A tale of two diplomats

Andrew Donaldson writes on the contrasting fates of Bruce Koloane and Sir Kim Darroch



IT’S been an eventful week in the diplomatic world, what with the resignation of Sir Kim Darroch, British ambassador to the US, and the shabby testimony at the Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture by our man in the Netherlands, Bruce Koloane.

Put simply, Darroch lost his job for telling the truth. Koloane, meanwhile, has lied for his country, and seems set to enjoy a rewarding career in the foreign service for doing just that. A strange business, but one which suggests, yet again, that when our public officials f*** up, as they persistently do, they do so upwards.

On Monday, Koloane blithely denied under oath that he had used the names of Jacob Zuma, former transport minister Ben Martins and defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula to force through clearance for the Gupta wedding party chartered flight to land at Waterkloof air force base in 2013.

Significantly, he maintained that a report following a high-level government investigation into the affair contained “gross inaccuracies” and that allegations that he had misused his position as then chief of state protocol and had misused the names of Accused Number One and his cabinet ministers were “untrue”.

On Tuesday, however, he changed his tune and admitted he had, in fact, lied. 

But he only did so after he was confronted with recordings of telephone conversations in which he’d told air force officials that Zuma and his ministers were happy that the Guptas’ chartered flight were landing at a key military installation.

The commission then endured his clumsy attempt at a mea culpa that gallantly sought to clear the thief-in-chief of any involvement in the matter. 

Uneffingsurprising. To pouch it in a diplomatic manner.

Koloane was quoted as saying: “The president and ministers did not say to me I should deal with this…  The fault was from my side, which I have taken full responsibility for, in putting pressure on SA Air Force officials to expedite the flight clearance request… 

“The president never interfered with administrative work of protocol and landing of planes at Waterkloof. I abused the power of my office. I failed in my duties and should have communicated to my counterparts in the defence force.”

Cross-examined as to why, just the day before, he had no recollection of any of this, Koloane replied, “It happened six years ago and the recordings have helped to refresh my memory.”

Not, arguably, a very credible response considering that, just the day before, he’d been so adamant about the “gross inaccuracies” in the investigators’ report.

Perhaps Koloane had forgotten the sanction he had received, back in 2013, for his role in landing the Gupta nuptial bird: after pleading guilty to internal disciplinary charges, he was suspended without pay for two months and given a final written warning.

Was this too light a punishment to have left a lasting impression among the cranial crenellations? Or was it overly traumatic, and thus buried in the dank corners of the subconscious? Perhaps recall was swept aside and memory wiped clean in the giddy excitement that came with the sudden posting to the Netherlands? [1]

Koloane will, of course, keep his job. Clayson Monyela, the Department of International Relations and Co-operation’s public diplomacy chief, told Radio 702 that, as far as the department was concerned, there was nothing new in the ambassador’s testimony; he had already ‘fessed up to his role in the Waterkloof incident at a Dirco hearing.

“He pleaded guilty to all charges,” Monyela said, “and the outcome of that disciplinary process was a final written warning. But linked to that, Koloane was also removed from his position of chief of state protocol and was no longer responsible to that state of work. That is what happened at that time.

“In law, there is something called double jeopardy. Even though some people are hearing Koloane’s version of events for the first time ... at Dirco this was a process undertaken during his disciplinary hearing, and he pleaded guilty to all charges and that process was concluded. 

“In other words these issues of dishonesty, name-dropping and all these things, he admitted them at the disciplinary hearing before he was made ambassador. He is not admitting these things for the first time.”

However, and lest we forget, Pinocchioloane did serve up the porkies before said admissions. What else does he lie about?

Which brings us back to the Darroch affair, and the contents of the leaked confidential diplomatic communiques that led to Sir Kim’s resignation. The cables cover a period from 2017 to the present and include, among other matters, candid assessments of Donald Trump and his “clumsy and inept” administration.

In particular, Darroch said the American president was “inept”, “insecure” and “incompetent”, that his career could “end in disgrace”, and even said of the alleged collusion with Russia that “the worst cannot be ruled out”.

Well, nothing earth-shattering there — the whole world knows the guy’s an orange clown.

But this is what diplomats do. It’s part of their job to report back to their governments. And there was nothing particularly unique about the Darroch cables, certainly not as far as members of the diplomatic corps in Washington were concerned; most of whom have written “the same stuff”, according to the New York Times.

The newspaper quoted Gérard Araud, the recently-retired French ambassador to US, as saying, “Yes, yes, everyone does. But fortunately I knew that nothing would remain secret, so I sent [my cables] in a most confidential manner.” [2]

If, however, Darroch alluded to a White House mired in chaos and dysfunction, then Trump’s response removed all doubt on that score. Hypersensitive and paranoid as ever, he took to Twitter to attack Darroch with customary immaturity, claiming that his team never liked the ambassador in the first place. “We will no longer deal with him,” he fumed.

A day later, he was still raging on Twitter: “The wacky Ambassador that the UK foisted upon the United States is not someone we are thrilled with, a very stupid guy ... I don’t know the Ambassador but have been told he is a pompous fool.” [3]

By most accounts, Darroch is greatly respected and admired in US government circles, and has cultivated close ties to some of Trump’s top aides. Typical of all British diplomats, he hosts a terrific reception and rarely lets his diplomatic mask slip in public.

Regarding the latter, I have experienced both the hospitality and the renowned sangfroid of the British foreign service. 

Over the years, I’ve attended many a bash in Cape Town thrown by successive UK ambassadors and high commissioners where, charged on Chenin, I have attempted to prise from officials useful comment on the dysfunction in our various governments, from the Botha to the Zuma administrations. Alas, all was in vain. (Slippery buggers. But they are generous when it comes to the lady petrol.)

But it does make me wonder what dames Nicola Brewer and Judith Macgregor, high commissioners to South Africa from 2009 to 2013 and 2013 to 2017, respectively, would have reported back to Whitehall back when the Guptas ran the country. Come to think of it, current high commissioner Nigel Casey’s communiques must also make for interesting reading.

Earlier this year, in February, Dirco officials met with representatives from the Swiss, German, Dutch, US and British diplomatic missions to express displeasure that ambassadors from the five countries had raised their concerns about corruption in a memo to Cyril Ramaphosa.

Squirrel and his staff were reportedly greatly alarmed by the memo. The Presidency was apparently labouring under the impression that it was dealing with state capture in a most emphatic and decisive manner. 

But no, here were diplomats suggesting otherwise, warning that the president’s vaunted “New Dawn” investment drive would fail to rise should he not take action against the Zuptas and most pronto. Little wonder, then, that Lindiwe Sisulu, the international relations minister, threw a fit and summonsed the ambassadors for a dressing down.

In diplo-speak, this is euphemistically referred to as “an interview, no coffee” where “a free and frank exchange of views” takes place. 

According to the Dirco statement that followed, the diplomats duly regretted not using the correct channels in communicating with the president, and further clarified that their “discussion paper” had been sent “to contribute to the dialogue on how South Africa can attract more foreign direct investment”.

More euphemisms. But no word, though, about that corruption.

Lastly, one diplomat who has been rather busy recently is China’s man in London, Liu Xiaoming. After being summonsed to Whitehall for “an interview, no coffee” to explain recent events in Hong Kong and elsewhere, Liu hosted a press briefing where he accused Britain of having a “colonial mindset” for concerning itself with Beijing’s human rights abuses.

As he unfortunately put it, “In the society [that is Hong Kong], governed by law, people were persecuted in accordance with the law.”

It is to such people that our international relations people are now obsequiously sucking up. What returns, if any, will come as a result of this relentless grovelling and shameless bootlicking remains to be seen.


[1] Not exactly a consular backwater in the torrid climes of West Africa or South America. Years ago, at the Mahogany Ridge, bibulous regulars would recall advice imparted to ambitious career diplomats: “Don’t be vague, ask for The Hague.” Which, incidentally, is where our favourite fibbing ferret, Carl Niehaus, cut his teeth in the foreign service. Just saying. 

[2] A smarting comment, vis-a-vis Anglo-French diplomatic rivalry. One up to the Ministère de l'Europe et des Affaires étrangères.

[3] Trump has, in fact, met Darroch on several occasions. The first was at the White House shortly after his inauguration. He greeted the ambassador warmly, complimenting Darroch on an interview he gave to Fox News and telling him, “You’re going to be a TV star!” The president does however acknowledge meeting with the ultra-nationalistic Nigel Farage, and has made no secret of the fact that he wants the right-winger and Brexiteer to be the UK’s next ambassador to Washington. Meanwhile, the Daily Telegraph has published a list of some other folk Trump claims never to have met, despite evidence to the contrary.