Columnists

Tony, I want your job in Buenos Aires

Richard Calland

Richard Calland ponders what exactly one has to do to get a cushy diplomatic posting abroad.

Dear Tony (if I may),

I would like to congratulate you on your appointment as South Africa’s next ambassador to Argentina. But I can’t. I am struggling to summon the goodwill to do so. I had not anticipated arriving at this point of extreme envy, but Buenos Aires is such a delicious city. I simply cannot help myself; the truth is this: I want your job (which is really not a phrase I ever expected to utter —).

What did you do to deserve such a succulent posting? After all, Ngconde Balfour got Botswana. He is a far better cricketer than I suspect you will ever be: what on earth did he do to deserve Gaborone? In fact, now one looks at it afresh, the Democratic Alliance seems to do rather well out of these diplomatic appointments. Your fellow parliamentary sniper, Douglas Gibson, got Thailand; Sandra Botha, for a while leader of the DA in Parliament, got the Czech Republic — Prague, another of the world’s great cities.
Admittedly, another former DA MP, Sheila Camerer, got Bulgaria, and Sofia is hardly in the Prague-Bangkok-Buenos Aires league for exotic entertainment and café society, but Bulgarians should not be underrated; they can be terribly good fun.
So, one is back to the fundamental question: how did you, of all people, land this job? Clearly, I have been going about things in entirely the wrong way — carefully choosing my words, articulating a delicate sense of empathy, striving for balanced commentary that did justice to the constitutional imperative of accountability and oversight while recognising the challenges of being in power.
Instead, I should have been adopting a completely different tone when dealing with the ruling class and the ANC establishment. Your approach — acidic, sarcastic, snobbish, scoffing, condescending, unforgiving, smug, patronising, sneering, but otherwise totally reasonable — has prevailed.
Silly, naive me; and well done you.
I mean, it is not as if they — the new administration — need you out of the way, do they? You had reclined into submissive semi-retirement.
The fat biography in the bag; the increasingly genteel and elegantly penned journalistic missives from the election front; your apparent conversion to the Zumaresque modality of collective leadership; and the paternalistic columns of recent weeks—surely this gentler, softer Leon had nothing to do with your appointment?

Though it sticks in the craw, I have to hand it to you. Buenos Aires. Congratulations. I have, at last, seen the errors of my ways. Forget democratic socialism and social democracy, egalitarianism and social transformation: I shall join the forces of (neo)liberalism that you expounded with such unforgiving ferocity. I am, now, a true convert.
Yours etc

PS: Of course, there is another way: your reward is nothing compared with Dali Mpofu’s. Perhaps I should try that; instead of trying to run decent, efficient, accountable, public interest organisations, I will henceforth simply drive them into the ground, turning them into hopeless, shapeless, wasteful, demoralised shells of their former selves. That way, at least I might get R12-million ... though I’d still rather have Buenos Aires.

Meanwhile, on the subject of appointments, there is another important succession process unfolding at the Human Rights Commission. Close on the heels of the heated contests for the West Wing, the chief justice, the police commissioner and the Constitutional Court, the terms of office of five of the six current human rights commissioners expire at the end of September. A right old mess is being made of this.

The commission’s constitutive Act says that there should be no fewer than five commissioners. The government has left it far too late. Even if Parliament, which was due to shortlist this week, proceeds with undue haste, it is unlikely the commission will be quorate come October 1. Pregs Govender, the most recently appointed commissioner, will be left stranded in splendid isolation.
There are serious implications, both at home and abroad. In the United Nations the commission will have to suspend its membership of various international consultative bodies. At home, even more seriously, there will be obvious legal uncertainties about its capacity for making decisions, such as the resolution of complaints.

Must it suspend all its operations while the government gets its act together? This, like the Constitutional Court, is a space that needs to be watched. The commission has done a respectable, if unspectacular job, with little or no support or cooperation from the executive or Parliament, both of which are quick to level complaints at the commission but fail to summon the courage or the time to consider the excellent, thoughtful report that Kader Asmal’s ad hoc committee prepared on all the Chapter 9 institutions supporting democracy two years ago.

Parliament must table the report and urgently consider its recommendations. If the Zuma administration means what it says about performance and public service, then the independent constitutional bodies must be given the political space to perform their oversight role. And to do so, the very best, most independent people must be appointed to serve as commissioners.

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