As Tony Leon returns from a four-year stint as ambassador to Argentina, questions have been raised about the quality of SA's diplomatic corps.
In the curious world of foreign diplomacy, discretion is everything. So even as news organisations reported that the Argentine government has given diplomatic credentials to Zenani Mandela-Dlamini, the daughter of former president Nelson Mandela, the department of international relations and cooperation was playing unusually coy about whether she had in fact been appointed as an ambassador.
"There has been no statement from the department or the president on this issue," said department spokesperson Clayson Monyela. "We don't comment on nominees for various postings until certain diplomatic processes have been posted."
Diplomatic processes notwithstanding, Mandela-Dlamini is set to replace Leon in October. But she will not be South Africa's first political appointee.
Former Democratic Alliance (DA) MP Douglas Gibson returned to South Africa from his position as ambassador to Thailand earlier this year. He is now a professional speaker and political analyst, and consults on doing business in South Asia.
Gibson was replaced by former international relations department chief director Robina Marks.
Political experts meanwhile have warned of the dangers of cadre deployment when it comes to diplomacy.
Sheila Meintjes, a professor in the politics department at Wits University, said it was important to have trained diplomats who understand the world of diplomacy and what it means to mediate the interests of different countries.
"You need to have people who are trained, who have the requisite understanding of the international environment, who've been trained through universities [or] through the internship in the diplomatic corps," she said.
"We haven't been very well represented and South Africa needs to have more professionalism in our civil service generally but particularly in our diplomatic service," added Meintjes.
Thomas Wheeler, a research associate at the South African Institute of International Affairs, said that while political appointments were common in the diplomatic corps of many countries, it is a practice that is resented by professionals.
Wheeler worked in foreign affairs for more than 40 years and was an editor of a collection of memoirs from South African diplomats through the years.
"The sentiment is that the more political appointments there are, the fewer jobs there are for senior officials to aspire to [because] you don't move through the ranks to an ambassadorial position. When you become a senior [staffer] you get stuck somewhere because a politician has taken the job," he said.
But Wheeler pointed out that while some political appointees were sent off to take up posts as ambassadors after just a few weeks of training, this did not necessarily mean they were not up to the job.
"Other countries do it as well. The British had high commissioners here who were former Cabinet ministers and the Americans do it regularly. The present American ambassador came out of the White House," he said, adding: "It doesn't mean they're bad ambassadors."
Leon, a politician appointed by President Jacob Zuma in 2009, went to Argentina with no knowledge of Spanish after a three week crash-course in diplomacy. Despite this, bilateral trade between South Africa and Argentina has grown over 80% since he took over the post.
Monyela defended the practice, saying all countries have a mix of career diplomats and political appointees in their diplomatic corps.
"South Africa has got many missions abroad where you have a head of mission, a deputy head of mission and other staff members. The majority of people in those missions are career diplomats. In some instances you'll have people who've occupied other positions in government or public representatives being deployed as representatives of the country," he said.
Speaking to the Mail & Guardian on Tuesday, Leon said that the question of professionalism in the civil service was a valid point but that he believed there should be a blend between career diplomats and political appointments in the diplomatic corps.
"You can argue how many and how few you should have," he said.
"That being said I think positions, titles and all these accoutrements are useless if you don't do anything with them," he said, adding that his mission had exceeded its performance expectations.
Leon will return to South Africa at the end of September, a year before his four-year posting was due to end. He said he'd asked to be released from his contract early out of consideration for his wife.
"After three years, I thought we'd accomplished quite a lot of things here. It's right for us as a family and right for me at the age of 55, so I set in motion the process to come back," he said.
'Half my old job'
The political landscape is much changed since Leon left for Buenos Aires; most notably for the opposition party – its parliamentary leader is now a young, black woman.
Lindiwe Mazibuko was only a junior media officer in 2009 when Leon left the country. When Leon left to become ambassador to Argentina, the two had little to do with each other. "I was an ex-leader and she was very junior person. Now she's got half my old job," he mused.
Earlier this year, the two touched base over dinner.
"I thought she was very impressive, engaged, intelligent and courageous. The only thing she lacks is experience but that will come," he said.
Leon said while he may offer advice to compatriots in the party, he has no plans to become a constant commentator on the opposition or politics.
"I'm not going back to reclaim the leadership of the DA, so you can all breathe easy," he laughed.
Leon said he was keen to continue with the work he'd started to do before he got the ambassadorship – engaging in public speaking, commentating and writing.
Tiresome discussion points
He has been offered to opportunity to write newspaper columns again and has been approached with speaking opportunities. But he says he won't use the forums to talk about domestic politics.
"That's the advantage that being [in Argentina] gives you. The world is very much bigger than South Africa and the continent and the tiresome discussion points that we have," he said.
He's also been commissioned by publishing house Pan Macmillan to write a book about his time in Argentina. The book, tentatively titled The accidental ambassador – from Parliament to Patagonia, is to be published in the first half of next year.
After decades of working in the public service, Leon said he's also keen to enter the private sector.
"I've developed quite a lot of knowledge in this job about trade. Most of my time here has been absorbed in developing and protecting South African investor interests here and enhancing exports to this very difficult market," he said.
When asked if he had any advice for Mandela-Dlamini, Leon said: "Learn Spanish. That's the best advice I could give her ... If you want to penetrate this society you need to make an attempt to speak and understand Spanish."