The ambassador’s behaviour is the sort of thing that helps South Africa’s decline in stature along. It denotes a country racked by its own small-minded parochialism, increasingly no longer a “serious” country, writes Terence Corrigan.
A series of racially charged tweets once again has South
Africa’s Twittersphere in an uproar. It’s another familiarly ugly round of confrontation
carried out from behind digital handles. But this case is something peculiar,
since the comments emanated – by all current evidence – from a senior diplomat
currently representing South Africa abroad.
Zindzi Mandela is South Africa’s ambassador to Denmark.
While this particular posting may not be the most critical in the country’s
diplomatic universe, it is not an altogether unimportant one.
The ambassador occupies no trivial office.
The outrage (and gleeful support) she received was in
reference to her apparent views, rather crudely expressed, on race and land politics.
Said one tweet: “Will be back for the Msunery here #OnMyTsnCs. Miss all
these trembling white cowards, shem. Botha, Potgieter, Thieving Rapist
descendants of Van Riebeck, etc: how are you my babies? We shall gesels more Mr
Skont and Ms Unus #OurLand.”
Said another: “Whilst I wine and dine here ..wondering
how the world of shivering land thieves is doing #OurLand.”
It is not unreasonable to term this – as Freedom Front Plus
leader Pieter Groenewald did – “racist and divisive”. It is, however,
unlikely that this will prove career limiting, unless Denmark chooses to make
an issue of it, which it probably won’t. After all, she was merely expressing
sentiments that have become common cause among many in the ruling party. The
ambassador’s tweets match much of the “land reform” rhetoric, pretty
much word for word. “Land thieves”, for example. And the assumptions
behind it line up very well with President Ramaphosa’s invocation of “our
people” – the difference is in eloquence and tone, not meaning.
Moreover, the ambassador can lay some claim to that great South
African escape hatch – the “personal capacity” defence. As she
tweeted: “I am not accountable to any white man or woman for my personal
views. No missus or baas here. Get over yourselves #OurLand.”
What was on display here was, in effect, quite familiar to
South Africa: the politicised civil servant.
And that is precisely the problem. Spilling gaudy invective
on public platforms is a feature of the country’s politics. Abuse and outright
threats are common. And since the civil service has been consciously
politicised, it raises no eyebrows when this is done by someone meant to
undertake his or her duties “impartially, fairly, equitably and without
Counterproductive though this is, it is not an unusual brand
of politics for societies under stress. And it is perhaps misplaced to condemn
raising particular issues as “divisive” if indeed this is their
But an ambassador is a grossly inappropriate person to do
so. There is probably no office in the entire state system which requires its
incumbents to comport themselves with decorum, dignity and impartiality as that
of an ambassadorship. For this is someone who carries ultimate responsibility for
representing South Africa to the outside world: the country as a whole and the
values it embodies.
It is difficult to square Ambassador Mandela’s conduct with
this. She departed from representing the country, its people and its interests
to venting chauvinistic invective against part of the society she was
constitutionally obliged to represent. Within the depressing confines of South
African politics, this is unremarkable; to a foreign audience, to which South
Africa seeks to market and promote itself, it is damaging. More than exposing
the dark underside of our politics, it makes South Africa seem, well, tacky. It’s
a head-shaking moment.
Poor or reckless behaviour by an ambassador reflects not
only on his or her own country, but on the relationship with the host. It says
something (and nothing positive) about the esteem in which it holds its host
country when it tolerates anything less than the best from its diplomats. To do
otherwise is profoundly “undiplomatic”.
And it’s no good to suggest that these are merely her
private thoughts. As the personification of South Africa in Denmark, this is
not a viable distinction. To say that she is personally at variance with a
large part of her core mandate, that she is “representing” something
which she personally rejects would be bad enough, conjuring up odours of a
particularly cynical careerism. But her Twitter account describes her as the
ambassador to Denmark, and lacks even the fig-leaf of a “personal capacity”
note. And since the South African embassy in Denmark maintains no Twitter
account of its own, anyone seeking such a presence in the Twitterverse would
naturally look to her.
But perhaps there is larger story here. South Africa has
invested enormous capital of all kinds – not least gargantuan annual financial
outlays – in its diplomatic presence abroad. The website of the Department of
International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) lists 104 embassies and high commissions,
16 consulates, 97 honorary consulates, and 82 other representations abroad.
Yet what is the return on this? The National Development
Plan (NDP) was critical of the country’s foreign affairs efforts. South Africa
was not drawing economic and developmental benefits from this presence. Indeed,
it was “overstretched” and has experienced a “relative decline
in power and influence in world affairs”.
The ambassador’s behaviour can only be viewed as the sort of
thing that helps this decline along. It denotes a country racked by its own
small-minded parochialism, increasingly no longer a “serious”
country. And she is by no means alone – South Africa’s ambassador to Venezuela
promised that the country’s military would intervene to protect it against the
United States; a foolish, unrealisable statement, for which (probably in view
of its own implausibility) he would later apologise.
Perhaps the most meaningful part of this saga is that Dirco
has been unable to get in touch with the ambassador since the tweets appeared.
This may be a very telling – and very disturbing – detail, representing much of
what is wrong with South Africa’s diplomacy.
– Terence Corrigan is a
project manager at the Institute of Race Relations. Readers are invited to take
a stand with the IRR by sending an SMS to 32823 (SMSes cost R1, Ts and Cs
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