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21 Apr 2011 00:00
Ebrahim Rasool’s political career was in flames when he left Cape Town for Washington, DC last year to take up the post of South African ambassador.
The ANC had fired him as Western Cape premier following allegations that journalists were bribed to manipulate the news in his favour and there were widespread complaints in the ANC, and beyond, that the choice of such a controversial figure for a coveted diplomatic post was improper and that his dealings with one of the world’s most powerful governments were compromised at the outset.
Seven months later, based on conversations with American congressmen, Africa wonks and federal employees who have dealt with Rasool, it seems his transition from politician to diplomat may have wiped away a tainted reputation. Older relationships from when Rasool was a political activist have leapfrogged recent scandals and newer ones appear informed only by experience.
It’s what sociologists call “thick trust”, embedded in personal relationships.
The carved giraffes in the embassy lobby stand to attention as a vehicle piloted by Rasool himself—a tall man suited to the Burberry-style clothing everyone in DC seems to wear—sweeps into the drive.
“The change from being in the eye of the political storm to being an observer of politics has been wonderful. Working hard, free of stress, I’ve been able to reaffirm the talents that led me into politics in the first place.
“Since the Fifa World Cup I’ve never heard a conversation opened or dominated by subjects like crime. I think another critical change has been wrought by President [Barack] Obama. We realise now that he’s fundamentally not able to reroute the Pentagon and the key bastions of power in the United States, but just the greater appearance of warmth, of wanting to consult, makes it much more palatable to be on good terms with the US.”
What of the fact that Rasool is a Muslim? After all, he arrived amid the controversy about the New York mosque near Ground Zero and Pastor Terry Jones’s threat to burn the Qur’an.
“Yes, it was a bold move by [President Jacob] Zuma to appoint a fairly high-profile Muslim as ambassador in the US at a moment when the disjuncture between the US and the Muslim world is so sharp. My wife and son were walking down the street and someone shouted ‘Go back to Iran’ but, that said, Washington is a very cosmopolitan place and so tolerance levels here are probably far higher than elsewhere.”
Diplomats have always been associated with cocktail sipping and sleeping with one another’s wives. Isn’t he rather lonely on the sober margins of this world?
“One soon learns to distinguish form from substance in embassy events. I have a monthly dinner at my home where I invite US fund managers to listen to guest speakers with expertise in African economics. The South African dinners are now beginning to be seen as going beyond the incidentals of food and drink. There’s structured discussion and the purpose is to continue to beat the drums of trade, investment and tourism.”
Can he claim any major successes?
Yes—at one of these dinners the chief executive of the Carlyle Group heard Steven Radelet, the Centre for Global Development economist and author, speak. The executive went away “and his company did their sums and decided they were going to put $750-million into Africa”.
According to Rasool’s associates in the permanent mission to the United Nations in New York, and others, his great strength lies in explaining to government and the private sector South Africa’s interactions with the rest of Africa.
“I point to similarities in how we dealt with our own transition from apartheid to democracy, with South Sudan, and the way we’re dealing with Zimbabwe.
“I’m more interested in the underlying logic of our strategy—a triangulation strategy, based on the theory that you strengthen your enemy and build his confidence to the point that he is willing to make concessions, and that speeds up liberation.
“I can point out, for example, that we didn’t appease FW de Klerk—we strengthened him so that he could make concessions. I can point out much the same thing about [President] Omar Bashir in Sudan.
“In speeches to Democrats and Republicans alike I have contrasted South Africa’s triangulation strategy with what I crudely call the strangulation strategy that the US employs. Strangulation means the commitment of troops for a decade at least. It means running up the deficit.
“Messy as some of South Africa’s triangulation strategies are, we can show you the exit. That, I think, is bringing a new logic to diplomacy.”
Defying the US
A bold claim, in line with the calming role that South Africa, a mid-level nation in terms of economic and military clout, has sought to play in world politics since 1994. But isn’t it largely rhetorical? Hasn’t South Africa entered a phase of hard-nosed realism, where we step out of line less?
“The US feared that if we sent [former Haitian president] Jean-Bertrand Aristide home it would stir up discontent around election time. We defied the US on the grounds that it would be unacceptable to keep him back when his own government had issued him with a passport. We sent him home and it was fine.
“Deputy President [Kgalema] Motlanthe said last week that South Africa has learned to make haste slowly. It’s an important lesson for a dynamic world.
“That said, I think there is something trying to be counter-instinctive in the US. Take Obama’s handling of the Libya issue, for example. Many rightists called him indecisive, but one person’s indecisiveness is another person’s multilateralism.
“South Africa’s preferred position is consultation and multilateralism and so I think that we’re having a far better relationship with the US based on some of those emerging precepts.”
The Aristide matter also showed that South Africa’s ties with the US are not purely intergovernmental. Dozens of American anti-apartheid activists signed a letter to Zuma asking him to let Aristide return to Haiti. Soon afterwards, he was on a plane home.
“One of the great things about this job is that I’m very much an ambassador to these people too. When the White House spoke for constructive engagement with apartheid we had to find those segments of US society who believed in our cause. We found them and I think these ties remain a heartbeat for relations between our two countries.”
Rasool’s inclusive embrace is abetted by his counterpart at the UN, Baso Sangqu, who is widely regarded as being far easier to engage constructively than his predecessor, Dumisani Khumalo.
“The big change is that we’re not getting lost in the noise of specific narratives as much as previously. We’re consulting and reaching a broader understanding of mutual strategies. It’s a good moment.”
The successes abroad of a figure vilified by the press at home deepens the enigma of Rasool. Perhaps he has rediscovered his strengths in a role that he was more suited to all along.
This article was supported by a grant from the Open Society Foundation. All views are those of the author and the Mail & Guardian
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