Posted home: DA's ambassadors fall one by one

Tony Leon t the ­opening of Parliament in 2009. (David Harrison)

Tony Leon t the ­opening of Parliament in 2009. (David Harrison)

With Tony Leon returning to South Africa in September after three years as ambassador to Argentina, only two opposition politicians remain as foreign representatives – and this is soon to be whittled down to one.

“My term is done in June next year but I’ll be home in December,” said Sandra Botha from Prague in the Czech Republic, after receiving confirmation of her transfer this week.

Leon, the former leader of the Democratic Alliance, this week confirmed his return after it emerged that Zenani Mandela-Dlamini, the daughter of former president Nelson Mandela, would be taking up his post.

He is one of three serving ambassadors who were high-ranking members of the DA. At the time of her appointment, Botha was second only to Helen Zille in the DA’s hierarchy and her stated purpose was to give the ANC hell as her party’s parliamentary leader.

Although she said that exiting local politics was the right call – “Two white women leading the DA felt wrong. It was time to change the face of the DA” – she missed the cut and thrust of real politics.

“I can tell you there is no politics in this job.
Basically, I spend my time talking about all the worthwhile things about being a South African and then I get very homesick.”

Botha said she would not be returning to contend for a leadership position in the DA, but would like to be part of the “battle of ideas” in South Africa. She intends to figure out how to do this over the next six months.

Still standing
With Douglas Gibson, another former high-profile DA leader, back from Thailand since February, Sheila Camerer in Bulgaria is the last opposition ambassador still standing. The former senior DA MP was travelling and unreachable this week.

Gibson tells a number of amusing stories revolving around foreign disbelief that a white man can be an ambassador for South Africa, but said being an opposition supporter never presented any real problems.

“The job was to express government policy, so when I disagreed with a policy I could just state [the policy]. I didn’t have to add ‘and I think it stinks’.”

He said people with a long history in politics could make useful ambassadors even if they were in opposition to the governing party and neither he nor the country was at a disadvantage because of his allegiance.

“I was on terms of friendship, or at least acquaintance, with every member of Cabinet and most of the movers and shakers in the ANC. I think that history gave me better access than a career diplomat would have, and I think the appointment of somebody as senior as me was considered a compliment to the countries where I worked.”

Botha said the political allegiance of the ambassador might be an issue in some countries, but the Czech Republic was not one of them. “People here aren’t that interested in South Africa,” she said.

According to Gibson, people have a somewhat glamorised idea that top diplomats are put on the defensive about their country and its policies when in reality they deal at a much lower level of abstraction. “Many times people said to me: ‘Yes,

South Africa, but what country in South Africa are you from?’ I was introduced three times as the ambassador of South America. That changed thanks to the World Cup, but I did not fight about national policies.”

Leon said there were countries in which the South African ambassador had to be close to the ruling party – a nod to Zimbabwe – although he declined to list the ones he had in mind.

Gibson believes that, if there are to be political appointments rather than choices drawn from a pool of career diplomats, opposition ambassadors are good for South Africa’s  brand.

“When I was appointed by President Jacob Zuma, I had a conversation with him and he said it was important for us as a country that the face we presented to the world was not just an ANC face. I have to agree with that. Showing ourselves as a multiparty democracy enhances our image, helps show that South African exceptionalism.”

Leave your party labels
Dealing on an international level, even as a fierce opponent of the governing party, was good training for the job, he said.

“When we went to other countries before I became an ambassador, I would try to practise the adage ‘leave your party labels at the airport’. No matter what the differences are locally, there is always that South African interest to represent.”

Nelson Mandela set the ­precedent for appointing former opposition leaders to important ambassador postings. Shortly after taking power in 1994 he sent Zach de Beer, the last leader of the Progressive Federal Party and later a leader of the DA’s forerunner, the Democratic Party, to the Netherlands.

The reasons behind a choice of ambassador are never officially discussed and officials most often cite diplomatic protocol and sensitivity towards the host nation for staying mum. However, several people who closely watch such appointments say they cannot foresee the Zuma administration appointing anyone other than loyal ANC cadres to represent the country.

“Mandela was trying to send a message with his appointments and Thabo Mbeki tried to separate ­government and party,” said one analyst. “With the current climate and Zuma and his approach I wouldn’t hold my breath.”

Out of sight, out of mind

Of the more than 100 South African missions scattered around the world, the majority are headed by innocuous career diplomats, although the occasional mid-level struggle veteran is thrown in.

But among South Africa’s representatives are five former Cabinet ministers. Former sports minister Makhenkesi Stofile is in Germany after he lost his job in a Cabinet reshuffle. Mandisi Mpahlwa spent a short time as an economic adviser to Zuma after losing the trade and industry top job, before heading to Russia.

Reports that Geoff Doidge was fired as public works minister because he would not cave on the police building leasing scandal followed him to Sri Lanka. Charles Nqakula, once considered a future presidential contender after his stint as safety and security minister, is heading for Mozambique. Zola Skweyiya was widely expected to resign as social development minister after the ousting of Thabo Mbeki, but his plum post in London was less expected.

A surprisingly large number of ambassadors were active in the troubled Western Cape – and not without controversy. Ebrahim Rasool was sent to the United States, his ally Shaun Byneveldt is in Syria and their one-time opponent from a different faction of the party, Koleka Mqulwana, is in Australia. The three appointments were all considered part of a provincial cleanup by the party.

Not all representatives are ANC loyalists, sometimes to the detriment of the national reputation.

Mohau Pheko, who was a fierce critic of the party as a political commentator, was sent to Canada and later Japan despite admitting to leaving the Sunday Times after committing plagiarism. Another columnist, Jon Qwelane, coined the phrase “satanic greed” to describe the behaviour of some ANC members. He was welcomed in Uganda, but his blatant homophobia disgusted many. – Phillip de Wet

Positions up for grabs

According to official government lists, which are not always up to date and ­generally of ­variable quality, there are 16 positions available for ambassadors or high commissioners around the world.

Only one, Canada, holds any real prestige, but most would make for nice quiet posts for anyone who deserves a pre-retirement present, or needs to be kept out of the way.

They are:

  • Burundi
  • Canada
  • Costa Rica
  • Cuba
  • El Salvador
  • Fiji
  • Guatemala
  • Guinea
  • Honduras
  • Liberia
  • Mauritius
  • Mexico
  • Niger
  • Pakistan
  • Rwanda
  • Ukraine
Phillip de Wet

Phillip de Wet

Phillip de Wet writes about politics, society, economics, and the areas where these collide. He has never been anything other than a journalist, though he has been involved in starting new newspapers, magazines and websites, a suspiciously large percentage of which are no longer in business. PGP fingerprint: CF74 7B0F F037 ACB9 779C 902B 793C 8781 4548 D165 Read more from Phillip de Wet

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