then – so there was a familiarity which kept people together, and they began to see advantages in that. Over the years in fact, countries which were not part of the British Empire have sought to join. We have countries like Mozambique and Rwanda, for example.”

OC: “Those are the two countries that have joined most recently aren’t they?”

AH: “That’s right.”

OC: “Thinking about the modern Commonwealth, as we know it now, it really came into being in 1949 didn’t it. Thinking of the historical context, of course at this time Britain was a quickly declining power on the international stage, and virtually bankrupt after standing up against Nazi Germany in the 2nd World War. I put it to you: was the creation of the Commonwealth really little more than a political fig-leaf to protect British vanity in the face of the disintegration of the Empire?”

AH: “Well I think there was the feeling of continuity. The Commonwealth countries as they became had all been important markets for British goods. But what was not fully realised at the time was that simply ‘made in England’ or ‘made in Britain’ was not in itself a good enough recommendation, because these countries were making their own economic advances. As markets grew in the Commonwealth countries, naturally they began to look at what they were going to make for themselves and no longer rely on imports, whether from Britain or indeed any other part of the world. So, it never struck me at the time that this was essentially a trading organisation. But in terms of wanting to sustain British influence throughout the world, well what country wouldn’t wish to maintain its influence? Undoubtedly there was an advantage in keeping a thread between all these countries as they emerged from colonial rule into independence; in a sort of ‘friendship group’. Indeed Britain didn’t do it for altogether altruistic reasons but nevertheless saw it as a means of consolidating opinion based on certain traditions.”

OC: “Ok, bringing it up to date, you’ve mentioned the values shared by the 53 independent states of the modern Commonwealth: what exactly does the Commonwealth do, specifically in Africa?”

AH: “Well, what one has to think about is not just that there are meetings of heads of government where they try to find accord on certain things, or that there are frequent interchanges of Parliamentarians through the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, courses, seminars; all about the practice of good governance in all sorts of ways. The Commonwealth has also spawned something like 90 organisations covering all different features of life. There’s the Commonwealth business forum for example, there is a local government forum, there is an education forum, there are medical connections, there are telecommunications connections: you name it, there is probably some organisation where the Commonwealth name means that it’s a grouping of like-minded people in whatever sphere, within the Commonwealth. So, it does an awful lot of things at micro-level, it knits across in all sorts of ways, without being a totally unified force.”

OC: “Thank you for outlining some of the interesting things that are done in Africa, returning to the core values shared by these nations with the Commonwealth charter: is the charter not just an aspirational document? Is there not a bit of an awkward dichotomy at the heart of the organisation where there are member states that have a less than perfect human rights record?”

AH: “Well, I’m afraid that is true. There are some issues that countries in the Commonwealth just have very strong feelings about, and which they do not regard in the same way as we do as a ‘human rights issue’; the whole treatment of gay people for example divides Africa bitterly. Some of the liveliest debates I’ve attended in Commonwealth circles have been on that issue, and strangely, perversely almost, the views which are held onto tenaciously by many African countries on this subject – probably their views stem from the days of British missionaries telling what was right and what was wrong. So, it comes a bit rich when those who taught them change their mind and have a different attitude to these matters, are then enraged when their erstwhile partners, or colonial countries, haven’t changed their mind as well!

It is quite a difficult one, but what do you do? There will be disagreements in families; you can’t get everybody to agree, just as there is no unanimity of opinion within the 28-nations which form the European Union, why should one expect there to be a unanimity of opinion between the 53 nations of the Commonwealth. Over time, you may get assimilation of views. I don’t think you can, by simply a declaration say: well everything from now on changes and we’re all thinking alike on the same subject; we all have exactly the same interpretation of ‘human rights’, but you just go on working at it. Zimbabwe is not currently a member of the Commonwealth, so there will be times when something happens which is just so much a breach of what we would profess to believe in commonly amongst ourselves – I think it’s only through continued discussion, continued familiarisation with each other’s views on things that one can actually start to move things along.”

OC: “Thinking more specifically about Botswana; in what ways do you think that country has benefitted from embracing some of the core values of the Commonwealth?”

AH: “I think it largely has, I mean I think it probably stands above many of its neighbours within the continent of Africa.”

OC: “There’s a lot of hope in Botswana isn’t there: it’s had a great economic history in modern times, it’s grown faster than many of the other African nations…”

AH: “It has quite a respectable increase in GDP, there’s no doubt about that”

OC: “And stable governance through democracy”…

AH: “Yes, stable governance through democracy, although there has not been any actual change of government. I think this is always one of the maturing features of a democracy as to which point somebody completely different comes in with a bloodless democratic change of power.”

OC: “Rather than dynastic rule, for want of a better term?”

AH: “Yes, I think that those that have led the campaign for independence in many of the countries in Africa and beyond, cling on because they feel they are owed respect from their peoples because they were the ones who fought the hardest and most prominently for independence, but that doesn’t necessarily lead, forever, to a healthy democratic structure. But stability is very important, stability is important for the people, stability is important for foreign investment, and for the confidence which people have in the systems which apply in any country, and I think Botswana has a very respectable record in that respect.”

OC: “And indeed stability is also important for tourism; you’ve got to have that to get visitors in!”

AH: “That is so.”

OC: “Do you think though that the smaller African member states get a lot more political clout than they otherwise would without being part of the Commonwealth? Is the organisation a leveller on the international stage? For example does, say Swaziland gain more from being a member than South Africa?”

AH: “I think if you’re a small country at the table with the larger ones, yes. Your head of state or Prime Minister, whatever your constitutional structure is, is sitting alongside with those of the bigger and supposedly more powerful countries, and they will often get their turn as it were, in holding the chairmanship of a regional grouping or whatever it may be, or the pan-African Parliament and so on, all sorts of little positions that well may come your way, and that’s a good thing. They have parity of esteem and I think that is the important thing to hang onto.”

OC: “And would you say that the Commonwealth is purely a diplomatic or political organisation, or is there really a huge relevance at grassroots level for ordinary Africans?”

AH: “I’m not sure how much relevance, day to day, when you talk of grassroots would be felt. I think if you walked out into the street in Saffron Walden, or in London and asked the first 10 people you met, ‘what is the meaning of the Commonwealth’, there might be a few ‘ums and errs’! In the depths of Africa, in the heartland of India, you would find similar uncertainty about what it’s all about, so the Commonwealth ‘brand’ is quite difficult to sell as such, until you begin to explain what happens. When you mention what is the meaning of the Commonwealth, I would say by reference to all these organisations which exist; the 90 or organisations covering a whole spectrum of different interest which do exist within the Commonwealth. You are getting people thinking in ‘Commonwealth terms’, in their respective trade, profession etc., so there is meaning radiating out. And whilst it’s not been a trading organisation, because the needs of countries were pulling in different directions, funnily enough now, it is starting to adopt a stronger position in trading matters. The trading aspect is becoming more interesting. Maybe it’s also values as well. There are forms of dealing which are accepted across the Commonwealth on which people have reliance.

It’s interesting in the case of Botswana, that 75% of trade is done with other Commonwealth countries, the substantial part of it with the UK. So, yes the Commonwealth has a meaning, but it can’t just be done on sentiment; sentiment’s good, but you’ve actually got to be able to say, if you trust somebody, nevertheless, have I got a product or a service that they would want to purchase and vice versa. I think the Commonwealth is a concept that has a meaning and I think that these countries have respect for a lot of the commercial law, and so on.

On the bad side, there are fears of corruption. It’s interesting therefore that Botswana has been host to an anti-corruption drive in which the Commonwealth secretariat has invested money. Botswana can claim, certainly in relation to many, that it has got pretty clean hands.”

OC: “That’s very positive news. Finally, what role do you see the Commonwealth playing in say 15 to 20 years’ time? Do you think the organisation has a bright future on the continent?”

AH: “Yes, I do. It’s got a long way to go – you referred to the aspirational nature of the (Commonwealth) charter, so yes, there are those who need to improve their performance in terms of human rights in whatever sphere, and to ensure that there is a proper system of governance in which people have confidence. What worries me about developing countries is that you can’t necessarily satisfy, as quickly as people would want, their own personal aspirations. Now, I look at a country like South Africa, where there are many more millions of people than there are living in Botswana, but there are still a huge proportion of people in South Africa who are living in dire poverty who must have supposed that once true independence had been achieved in South Africa with majority rule, that things would suddenly get better. And it takes time for things to get better. So, it’s a matter of whether people feel that they can express themselves other than by violence. That means confidence in your parliamentary system. Someone with strong views and ambition should look to get into parliament to express that view, to influence other people within their own country, rather than just give up and say the only way is to continue some kind of armed struggle or insurrection. Now, there are some pretty bad situations in parts of Africa, not all of them Commonwealth countries at the present time, and so one wants to see stability and this is what Botswana certainly can boast at the present time and long may it continue. The people have confidence in the system, and as the years’ go by, those systems mature, and people become more relaxed about the fact that there could be a constitutional change of power. All those are signs that give confidence to the people, and also confidence to those who trade with the country and deal with the country.”

OC: “So, a positive future ahead! Sir Alan, thank you very much for your time.”

AH: “OK.”