DEMOCRATIC South Africa has never needed an intelligent, focused, and functioning department of foreign affairs as much as it does now.
A highly educated minister, the most senior member of the cabinet, untainted by corruption allegations, would surely be the best person to handle it, no?
Someone like Dr Naledi Pandor?
Well, it doesn't seem so to me.
In the past week, I consulted a few diplomatic sources about the state of the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) and our missions abroad, and they scored 2 out of 10.
The handling of South Africa's “nonalignment" on the war in Ukraine tops the list of failures. No one bought the story, and it severely undermined our country's international prestige and soft power.
A clear demonstration of Dirco's incompetence is the shocking state of the South African embassy in Washington, precisely where the greatest pressure comes from since the US is one of our biggest trading partners and donors.
The ambassador in this most strategic capital is Nomaindia Mfeketo, the former disastrous ANC mayor of Cape Town. She has a serious medical condition and is mostly absent from the office.
This has been going on for months but Pandor has not yet replaced Mfeketo or appointed someone to act in her place.
When Mfeketo is at the embassy or interacts with the Americans, she is apparently a great embarrassment to her colleagues (and her country).
The former editor of the Mail & Guardian, Phillip van Niekerk, recently wrote from Washington: “South Africa's friends in DC are perplexed at what they say amounts to a form of diplomatic malpractice."
A senior American journalist who mainly writes about diplomatic affairs told me yesterday that Mfeketo's embassy is an “absolute shit show".
Van Niekerk's assessment of the recent visit to Washington by a delegation led by Sydney Mufamadi from President Cyril Ramaphosa's office — with a brief to try to save South Africa's participation in the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) — aligns with what I hear: “The view in Washington is that the delegation headed by national security adviser Sydney Mufamadi was hastily arranged, badly timed and did not get to meet the A-team in DC."
But when a DA delegation led by leader John Steenhuisen — and later Alan Winde, the premier of the Western Cape — visited Washington to lobby for Agoa and did meet the right people, Dirco and the ANC were furious.
I am convinced the majority of South Africans agree the country should not blindly align itself with the US and other Nato countries or Russia/China, but should remain truly nonaligned and fiercely protect its own interests.
This is officially ANC and government policy, but the government's statements and actions have undone it from Day 2 and we are seen worldwide as the only democracy that has truly sided with Russia.
Two other Brics members, Brazil and India, have managed their “nonalignment" much better and have avoided the West's wrath. In fact, after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's triumphant visit to America and his speech before the US Congress, India seems much closer to the US than to Russia.
I say Day 2 because on Day 1, February 24, 2022, when the first Russian soldiers entered Ukraine, Dirco responded appropriately. The statement that day unequivocally stated: “South Africa calls on Russia to immediately withdraw its forces from Ukraine in line with the United Nations charter, which enjoins all member states to to settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice are not endangered." Read the full statement here: South African government calls for a peaceful resolution of the escalating conflict between the Russian Federation and Ukraine – Dirco
But this was short-lived. Just the next day, Ramaphosa changed his tune, and South Africa never again demanded that Russia withdraw its troops. On February 25, he reprimanded the international community and the UN Security Council for not trying harder to mediate between Moscow and Kyiv.
I don't know exactly who within or outside the ANC forced Ramaphosa and Pandor to change course, but one can infer that the South African Communist Party and the last remnants of uMkhonto we Sizwe within the ANC's leadership had something to do with it. Russia itself might have also played a role. Or perhaps, as the rumours suggest, the ANC simply couldn't financially afford to alienate Moscow.
If Vladimir Putin had taken Kyiv within a day or two and installed a proxy government — as he thought on February 24 last year was going to happen — South Africa's courtship with the Kremlin might not have gone so badly wrong for us.
But Ukraine surprised the whole world and fought back. And every day since then, Russia has looked worse. Not only is the Russian military not the formidable machine it claimed to be, it has also committed serious human rights abuses, targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure and engaging in the abduction of children.
In Russia itself, Putin has imprisoned thousands who criticised the war. There is no freedom of speech and the rule of law is in the trash.
If we didn't know Putin was a cruel autocrat before, we have no doubt about it today.
The hero of the ANC and EFF.
Putin believed the West would grow tired of the war and its support for Kyiv if the conflict dragged on. Instead, the protraction of the war has undermined Putin's own position and Russia has begun to fragment, while Nato has become stronger and more united.
Last weekend, Putin's feet of clay showed when an armed convoy from the Wagner mercenary group swiftly advanced almost 800km towards Moscow before turning back.
Wagner army chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, whose soldiers have been far more successful in Ukraine than the regular Russian forces, exposed Putin's propaganda about the reasons for the war, which was echoed by his disciples in South Africa and elsewhere, as false. The claim was that the invasion was in response to an imminent attack on Russia by Ukraine and Nato. Nonsense, said Prigozhin, the generals, oligarchs and Putin's henchmen have been plundering the east of Ukraine for many years.
Then Putin had to admit for the first time that he and his government had a contract with Wagner to fight in Ukraine and elsewhere on behalf of the Kremlin, and was paying billions of dollars for it.
We know today what role Wagner plays in Africa, especially in Libya, the Central African Republic and Sudan, and in Yemen. Human rights organisations have extensive and detailed files on Wagner soldiers' cruelty, murder of civilians and even rape.
And in almost every one of these countries, Wagner exploits and steals natural resources. State capture on steroids.
It cannot be possible that Pandor, Ramaphosa and the government did not know this, right?
For the government and the ANC to have a soft spot for Russia and to resent the West because of past behaviour is understandable. But to condone Wagner's bloody and devastating role in Africa is a completely different matter. And unforgivable.
It was only when US ambassador Reuben Brigety recently dramatically claimed South Africa had loaded weapons for Russia onto the cargo ship Lady R in Simon's Town that the pressure became unbearable.
The National Treasury and the finance minister were among those who warned the government the economy would suffer severe damage if the US decided to exclude us from Agoa trade benefits. Russia's trade with South Africa is minuscule.
Then the influx of Western leaders to Pretoria began. Since March, among others, the Belgian royal couple and their foreign minister, the Portuguese president, the Danish and Dutch prime ministers and the French and German foreign ministers have travelled to South Africa to confer with Ramaphosa and Pandor. Ramaphosa met President Emmanuel Macron in Paris and had extensive discussions.
Perhaps the tide is turning after all. Perhaps Ramaphosa's insistence on using the word “war" instead of “special military operation" to Putin's face and demanding the return of the abducted Ukrainian children is another sign of it.
But perhaps we urgently need a new foreign affairs minister who understands that our own national interests and our constitutional values should determine our policy, and who can present her/his case forcefully to the cabinet and the ANC.
♦ VWB ♦
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