The latest surprise posting of an ambassador is that of Mohau Pheko, a prominent academic, political economist and gender activist.
Pheko, a fierce critic of the ANC government, has been appointed high commissioner to Canada and is expected to take up the post in three months.
A source close to her said she would attend a diplomatic academy in Pretoria next month in preparation for the post.
“She has accepted the job and President [Jacob] Zuma has already sent her a letter of appointment,” said the source, who asked not to be named because the presidency has not made an official announcement.
Sources said her knowledge of international relations had worked to her advantage. “Her view is that whether it is an ANC-led government or not, she’s taking this post to serve South Africa.”
Controversial journalist Jon Qwelane was recently posted to Uganda despite heated criticism of his homophobic views, but government officials say he has mended his ways.
“He is behaving well because he has to follow government policy. He can’t publish anything now because the [international relations and cooperation] department must approve everything he writes,” an official said.
Another controversial figure, the former health director general, Thami Mseleku, was recently posted to Malaysia, while the former Western Cape premier, Ebrahim Rasool, received the Washington post, despite allegations that he bribed journalists while in office.
The presidential adviser, Mandisi Mpahlwa, will become South Africa’s envoy in Moscow, a decision the department was unaware of when it was announced to the media. And although the former arts and culture minister, Pallo Jordan, is not yet in diplomatic training, he said he was sorting out “employee-employer issues” and that he was to become the ambassador to the United Nations.
A national executive committee member said the ANC’s deployment committee should play a lead role in the appointment of ambassadors but has “not functioned optimally”.
“It is now getting its act together and, ideally, we want a database with everyone’s qualifications and skills.”
The government has two categories of diplomatic appointments. Some work in the international affairs department and are trained at the diplomatic academy. With the help of senior officials, the director general allocates them ambassadorial posts as they fall vacant.
The others are political appointments at the president’s discretion.
Nomfundo Ngwenya, of the South African Institute of International Affairs, said that diplomatic postings were often used to get rid of problematic political actors, which was a dangerous policy.
“Ambassadors have to sell what the government has to sell. They have to be in sync with government strategy.”
Ngwenya said South Africa has no ambassador in Angola and, while Zuma’s government was seeking to position that country as its key partner in Africa, it sent the wrong message.
“Is our diplomatic service that weak that we can’t find someone for Angola? Maybe we focus too much on a small pool of people and we don’t have enough people with the calibre needed for key postings.”
Another surprise candidate was Tony Leon, former Democratic Alliance leader, currently serving as ambassador to Argentina. Other high-ranking DA members given ambassadorial positions include former parliamentary leader Sandra Botha and chief whip Douglas Gibson.
“That was a masterstroke. These guys were very vocal in their criticism of our foreign policy at the UN and now they have to defend that policy,” Ngwenya said.