Our foreign diplomacy problem

Douglas Gibson says Maite Nkoana-Mashabane is proving to be not up to the task

Dlamini-Zuma: A Second Coming?

If the ANC fares poorly in the August local government elections this will starkly remind them that in democracies parties do not rule until Jesus comes again.  They do not even rule indefinitely.  When the voters have had enough they throw the governing party out.

This will happen in a number of towns and probably in one or more Metros.  Apart from shock in the ANC and a possible change at the top before 2019, a major cabinet reshuffle is likely.  Minister of international relations and co-operation (DIRCO), Maite Nkoana-Mashabane could be among the first to go.

Rather than focusing on their inner-party concerns, the ANC should focus on the voters.  Voters want jobs. Jobs will be created by the private sector in a new growth climate invigorated by support and assistance from the government with the co-operation of the trades unions.

Cosatu, freed at last from Patrick Craven’s 1950’s style socialist gobbledygook, recently stated that in its wage negotiations labour must take into account the need to preserve jobs as well as demanding better wages and conditions.  Eureka!

The government is also talking up the country as an investment destination and the finance minister is busting a gut to increase labour/government/business dialogue and co-operation.

Business is wetting itself to see growth.  That requires investment, both local and foreign. Investment decisions depend on South Africa being seen as a safe, stable country that upholds the rule of law; that respects its constitution; that protects private ownership; where good profits can be made and repatriated and where corruption is not all pervasive.

Promoting and burnishing South Africa’s image is essential.  A few years ago, we were the world’s favourite success story, popular internationally and honoured for our peaceful transition to a democracy under one of the most admired constitutions anywhere.  Human rights and their observance formed a centerpiece of the new South Africa, together with tolerance and mutual respect. 

The Mandela and Mbeki years saw investment and growth reaching five per cent per annum and jobs for many of our people. How times have changed.

The Zuma presidency has been a disaster on many levels, not least the foreign front. Our foreign image has improved with the BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China and ourselves) but it has deteriorated with other countries that are major sources of investment and trade. South Africa has not learnt that non-alignment should mean treating all countries as friends, especially those that could benefit our economy.  A latent anti-American, anti-British and anti-Europe bias often shows itself, to our great detriment.

Maite Nkoana-Mashabane has been responsible, since 2009, for the formulation, promotion and execution of our foreign policy in consultation with the president.  It is time she was shuffled out of DIRCO and into something less crucial to our economic future.

Nkoana-Mashabane has a good deal of diplomatic experience, having been our High Commissioner in Malaysia and India. Regrettably, she has forgotten what she learnt in the field and has become too big for her boots.

She started well.  I remember my admiration at an ambassadors’ conference when she squashed one of our own ambassadors.  He stood up and criticised the department because his embassy had received no budget allocation for essential gardening and weeding of the neglected graves of our freedom fighters buried there.

The minister asked him if there was a spade and a fork at his residence.  Told there was, she asked why he and his deputy didn’t clear the weeds themselves as their contribution to Mandela day. “Don’t complain about money, ambassador, if you won’t do a little work yourself.” Clearly, a woman who took no prisoners, but that refreshing standard was not maintained.

The handbag incident in Norway is an example.  She refused to have her handbag scanned at the airport, although even the prime minister of Norway is subject to security checks in these days of terrorist attacks. After an altercation she left the airport, chartered a private aircraft to take her to Bulgaria, spending over R 235,000.00 of our money.

During a state visit by President Zuma to Norway, she criticised the country for the bombing of Libya (ignoring the fact that our country supported the bombing decision at the UN).

The recent incident in parliament, seen on television, when she slept through a hilarious interlude about her somnolence made her an object of derision.

Her aggressive and totally unacceptable performance recently on Al Jazeera attracted a good deal of adverse publicity.  Her problem is that when she is under pressure she becomes incoherent, pouring out a torrent of words in the most embarrassing and self-damaging way.  Her talk of having a hole in her head from a bucket carried by her in her youth simply invited mirth at her expense.  Her complaint that the interviewer (as a white South African) was not qualified to questions her because she had not suffered through the same experiences as the minister verged uncomfortably on the racist.

The recent abstention by South Africa on a human rights issue was excused on the grounds of “solidarity with Africa.”  Never mind what our Constitution requires.

The problem is that the minister has become the story, instead of the focus being on the promotion of our country and its interests.  It is time she went. 

Waiting in the wings is the highly experienced, internationally respected former minister, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma who is returning from the AU. The gossip is that she will replace Jeff Radebe as minister in the Presidency, readying her for a run to succeed her ex-husband as president.  Many people would not want the avaricious Zuma family anywhere near another Zuma presidency, but she might be able instead, as minister of international relations, to restore some lost lustre to South African diplomacy.

Douglas Gibson is a former opposition chief whip and former ambassador to Thailand. This article first appeared in The Star.