FOLLOWING interesting presentations by two African diplomats as well as a prominent media personality at a recent seminar in Cape Town, I found myself high and dry, with even more questions and worries than answers.
The problem with attending seminars addressed by diplomats, I have come to sort of accept over the years, is that diplomats will always be diplomats. They’re always aware that whatever they say might end up in the media and, in some cases, used against them. They’re also often careful not to offend their host countries.
Diplomats have been trained to use public platforms to send indirect messages that only analytical ears can decipher. But they also master the art of saying a lot without really saying much. The outgoing US consul general in Cape Town, Teddy Taylor, a self-declared career diplomat, is a master at this game of “issue skirting”.
The man can speak for over an hour without really addressing the issues put before him. He answers questions like someone driving along a narrow road with many hidden speed bumps in the middle of the night. But I digress.
South Africa: Crisis, what crisis?
The topic of the discussion at the seminar was “International Perspectives on South Africa’s Current Political and Economic Crisis”. When Q&A time came, I raised my hand and answered a question posed by moderator Brian Williams, agreeing that South Africa can be said to be in a form of a crisis.
This, I explained, is because despite a clear Constitution, rule of law, enshrined separation of powers, etc we’re sitting with a president we cannot dislodge, who has repeatedly proven to have no regard for the values of our republic, values carefully enshrined in the said Constitution and Bill of Rights; values he has taken a solemn oath to embody on behalf of all of us.
This becomes more of a crisis when the governing party that he leads has also, consistently, shielded him from all criticism and possible sanction by our courts. Institutions such as the National Prosecuting Authority, the public protector and the Hawks are too busy eating out of his hand to carry out their constitutional mandate without fear or favour.
To make things worse, increasing numbers of party veterans complain that the same president no longer takes their calls; that he seems to have broken standing party protocols when it comes to deploying members to Cabinet; and that he now runs solo.
Indications are of course that while the president might appear to be running solo, this is not the case. Only, he doesn’t run with his fellow party leaders any more. How else does one explain this if the three most important senior leaders of the governing party – the deputy president, secretary general, and treasurer general – clearly unable to contain their utter dismay, could state in front of media cameras that a new Cabinet list presented to them by the same president was developed elsewhere, outside traditional party structures?
Violating our values
I raised two additional points, the first being South African diplomats made to abstain from a UN resolution aimed at protecting LGBTI communities worldwide in July 2016. This is despite it being enshrined in our founding documents to protect and uphold the rights of these communities, which are particularly endangered in most African countries.
News24 reported at the time that South Africa’s ambassador to the UN gave as reasons for this abstention “the arrogant and confrontational approach adopted by the sponsors of the resolution”. She described it as “grandstanding, recklessness, brinkmanship and point scoring” that pushed South Africa to opt for brandishing a dirty middle finger, preferring to sit and sulk in its little corner.
The resolution was eventually passed without the support of South Africa or any other African country.
Justifying this behaviour at the seminar, Namibia’s ambassador to the EU and Belgium Kaire Mbuende did what diplomats do – he took a long route explaining the context in which such resolutions often get made and promoted. He added that the African bloc has agreed to always vote together, and to oppose any resolution that might isolate and target any one country.
In a post-seminar tete-à-tete, I put it to him that his answer was problematic. What happens when the head of state in a single country, e.g. Sudan, Zumbabwe, Uganda, etc. abuses human rights? And this led to my second point; would they shield him/her in the name of African pride/unity? I knew the answer to this, of course.
I also reminded him that the suffering masses in a country like the Sudan, victims of human rights abuses by their leader, would not care about the identity or manner of the sponsor of a resolution aimed at protecting their rights and ridding them of a despot; there would be no place for misplaced African pride if justice was the other choice.
African heads of state often behave as if they were in the kind of township neighbourhood where criminals are shielded from arrest by the police because they are considered “one of us” and might be sharing the spoils of crime with close members of their community.
One of the diplomats at the seminar refused to use the word “crisis” to describe the situation South Africa finds itself in today – even despite recent relegation to sovereign credit junk status – going on to blame the media for creating negativity even where there is none. The other one agreed that it might be a crisis, but went into another lecture about different people having different views of what constitutes a “crisis”.
As for the rest of us, it might help to remember one Thabo Mbeki’s response of “Crisis, what crisis?” upon being asked what South Africa would do about the crisis in Zimbabwe.
Today, Zimbabwe’s economy is now no longer on its knees; it’s lying flat on its belly, unable to raise itself up and unlikely to do so while that once proud and economically robust country is led by a stubborn despot, proudly defended by the dinosaurs running most African countries.