South Africa’s newly renovated embassy on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, DC, marks itself out from the mass of security architecture on embassy row. Opposite the bunkered outpost of the United Kingdom and the fortified Brazilian compound, the gates to the South African embassy stand open invitingly. Passers-by stop to admire the statue of Nelson Mandela, unveiled in September 2013 on the spot where, for decades, anti-apartheid protesters gathered to voice their opposition to institutionalised white supremacy in South Africa.
Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool will wind up his tour of Washington next week and fly home to South Africa on December 20. The haggard, harassed figure that was hounded out of Leeuwenhof, the Western Cape premier’s official residence, amid a flurry of allegations about brown-bag journalism, has been replaced by someone altogether different: Rasool looks visibly younger and, in his own words, he’s “in a very good space”.
“Everyone needs a period in their life when they can do good for their country and not necessarily have to fight for their party,” Rasool muses. “Being extricated from all of that has allowed for a burst of creativity and I’ve discovered myself intellectually again.”
He has clearly revelled in being in Washington, beyond the fray of the ANC’s fratricidal politics. In an interview with the Mail & Guardian Rasool explored the themes of his maiden ambassadorial term.
He has kept up a hectic pace, working the beltway’s establishment at the apex of international diplomacy. “Diplomacy is the art of telling the truth intelligently and gently. Whether it is in telling the truth about my country … or when I am critiquing the United States’s approach in Libya, in Egypt, in the Middle East, I use exactly the same standard,” he says.
It is an approach that has served him well when navigating moments of celebration and heartache in both South Africa and his host nation: the 50th anniversary of the march on Washington to demand civil rights, 20 years of South African freedom, the Marikana massacre and the death of Nelson Mandela, as well as the contemporary debate in the US about the relative worth of black lives and entrenched structural racism in the American social fabric.
Rasool departs from Washington with a positive economic balance sheet for South Africa: trade with the US now surpasses the high-water mark achieved before the 2008 global economic crisis; more than 600 US companies have invested in South Africa, employing in excess of 150 000 people; and 330 000 US citizens travelled to South Africa in 2013, contributing dollars to the tourism economy.
To what extent these green lines reflect cyclical change is moot, but Eliot Pence, the Africa director at Washington trade advisory firm McLarty Associates, praised Rasool for “cementing the partnership” [between the US and South Africa] while “defining for American investors the narrative of South Africa as the gateway to Africa”.
After four-and-a-half years in the US, Rasool says he now has a greater appreciation of “the cacophony of South Africa. The USA is too desperate to buy into the idea of itself as a post-racial society. I think South Africa is sometimes too hard on itself in not calculating the distance that we have moved from our racial past … Our cacophony is eminently more useful than a society in denial.”
He adds: “When you are in a place like the USA with its racially defined inequalities, its racially defined prison population and violence legitimised by ‘stand your ground’ and ‘right to bear arms’ laws, [you realise that this is] fundamentally a society in denial … [In the US] they don’t have any cathartic debate; they don’t have anything that induces healing. Just raw emotions suppressed and suppressed, and this obligation to toe the line and represent the American dream, and not show weakness to your enemies.”
Repeatedly he returns to the personage and legacy of Mandela as the touchstone for his diplomacy. “I tried to attach my diplomacy to [Mandela], the most visible point of our country and the ANC, at the moment when there was a huge outpouring of love and grief for him … and to create a proposition of soft power.”
Rasool argues that South Africa’s “diplomacy of ubuntu” articulates an important and distinct correlative to US foreign policy: “When you have no appetite or resources for war, what is the alternative? It’s multilateralism, it’s nonmilitarism, it is political engagement – and for me, that is our primary export.
“[By providing] an air force to the rebels in Libya rather than protecting civilians through a no-fly zone, [the US] opened up that region to the calamity that we see persisting in Libya. The coup in Mali, the instability in Mauritania, the hostage-taking in Algeria and the transformation of a ragtag protest group into an insurrection in Nigeria … Only political engagement will tell you who is who – you can’t see it from a bomber; you can’t see from a remote station that flies drones.”
When US citizens say they love Mandela for his role in South Africa’s transition, he challenges them by asking: “Why don’t you love him enough to make [him] the hallmark of diplomacy when you are dealing with the Middle East?”
The scars of his battles in the Western Cape clearly still irk him, and there is a measure of defiant foreboding at the prospect of a return to South Africa: “I’ve taken a vow of silence on matters that I left behind in the Western Cape … It’s the nature of politics: cowboys don’t cry. I’ve done what I had to do, I’ve paid the price and, in a sense, I can move on.”
In the short term he plans to take a sabbatical: “For 40 years of my life I have done what I had to do. Maybe for a few months I can do what I want to do.” He hopes to complete a book he has been working on about “reimagining being Muslim in the 21st century”.
Again, he advocates South Africa’s lived experience as an example to the world. “South Africa has been this wonderful laboratory for Islam, which has found a high point under democracy and freedom – for Muslims to perfect the art of integration without assimilation and isolation; for Muslims to live with the wonderment of many identities and not a single religious identity.
“I mean, which other country would have Hashim Amla as the captain of their cricket team or Nizaam Carr coming off the reserves bench for the rugby team? These are symbols that are so taken for granted in South Africa … but do you know how it rocks the world of eight million American Muslims and 15?million French Muslims?”
I exit his office to a familiar cacophony of embassy staffers laughing and chiding one another in myriad South African accents.
“He’s been an excellent ambassador,” my escort remarks, “We’re going to miss him.”
Jonathan Faull is an independent political and public policy analyst based in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter @jonjonfaull