INTERVIEW: US Ambassador Donald Gips, the cheerleader

By Branko Brkic 3 March 2010

A lot has changed since 1972 - a whole lot. South Africa has changed in a most spectacular way, from global pariah to democracy. But the USA has changed almost as profoundly as well.

Back in 1972, Richard Nixon’s ambassador to South Africa, Texas oilman John Hurd, went pleasant pheasant hunting on Robben Island with then-minister of transport Ben Schoeman. The bird shoot was within easy view of a prison holding a generation of political prisoners, including one Nelson Mandela. An absolutely true story.

That kind of behaviour may not have been the norm, but it didn’t even earn a rebuke from the state department back then. (Considering that, at some stage, Henry Kissinger was Hurd’s boss and that Nixon was busy hushing up a certain burglary at the Democrats’ offices in a certain Washington building, that’s hardly surprising. – Ed) Things do change. Knowledgeable, empathetic career diplomats followed Hurd. Ambassadors such as William Bowdler, Bill Swing, Bill Edmondson, Princeton Lyman and Ed Perkins led their embassy into engagement with a much broader, deeper range of South Africans – in keeping with the changes in this country.

During George W Bush’s administration, however, Jendayi Frazer and Eric Bost became the champions of a particularly unpopular president and his equally disliked policies. In sharp contrast to his recent predecessors, however, Donald Gips, the man who arrived last year as Barack Obama’s representative to South Africa, is an enthusiast. His comments and his body language speak of a desire to reach across and make connections with his host country. Gips is an enthusiast for South Africa – and for the possibilities that can evolve from better relations between South Africa and the USA. 

The Daily Maverick spoke to him in Pretoria in the embassy library the other day about his expectations and experiences so far. Responding to the concerns that high-level visits such as that of secretary of state Hillary Clinton may promise beyond what can be delivered, Gips says that, on the contrary, one of his explicit tasks in his new position is to rebuild a somewhat frayed relationship. Such visits are a vital element of that effort.

As Gips explains: “South Africa’s accomplishments over the past 15 years have been a miracle, yet there is still a lot to be worked out and we want to be partners in it. Not necessarily with more money, but where we can create more technical assistance, more partnerships, more connections between American and South African businesses, NGOs and government organisations to drive that relationship forward.” This more informal role will be crucial, of course. The American treasury is wholly consumed with two wars, the profound, continuing effects of the Great Recession, as well as a litany of unmet, increasingly urgent social and infrastructural demands. There isn’t a whole lot left over for ambitious new programmes overseas. One will not be hearing much talk about costly new initiatives for the continent emanating from Washington right now.

We turn to South Africa’s investment climate and asked specifically what Gips would say to US business leaders holding their cheque books, and thinking about investing in South Africa.

For him, a real concern business leaders have is in meeting black economic empowerment regulations and BEE scoring being made less cumbersome and easier to understand. A key question for American businesses is the BEE concept of equity transfers, something sometimes very difficult for American businesses to carry out. On the other hand, job training, creating talented affirmative action-styled management, and carrying out corporate social responsibility activities are all part of the overall BEE scoring process – and they are equally important to US businesses here.

But Gips hopes business will take the longer-term look at Africa and South Africa. He describes a conversation he recently had with a potential American investor in the power generation field. He says his interlocutor told him “the future of business for the 21st century is in Africa. And, if you are in Africa, you must be in South Africa. Africa will have a billion consumers.” Gips adds, however, that he is not convinced American businesses have necessarily heard that message clearly enough.

If Gips seems to be speaking from the playbook of a venture capitalist, maybe this makes sense; he is not a career diplomat after all. Besides being a fundraiser for the Obama presidential campaign and serving on Obama’s presidential transition team, in the 1990s he also worked with then-vice president Al Gore’s office and gained experience at the Federal Communications Commission where he dealt with international relations. On top of it, Gips also worked in private industry in the IT sector. He even spent time in Sri Lanka with a development NGO – but more on that later. 

“Look”, he says, “Americans have bought 120,000 tickets to the World Cup, but the media message in the US about Africa too often is about crime, corruption and famine. The World Cup is a chance to sell the other piece of the story. The upcoming Fortune/CNN/Time conference [scheduled for Cape Town during the World Cup] on opportunities in Africa is a great example of how to tell the other side of the story. Doing business in Africa has risks and it takes skills, but it will be a big part of the 21st century. India, Asia, Europe have seen this. And I want to make sure Americans see it too.”

Besides his infectious enthusiasm for his role here, Gips seems the antithesis of his predecessor in his relationship with the South African government. Whereas Eric Bost frequently complained about his inability to get an appointment with anybody in the South African cabinet, Gips says government officials have been very gracious, open and eager to have meetings with him. The real problem, now, he says, is the challenge this presents to his embassy. “We knock on doors and they now open so fast we risk falling flat on our faces, and so we have to be very tangible and specific about how we can partner and make good use of ministers’ time. They are incredibly busy,” something he says he understands well from his own experiences at the White House.

And so, the relationship now is less prickly? Gips replies,“Yes, it’s more positive than that. There is a warm relationship and we see many issues around the world similarly and we can be cooperative on them such as at Copenhagen, on non-proliferation. We can agree on what we can agree on and agree to disagree on the rest. Rather than have those things dominate conversations, let’s push forward on those we can agree on.”

In terms of priorities, Gips makes the obligatory nod towards HIV/Aids and Pepfar (the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief) where the US is already devoting megabucks to assisting South Africa cope with the effects of this epidemic. But Gips adds he is also really interested in redirecting some attention back to education and jobs programmes. He has been crucial in resurrecting the American embassy’s focus on education (the US foreign assistance agency, USAID’s educational programme had very nearly been extinguished recently) and he is happy to cite his wife’s influence in guiding his attention, and thereby his embassy’s, back onto education as a key priority for US involvement here.

But is this newly rediscovered common ground between the two nations rather thinner on international relations, especially on Zimbabwe? Gips demurs and says, “actually we’re fairly consistent. The Zuma administration’s goal is a stable, democratic, peaceful Zimbabwe. South Africa has a huge challenge due to immigration from Zimbabwe and the strain on South Africa is greater than any other nation. Their objectives and our objectives align – and we’re at the edges, they’re at the centre.”

Of course, the Fifa Soccer World Cup is on the minds of South Africans, and so, with all those Americans coming to the World Cup, a logical question must be Gips’ comfort level for the safety and security of the Americans coming to the games – or, keeping the Togolese team’s experience in the Africa Cup of Nations in mind – for the team itself? Gips is emphatic, not merely enthusiastic. With any such event, he says, one “always worries about the security level and we’re working closely with South Africa. The question of whether you thought about everything and then some; there are constant conversations on this. The German ambassador told me that their minister of police had come here and … South Africa is already as well prepared as they were in Germany when they hosted it.”

Gips takes a breath and makes a final point about the World Cup, not surprising at all given his self-appointed role as chief cheerleader. Gips says he looks forward to seeing the US and Bafana Bafana in the final game. It’s easy to visualise Gips in the stands for that final game, vuvuzela in hand, urging his staff to cheer for both teams. Given the competition for the final two slots, maybe he is a fan of imaginative fiction too.

His experience in Sri Lanka was a  huge eye-opener too. For him, Sri Lanka’s recent history has been a cautionary tale of the need to keep racial and ethnic animosities in check. “I spent a year-and-a-half in Sri Lank for development work – but I ended up running a refugee camp instead.”

Asked what he and his staff are planning for the World Cup, Gips says he looks forward to a special project, now in the planning stages, that will bring young African leaders together to discuss the future of the continent. “I’m confident South Africa will throw a really good World Cup, but there is a need to tell the larger story of the continent” to focus on where the continent will be a decade from now.

Before we parted, as he was being urged by his aides on to his next meeting, he offered his final thought:  “The biggest challenge for South Africa is to make sure the spirit we discussed earlier continues to grow and prosper and that we all help drive this conversation…to help South Africans build on their social capital.” Indeed.

By Brooks Spector


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