South Africa

Marius Fransman: the fighting diplomat

By Ryland Fisher 4 June 2013

Marius Fransman has something of a Jekyll and Hyde personality. He is known as the combative and outspoken leader of the ANC in the Western Cape, and is often attacked and criticised by his opposition. But he is also deputy minister of international relations, a position where he has to use his diplomatic skills in very tricky situations, often with some success. He spoke to RYLAND FISHER about the challenges of balancing his two public positions.

DM: You are the deputy minister of international relations and cooperation, as well as the Western Cape chairperson of the ANC. Is it difficult to switch these two hats?

The one is in the southern part of Africa and South Africa, while the other is supposed to be global. The one deals with diplomats, country to country issues and relational issues. It deals with advancing our foreign relations perspective.

The other one deals with bread-and-butter issues, but also with the cutting edge politicking, not only in the Western Cape but in South Africa broadly, around race, gender and identity.

Balancing the two positions is difficult because one has to do justice to both. Last year, there were some comrades who did not like my preference for Mangaung. They used the fact that I was dealing with international relations issues, and that I have to move around a lot, and said that I was trying to manage the province from the airport.

It is difficult but it is doable.

DM: Dirco is the only ministry with two deputies. How do you divide the responsibilities?

We have a very good relationship between the minister (Maite Nkoana-Mashabane), Ibrahim Ibrahim (the other deputy minister) and me. At times we don’t see each other, even though we have standing meetings once a month, because we are always on the move.

Ibrahim is broadly responsible for Asia and the Middle East, but from time to time I deal with the Palestine issue. I am broadly responsible for Europe and Latin America. The minister is responsible for all the multilateral issues, such as the United Nations and the African Union. The minister also has a direct interest in Africa. That is right because it is our major focus.

Apart from geographically looking at the world, I also have the added responsibility of the administration. I have to take responsibility for parliamentary liaison, such as questions and answers, and I have responsibility for general human resources of Dirco, here and abroad.

DM: How did you get involved in the issues around Professor Cyril Karabus?

My involvement in the Karabus matter came in two ways, also as leader of the ANC in the Western Cape. In October last year, I got a document from a friend who asked me look into the matter.

However, in the first week of December, the ANC hosted a Frank Talk discussion with the Jewish community. There were at least 150 people at that meeting. A few months before, I had addressed the leadership of the Muslim community in Athlone and the Jewish community wanted a similar engagement.

At the end of the meeting, the lawyer of Professor Karabus (Michael Bagraim) asked what the South African government was doing for Professor Karabus and whether we could do more. Between October and December, we had done what we had to do, but it was our normal diplomatic processes and we don’t communicate those things publicly.

I committed myself at that meeting to visit the family of Professor Karabus and to have a more personal focus on the matter. After that, in the first week of January, I went to visit Sarah Karabus.

Immediately after that, we met in the ministry and I was asked to take the matter forward.

DM: What were the challenges you faced in negotiating this process?

South Africans generally don’t want politicians to intervene in the judiciary process. Now the public, media and lobby groups called on us to intervene. That was a fundamental contradiction, because you don’t call on something that you can’t honour yourself.

We are driven by a constitutional democracy with an independent judiciary, yet we were now asked to go against this. The call did not just come from the white or Jewish community, but from everyone.

We believed that the professor was innocent but, even then, we had to be cautious.

Secondly, we had to be sensitive not to interfere in the sovereignty of another country.

There was an expectation that government could do more. But we had to ask the question: what do you expect us to do? Do you expect us to go in there in a military way and take out the professor? It’s impossible.

DM: Please take us through some of the steps.

The professor was arrested in August. In October, the minister wrote a letter to her counterpart. She said that we are concerned about a citizen of South Africa and that we believe that he must get a fair hearing. Fair hearing means that they should not postpone it unnecessarily.

On the first Thursday in January, we summonsed the ambassador of the UAE to a meeting. We issued a demarche, which is when you raise a diplomatic issue with another country on a particular matter. You don’t issue a demarche easily. It’s not a note verbale, which we send every day.

In our demarche, we indicated our unhappiness, no longer only our concern. On the same day, I went to visit the home of Professor Karabus.

We did not give a deadline for a response from the UAE government because you don’t do that in diplomatic circles. You don’t give deadlines, especially if it is not a state issue, but a personal issue.

We also had to be careful not to create a precedent. We had to manage the situation, showing that we had faith in this issue, but do it in a way that we did not create a precedent where everyone else could say tomorrow that they were being done in by another country.

We don’t know what happens when people conduct businesses or go to work in another country, like the professor did. We don’t know the details behind it, because normally people only contact our embassies when they are in trouble.

From January, there were many postponements (in Professor Karabus’s trial). We had to intervene but we had to do it such a way that we did not create contradictions.

DM: Is there any possible diplomatic fall-out related to this issue?

Not at all. On 11 October the court said that the medical committee must meet and make a recommendation to the judge. They had to say whether there was a case to be answered or not.

Remember we sent a letter in October asking for a fair process. When there was no movement in November, December or January, we had every right to raise the issue of unfairness, not about the outcome but about the process.

Generally cases like this, anywhere in the world, can take at least three to 10 years. Just think about normal postponements in South Africa. It happens. It is not unnatural, whether it is in South Africa, the US or any other country.

I think there was also a lot of the sitgmatisation of the country involved. The insinuation was that they did not have proper legislation and no independent judiciary, but government decides. I don’t believe this is so.

When I went there to meet my counterpart in March, the next court appearance was set down for March 20. Unless that review committee met before then, it would have been postponed again.

That is why I went two weeks before the time. In that meeting I communicated our concern. I said that we are a caring society and a caring government, but I also communicated our respect for their independence and that we will do nothing to create a particular perspective that they can decide willy-nilly. They appreciated that.

On 18 March the committee met and they cleared the professor. They recommended to the judge that there was no case to answer. Clearly you can see that my visit and engagement triggered a particular process.

DM: In your work for Dirco you have to deal with a lot of countries. For instance, you have just returned from Kazakhstan. Can you tell me about some of the countries you have visited and some of the issues you have had to deal with?

I love what I am doing internationally. The president and the minister have given me the mandate to deal with difficult issues. As a comrade from the community that would historically not be a diplomat and who is not known to have diplomatic views – I am known to be more robust – I have been given difficult stuff to do for the past two years.

One of these was Madagascar. I was the special envoy of the president to Madagascar. It was not just a general engagement. The Karabus issue was difficult, but the Madagascar issue was even more difficult.

I took up this issue in September 2011 and then there was a visit. Two year before, there was a coup d’etat.

If you speak to the EU, the UN, the American embassy or the French embassy, the SADC office, you will find that in 12 months, we have amazingly moved the Madagascar issue. For instance, we have been able to sign a roadmap.

This is not an easy thing. The military had taken over. I had to chair meetings with all the political parties.

This is the opportunity that we have been granted. South Africa was instrumental in setting up a transitional government.

It was not the normal stuff done by Dirco, where we are in and out of a country. It was actually going into a country to resolve critical issues on our constitutional values, the SADC’s position and the AU’s position.

The other issues that are exciting in Dirco are the geopolitical issues, for instance, global reforms. Remember in the past two years, a lot of contradictory statements have emerged. How do we define human rights in the world? Why are certain countries being targeted when it comes to human rights and other countries are not being targeted? This is what I have a very serious interest in.

How can you go into a country and say they have human rights problems and then in the country next door, a woman can’t even drive a car, but then you say there is no problem?

I was also given the opportunity to lead our delegation last year to the Non-Aligned Movement. The question there was: at what point does the NAM become a talk shop? If we take positions there and then we go to the UN General Assembly on, for example, the issue of Palestine, are we actually honouring the views that we expressed in the NAM meetings? Two-thirds of the world decides at the NAM meetings that Palestine needs to be independent, [so] why is it that we cannot get it passed at the UN?

One of the difficult things that I also had to deal with was sexual orientation in Geneva about a year and half ago. Countries in Africa have certain cultural, religious and other views. We have a constitutional view on it and we have to express our views at a UN meeting in Geneva.

How do you bring it all together? How do you put your position forward but realising that you are also part of Africa where many still have fundamental religious questions about it? You have to find the balance in this process.

These are complex issues and, I must admit, it gives me the opportunity to learn from it.

I have recently being on trips to Belarus, Romania and Azerbaijan. Last year I travelled to Panama, Cuba, and a few other countries.

DM: Do you think that when you come to the Western Cape, you have to almost take off your diplomatic hat and put on a more combative hat? Or is it possible to be a diplomatic leader of the ANC in the Western Cape?

A lot of critics would say that I am too combative when it comes to the Western Cape. My own feeling is that, when you unpack the Western Cape, you have to take all the bells and whistles away and all the political jargon and look at what are the real issues.

Yes, there is a perception that, at times, one is too direct and it is a contradiction. Somehow I can deal with things internationally in a diplomatic way, but here I can’t deal with things in a diplomatic way.

Many of my critics say that I am too combative. What do you say to the people in Khayelitsha, in Athlone, in the rural areas? These are all different areas with different issues. Our mandate is the enhancement of our poor communities in the context of a non-racial society. At times, contradictions emerge through that because we are a fragmented society in this province.

DM: How confident are you about the ANC’s chances of reclaiming the Western Cape in next year’s elections?

In 1994, the ANC received seven percent of the rural vote in the Western Cape and 33% in Western Cape overall. At the time of Madiba, of post-UDF and when we were surging towards our democracy between 1990 and 1994, the best that we did was 33%.

In 1999 we got at least 45% in the rural areas and 42.6% overall in the Western Cape. In 2004 we got 46% overall.

So, at the best of times with Madiba and the transition to democracy, we only got 33% and we had to work towards 46%. We worked according to a proper strategy. We started the factionalism afterwards, me included.

We had the ‘home for all’ approach under Comrade Ebrahim, but after that it was all about factionalising, and that is where we went wrong. We did not look at it through the values-based approach anymore, but at how we could position ourselves.

We were able to increase our vote between 1996 and 1999 because we connected with communities. I’m Catholic but I went into Pentecostal churches.

We reached out to NGOs. In 1996/97, I became the chairperson of all the NGOs in the Western Cape on farm-related issues in the rural areas.

Some of us left our mayoral positions in 1998 to go full time in NGOs. I went into an NGO which focused on the extension of tenants’ security rights.

This was an important period because of the experience. If you look at the Western Cape, we were at our lowest in 2009 when we got 31.6%. This was when were we most divided.

We had the wrong political strategy between 2006 and 2009. Some people said we must “let sleeping dogs lie”. They said our strategy would not work in the coloured community because coloureds would not vote for the ANC.

You would have picked up contradictions in that period between 2006 and 2009 in the Western Cape. Publicly, I think it came across as personality issues, but if you looked deeper you would have seen it had to do with which communities you targeted. There were some people who felt we should only target African black communities.

This is wrong because then you don’t build non-racialism. You must work across the spectrum.

We went into a conference in February 2011 knowing that our backs were against the wall, knowing that the DA was in the provincial government, the City government and in most municipalities.

We put together a strategy called ‘path to people’s power’. It is a four-pronged strategy. The fundamental basis of this strategy is to open the organisation to all.

There are four elements that are super-imposed in this strategy. The first one is simply organisational renewal. How do you renew the ANC structures, how do you become active branches of the organisation? What do you do, for instance, about political education?

The second pillar of this strategy is reconnecting with communities and civil society. We admit that there was a disconnection in the Western Cape.

Part of the assessment that you must do is answering your question is to ask whether the ‘reconnect’ worked. Look at the Save the Schools campaign, look at the toilet saga, look at the minstrels/ concerns that they were pushed out of the CBD, look at the farm rural focus, and a few other campaigns. You will see that we have reconnected.

The DA engages in the politics of deception in the Western Cape. At its nicest level, it is the politics of deflection, at its cruellest level it is the politics of deception.

You use the fact that you were able to historically oppress them and you get them, post-94, to blame others for that.

The third pillar is alternative governance. How do you govern the Western Cape without being in government?

Can we say to people that they must first vote for us in 2014 and then we will do something? We believe this is a wrong approach. We must show them that, even with our limited resources, we can do something.

The last pillar is effective opposition. How do you raise issues more directly and [in a] more challenging way? We do not want to win the Western Cape because we want to be in government. This is the wrong approach.

The importance of our role as the ANC leadership in the Western Cape is not necessarily to go into government. I am already in government. Our role has to be much more than that.

The ANC in the province tasked ourselves 15 to 20 months ago that, at worst, we must push them back in the province and increase our share of the vote. At best, we must dislodge them.

It is clear that our strategy of ‘path to power’ is working. The strategic question is whether it can work enough.

If you look at the voting trends, we will take the rural areas next year. We must go back to our 45 to 50% of the rural vote. Then we must get the black African constituencies, in both the rural and metro areas, to register and vote. And we must contest the coloured communities.

The trend is right: the DA is losing support and we are gaining support.

You will remember that in 2009, Cope got about eight percent of the vote in the Western Cape. All the key people of Cope are back in the ANC. These are people who left us because of our contradictions of a few years ago.

Our strategy is to get back from Cope what they have taken away from us. The strategy is that we must at least get five to six percent back from them.

Voter registration is a major concern for us and the DA knows this.

We’ve done an analysis of the IEC data on voter registration in 2009 and 2011, and the Census data in 2011. I can tell you now that there is at least 500,000 to 700,000 voters in the Western Cape who are not registered.

The number of people in this province has jumped by 28% to 5,8 million. In areas where the ANC is strong, people are not registering and the question is why? It is not only because the ANC branches are not registering them.

We have found that nine of 10 white people in the Western Cape are registered, while in the black African community, only four of 10 are registered. Out of this four, only 60% vote.

The ANC in the Western Cape will not wait for the voter registration period. We are going to start registering our people now.

We believe that, if you take all of that, then it is possible to dislodge the DA. I have no doubt about that.

DM: How is the volunteer project going? What are the volunteers doing?

We launched on 10 April and we signed up more than 6,000 volunteers at that time. What was exciting about our launch event, which was attended by more than 900 people, is that there was no transport arranged. Yet the hall was packed.

This could have been done in the 1980s and early 1990s, but generally in the last 10 years, if you don’t provide transport and a nice musician, people don’t come.

The key is to integrate the volunteers. Over the last month and a half the volunteers were busy with outreach. The exciting thing is that the volunteers are not your normal ANC branch members. We recruited them through social media and through a public call. What is shocking is that there are so many good people walking around, who studied, became unemployed and are sitting at home. That was a very striking thing for me.

In the last few weeks, we have had a blanket drive in the CBD, feeding 200 people. This project was initiated by people who are not ANC activists or members. Two weeks ago, they were in Mitchells Plain town centre doing the same. They have also helped to house homeless people and provide them with meals.

In the next few months, we intend to send the volunteers door to door also.

How do you bring people who never worked together, who don’t understand the ANC, how do you conscientise them on the values of the movement?

DM: The Western Cape ANC had traditionally been wracked by infighting and factionalism. Are we over that now? Is everyone working together?

Yes, I think so. I can confidently say that the fact that we have a strategy is keeping everyone working together.

My biggest fear is that we fall into the lowest level of politics again. When the list process starts, we don’t realise that we need people beyond ourselves. It must not be about how many ANC branches you can bring, but about which sectors you represent, what constituencies are there. The critical thing is going to be to make sure that the ANC structures understand that, and that is not easy.

DM: How is your relationship with the DA in the Western Cape? Are there certain things where you would work with them or are you always in opposition to them? For instance, would you work with the city on the project to honour Nelson Mandela?

There must be things that we should not make political issues. The question is whether the DA can rise to that occasion. I don’t believe that they can. I believe that Patricia de Lille, as the mayor, is trying to deal with things beyond being party political. But Patricia is not the DA. Patricia has come into the DA. She is being suffocated in the DA. She knows that and we know that.

I don’t think that Patricia can succeed in her intention to work outside of the vote. For instance, if she goes into Khayelitsha, she does not necessarily do it because she wants votes. It does not form part of the DA strategy. She does it because she believes it to be right.

Zille has a fundamentally different approach. If you go into Khayelitsha, it must be to dislodge the ANC.

I think Patricia de Lille is trying, and therefore we will give the support where we can to her programmes. I also think there are things that we must not politicise.

At a provincial and national level, the DA has declared that they are going to do what colonial history did to our people. They say that our history started in 1652. What the DA has decided to do, if I look at the ‘Know you DA’ campaign, is to lie to our people.

DM: When you and Helen Zille end up at the same function, do you speak to her or do you avoid her?

No, no, we speak to each other. In the theatre of these kinds of things, we have to do that. I can tell you now that there are at least six or seven DA MPs who speak to me regularly. There is at least one MEC who we have met a few times over the past few months.

We are mature enough. The question is whether there is venom from the other side, which is not only political.

If you look at Helen Zille, you can see that she is becoming more desperate. They are concerned that they have lost ground in the province and we have gained ground.

When Zille is in a difficulty, she becomes defensive, she starts to shout and she loses her focus.

DM: If there is just one issue that people would expect you to address in order for them to support you in the Western Cape, what do you think that should be?

That is a difficult question because I don’t believe it is one issue only, it has to be a multi-prong of issues. If I must attempt to answer your question, I would isolate the issues of crime and housing. If you ask me what I would personally like to address, it is the psychological scars that Apartheid left on our people.

My other concern is whether we can get a society that is more truthful to ourselves. We speak about the politics of deception. In that period of 1994, when the ANC leadership under Madiba reached out, they reached out with body and soul. When De Klerk and his team reached out, they reached out with their minds. They had a tactical approach and not a principled approach.

These are some of the contradictions that we are going to have to try and grapple with.

DM: I started off by asking you about how you balance your two hats as the deputy minister of international relations and the ANC leader in the Western Cape. Of course, you have a third hat also, as a family man and as a father. How do you find the time for your family considering how busy you are?

It’s exceptionally difficult. If you are the chairperson of Gauteng ANC and you are in Dirco, it is easy because you move between Pretoria and Johannesburg. Here you are dealing with Cape Town and you literally have to spend time in the province, especially the rural areas. It’s extremely difficult and you try to balance things out. As a family, you try to build a support mechanism but you can never replace the physical presence.

When I am in Cape Town, I sleep at home even if I get home very late. But I must admit I do feel guilty. It is not easy.

DM: If the ANC wins the Western Cape, would you consider becoming Premier?

I am already in government. If you look at my own political life, you will see that I spend three to four years in a position. There is a reason for that. I don’t believe that we should start living into our positions and become indispensable.

I am going to give you the kind of answer that you will probably say is a standard political answer, but if the movement decides to place me wherever, I will do that, because for the last 20 years, I have just been in the ANC.

Currently I am in an international portfolio in national government. It is not automatic that we will win in the Western Cape. It is not like in Gauteng or Limpopo where we know we will win. We will have to move from a difficult space to become victorious.

If I do decide to go back to provincial legislature, I could find myself in opposition, but that is not what I want to do. We want to win the Western Cape and that is what we are working towards.

Whatever the ANC finally decides, I will be comfortable with it. As long as it is challenging, it does not really matter what it is. DM

Photo: Deputy Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Marius Fransman is seen with his South Korean counterpart Park-Suk-hwan at a meeting to strengthen relations between South Africa and South Korea in Pretoria, Friday, 10 June 2011. Picture: Dept of International Relations, Cooperation/SAPA

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"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason." ~ Thomas Paine

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