Speaking to a New York audience about South Africa on March 25, Johnny Moloto, the deputy chief of mission to the US in Washington DC, described South Africa as a 16-year-old teenager, experiencing substantial growing pains. Charged with ‘telling the South African story”, Moloto spoke to the Mail & Guardian in Manhattan the following day about South Africa’s diplomatic relationship with the United States.
Mail & Guardian: Last night you described your job as is telling the story of South Africa. What is the most common misconception that people you’ve encountered have about the country?
Johnny Moloto: The people that I’ve met are people that, they’ve done Africa, they’ve done South Africa … those that have not visited the country … they’re interested in learning about it, visiting. But there are still those with misconceptions — it’s disease-infested, a poor country. Yes, there is poverty anywhere in the world. Even in the most sophisticated society, there’s always poverty.
There’s also the misconception that whatever you read becomes your reality. So no matter what crackpot will have written about the country, people believe it and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I understand when people say: “Oh well, we read this, you are from South Africa, what is your take on this? Is there any truth to this?” But it’s when people say: “Well, we are concerned about what’s happening in your country!” Wait a minute, have you been there? Why don’t you ask me first if there’s any credence to the story, and let me put it in perspective for you.
M&G:The ambassador post in the DC embassy has been vacant since November, when Welile Nhlapo completed his tour and returned to serve as national security special advisor to President Zuma. Does the government have someone in mind for the post? What kind of criteria are they using for the post and when will it be filled?
JM:I’m sure they will find someone. We’ve always had very high profile people come here, people of substance, like we do in any other country where we have an embassy. I haven’t heard anything [yet]. When it does happen I’m sure it’s a choice that we South Africans will be proud of, and similarly the Americans … as anything, good things come to those who wait. But I know the government is quite anxious that we get somebody and fairly quickly.
M&G: You’ve said your position involves ensuring the strategic goals of the South African government are achieved here. What are the primary goals for US-SA relations for this year?
JM: In the main, it’s our bilateral relations [with] a new administration. Our minister has established a very good relationship with her counterpart, Secretary [of State] Clinton. It’s a very vibrant relationship.
We’re looking to establish a strategic dialogue. Our two principals have already identified clear areas where they want to collaborate, which are important for both countries. We were one of the few countries in Copenhagen that supported the US when President Obama needed support, when it mattered the most. We, together with other developing countries, were willing to share in that vision.
The one thing that we constantly want to encourage [is that] government only establishes the possibility of partnerships, but it’s the people-to-people exchanges and contacts that are very important. Because those are the people that ultimately make the relationship a reality.
M&G:An issue that the South African government is trying to persuade people to get on board with is permanent African representation on the UN Security Council. South Africa has just been endorsed by the AU to appear once again for a non-permanent Security Council seat, possibly in 2011. How seriously is permanent representation being considered by the US, and what is the government trying to do to get this proposal to be constituted?
JM:I think in the main they are [serious]. This is going to be a serious political shift in the way the UN does its work. This is one of the things we don’t bring into the public domain. It’s primarily the Security Council we want to see change, but the UN generally [as well]. In other structures we’ve managed. The Human Rights Commission has been transformed, the Human Rights Council. There are changes in the system that we’re seeing, within the broader UN system, but the concern is mainly with the Security Council. It stood for maintaining international peace and security. The world has changed from what it was in 1945.
If you read Kofi Annan’s In Larger Freedom — it enlarged the type of security we are talking about. People should be free from hunger, free from threats to physical harm. [In 1945] we were looking broadly at state-to-state security, not at an individual or human level. Looking at one state being harmed by another; geographical attacks basically. It’s changed quite a bit from what it was then. And this is the mental shift that you want, essentially, from the UN.
M&G: The US abstained from voting on Eskom’s application to the World Bank for a loan to complete construction on a new coal plant, largely due to pressure from environmental groups. Last night you said that a lot of the environmental groups don’t appreciate the argument that the loan has developmental implications and has been done from a developmental perspective. Has the US, in their conversations with the embassy, expressed an appreciation for this argument?
JM:This is not about the bilateral relationship between South Africa and the US. It could’ve been any other country. The key issue is that they have a concern with an institution, or institutions, where they are shareholders or invest; how American tax dollars are being used to facilitate or fund the transition from fossil fuels to renewables. In 1989, the current speaker [Nancy Pelosi], who was then just a Congress person, initiated what was then called the “Pelosi Amendment” which spoke to the very issue — that multilateral development banks should desist from funding fossil-fuel projects. The World Bank is one of those; the US is a [majority] investor in the World Bank.
We appreciate that. But the US, as a developed country, has an obligation to ensure that developing countries such as South Africa, that have made serious commitments to clean technology, to renewable sources of energy, should be supported. [President Zuma is] very clear that we want to move towards green and clear technologies, to create more jobs within the clean technology sector, we want to make that transition from non-renewable sources. There’s an ideal situation we want to reach, and then there’s our reality as a developing country, and there’s that gap. This gap is actually the real debate around climate change.
The way the argument has been presented … it’s as if it’s argued in absolutes. It’s either you do this, or that. This is the be-all and end-all. But in reality things don’t happen like that. Development is much more nuanced than just absolutes. It’s as if we were to wake up tomorrow and suddenly use solar technology, or use wind technology, all of our developmental problems would be addressed. There are a number of constellations to be dealt with.
Giving Zimbabwe a chance
M&G: Arguments being looked at in absolutes — that’s common of every political debate. It’s easier to speak in absolutes than to describe the complexities of a situation. And another area where that happens is Zimbabwe. The South African government wants targeted sanctions to be lifted, and the US wants to see some kind of development within the unity government, proof that it’s working. What is the embassy doing to ease relations, and what is the US message to you in this situation?
JM: We are very appreciative that the US administration is concerned about what is happening in Zimbabwe. But we want that appreciation to translate into a real positive engagement, not just a critical position from a distance. This is what made us to be the nation we are today, we are always prepared to engage in dialogue. And I think it wouldn’t be beneath the US to look at the possibility of engaging, assisting. We said: “This is a Zimbabwe problem, and only Zimbabweans can come up with solutions.” Let’s give a chance to the Zimbabweans to have dialogue. We were given that opportunity, when we had Codesa. We were given that opportunity by the international community as South Africans [to find a] South African solution.
If powerful countries like the US and UK could give [their] voice of support behind such a dialogue … rather than being divisive and seeing it in absolute terms, saying that the opposition party is doing the right thing … it’s not helpful, it polarises society, it polarises nations.
M&G: What do you think the US wants to see? They seem to support dialogue, and they support a unity government working together, but what is it they want to see happening before they lift sanctions?
JM: I’m not sure to be honest. But if we take their pronouncements as commitments to assisting … I think it would make a dramatic change to hear them say, “What can we do to assist?” For a change, not to impose.
M&G: But you don’t want them to get involved in the talks, which are supported by SADC?
JM: It’s not that we don’t want them to get involved. Look, in our case, we invited the international community to assist …during the struggle for apartheid, that’s why you [had] people from all over the world lobbying. But in so doing, you also want those countries to say: “What can we do to help?” That’s very much different than saying, “We want to see this change in Zimbabwe”. What do the Zimbabweans want? Hear it from them, and then ask. “We want to hear that side of the story — what can we do to assist?” That would be a very refreshing voice, a very different take on what has been happening so far, you know, it’s always, conditional on this. “You must do this.” That’s regime change, that’s imposing regime change on a nation. And I don’t think that as South Africa, that’s the space we want to play in. As South Africa, we always want to work with nations in partnership with them, to find common solutions to common problems, rather than imposing them from outside. I believe that the US is a major player in this debate.
And they have so much to contribute.
To be quite honest, I’ve been very encouraged by President Obama’s approach to doing things. He’s been very conciliatory with the Iraq situation. The way he’s approached it, he’s been very open-minded. I wish the same could happen with the Zimbabwean situation. We also want to see change there, we want to see a meaningful transformation and dialogue. [We want the people of Zimbabwe] to take their rightful place as a wonderful powerhouse in the region. It’s not helpful for us that we’re sitting with an estimated four-million Zimbabweans in South Africa; we can’t sustain that in the long-term. So I think it’s quite important that we get support from powerful countries such as the US. [The US is] still a superpower. That’s why it does concern us when they take a particular position that we feel is likely to influence the world in a particular way.
M&G:The US allocates a lot of money to aid in South Africa and in Africa. The Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo, who is sometimes referred to as the “anti-Bono”, argues that foreign aid in Africa is a bad thing, that it encourages dependency, corruption and perpetuates poverty. That’s an extreme perspective, but what is your opinion about the amount of foreign aid allocated? You’ve remarked that a lot is allocated to NGOs and to developmental aid and not necessarily to infrastructure and government. What’s your take on Moyo’s view?
JM: [Foreign] aid will still play a very important role, particularly when it’s in an area like HIV/Aids, if it’s supportive of government programmes. In any given situation you can never have all the resources that you want to do things.
I would take a different point of view from [Moyo’s] and say that developmental aid for developing countries is very important. It’s not something that you can just brush away and say that it creates dependency, but just as long as … it creates the commitment to assist the countries come out of that dependence. It must be an enabler, not something is going to be a permanent feature of how you run your country. There are programmes that are, by their very nature, so important to the independence … and sovereignty … of the nation, that you cannot dare tamper with that.
For me, it’s neither here nor there. I don’t see any problem with any foreign assistance, any country would need that type of assistance, and as developing countries we would need that to assist us to a different level of development. But, I wouldn’t take such a radical view of saying ultimately, in the long term, it creates dependency. Probably it creates interdependency, this is the world that we are living in. In a highly globalised world, nations are becoming much more inter-dependent.