US Ambassador Patrick Gaspard, up close and pretty personal

US Ambassador Patrick Gaspard, up close and pretty personal

The Daily Maverick’s J. BROOKS SPECTOR sat down with US Ambassador Patrick Gaspard for a wide-ranging conversation recently, just prior to the ambassador’s return to Washington to participate in the US – African Leaders Summit in early August.

We are sitting on the sunlight veranda of a Johannesburg restaurant.  Ambassador Patrick Gaspard is sipping lemon tea, trying to hold back a nasty winter head cold, courtesy of Johannesburg’s recent bout of chilly weather, as he contemplates a transatlantic trip back to the US to take part in the upcoming US – Africa Leaders Summit, 4-6 August, in Washington. Barack Obama’s administration has scheduled this gathering as part of an effort to build stronger ties between the US and this continent as “Africa: the hopeless continent” has come to be replaced by the more positive trope, “Africa Rising”, over the past several years.

Nevertheless, Gaspard settles in for a convivial conversation about both US policy and himself. Throughout this conversation he avoids falling back into the usual Washington policy-speak so common among officials speaking for attribution.

Gaspard has a rather atypical background for an ambassador. He originally wanted to be a student of comparative literature, he wrote – and still writes – poetry, then he became a political operative, first in labour unions like the Service Employees International Union, and then switching over to various positions within the Democratic Party’s various local and national campaign offices, and then it was on to political jobs within the Obama White House as a trusted aide to the president. And now he’s in South Africa.

Talking about how he has been digging into the complex texture of South African society, he says he’s pleased he has been able to connect with the business world, even as he says he still wants to get a better handle on what the country’s young entrepreneurial talent thinks about things, and where they want to take the nation. Asked how he plans to pursue that goal, he muses that he hopes to leverage off the participation of several dozen South Africans in the Obama administration’s Young African Leader Initiative’s (YALI) visits to the US to study, carry out internships and, ultimately, participate a meeting with the president. “Through them, I hope I can grow my connections” into this young, vigorous community for the future, he says.

Amb. Gaspard continues, “On the cultural side, in the States, I first learned about what was taking place in South Africa from writers I loved, from artists, from a poet like Sipho Sepamla, who wrote ‘The Soweto I Love’… I got that book years ago from one of my labour union mentors, Jerry Hudson.”  Now this certainly comes as something of a shock and a surprise. It is just damned unusual for an American official with a reputation as a hard-as-nails political operative to go nostalgic over a bit of South African protest poetry from the 1970s. This writer quotes the last lines from Sepamla’s poem, “The Will”, to Gaspard, and his eyes light up; “I know that one. That’s just perfect,” he says. And it is:

The Will — Sipho Sepamla

The house, by right,

You will have to vacate

Surrender the permit

And keep your peace


The burglar-proofing and the gate

will go to my elder son

so will the bicycle

and a pair of bracelets


The kitchen scheme and utensils

Will go to my little girl

so will the bathtub

and the two brooms


The bedroom suite

will go to my younger son

who is married

so will the studio couch


The peach tree uproot

it might grow in the homelands

so might it be with your stem


The Bible

you will have to share

for you will always want its light


The cat spotted black and white

you will have to divide

for that you’ll need God’s guidance.

And quite naturally, the music of Abdullah Ibrahim struck a chord with Amb. Gaspard also. The famous jazz pianist and composer had lived for years in New York City in the famous Chelsea Hotel (home of so many cultural figures in the US over the years) – a fact Gaspard himself brings up – and then he adds that, some months ago, he was pleased to go back stage at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival where he finally met Ibrahim and was able to say to him that he first the musician perform in New York City back in 1988.  He told Ibrahim that was like a bit of perfect symmetry – to come full circle – to be able, finally, to meet him.

“It is artists like that who first told me the South African story…. I grew up in a highly political household, my father taught in the Congo and we kept up on the South African political situation.” We talk about Robert Sobukwe,  but we return to the poet, Sipho Sepamla, agreeing that his serious political consciousness and message had been expressed in a more way much more subtly than many have managed to do. Gaspard then adds, sadly, “I think he is amazing… and I really wish that someone like Sipho was better known to young South Africans; there doesn’t seem to be enough emphasis on arts education and cultural education now.”

And what about his family, now that they are here in South Africa with him? He explains, “My wife, Raina, is the most excited member of our household to be here; she’s been drinking in the experience; especially whenever we go out beyond our residence, beyond the embassy, and have real exchanges with unsung heroes – mostly women – in the townships who are providing lifelines for people in the critical areas of health care and education.” Speaking volumes for his love of books, “On Mandela Day we volunteered in a primary school outside Tembisa [a township located northeast of Johannesburg and on the way to Pretoria] to refurbish their library…. And the school we volunteered in, the headmaster was doing all he could, but with meagre resources; we were re-shelving books there that were forty years old. That doesn’t seem fair.”

In our conversation, we circle back to the arts as Gaspard speaks about his love for the Caribbean poet Aimé Césaire, a writer, yes, but also an engaged politician who served as the mayor of his town. And then there was his deep fondness for the Russian great modernist poet, Anna Akhmatova. As he speaks about the poets whose works he loves, his face takes on an animated expression. It almost seems possible that with just a bit more prodding, he’ll take out a pocket notebook and read off some verse he’s been working on too.

And about the American art now hung in the ambassador’s residence, Gaspard speaks about works he and his wife specifically picked because they felt the art spoke to contemporary African American ideas and inspirations – and about the question of identity – and the interrogating of that identity. In fact, some works they ultimately selected to hang on their walls speak deliberately to a crossover of influences and ideas between South Africa and the United States as well.

Pieces of art like these now come to an ambassador’s residence as part of the “Art in the Embassies” initiative of the State Department. This program was developed some years ago to ensure ambassadorial residences were more than just places for official receptions and dinners, in addition to being a place where an ambassador would live. The State Department keeps an inventory of works newly assigned ambassadors can select from, but curators can also work with departing ambassadors to develop small collections of work specifically selected to match the interests of new ambassadors – if they have strong individual tastes in art. In some residences there might be works by modern abstract expressionists, in another, art depicting the old West, but in the Gaspard residence it is the questioning of identity in the African American experience in the contemporary US.

In Gaspard’s case, he says that he and his wife deliberately chose to select works from rising young black artists from America who tap into contemporary urban culture – but who also have a strong sense of roots in Africa. Or, as he explains, “I follow currents in art pretty closely and I knew artists who spoke to the moment and about the US and South Africa. The artists picked, asked some pretty serious questions about what we are doing to promote transformation in both cultures.”

In focusing on identity and transformation, Gaspard explains, for example, that one of the artists selected for their walls in Pretoria, Kehinde Wiley, recycles the tradition of Renaissance portraiture of noble families. But, instead of old European nobility and merchant princes, Wiley portrays black street kids in a similar style in some of his works.

Gaspard says this also can speak to how a young South African artist like Mary Sibande has chosen to portray her grandmother, dressed in a maid’s uniform, as a figure of dignity and nobility, as part of Sibande’s now-famous installations of a maid’s figure draped in expansive, draped, flowing, lustrous purple cloth. In essence, Gaspard says the art he and his wife have picked for their walls is designed to encourage conversations that bring forth “disturbing courage and questioning – and hopefully leads to some kind of resolution.” Conversations about art – perhaps especially when we talk about “disturbing art” – begins to edge our discussion towards politics, but first, one more moment of reflection on culture.

To relax, he says he still writes poetry, although mostly it is “bad poetry,” he laughs. He reads a lot and tries to go out as much as possible as well. Most recently he went to the Turbine Hall’s Johannesburg Art Fair and then to see American playwright Eve Ensler’s newest work being performed at the University of Johannesburg, “I Am an Emotional Creature” – a work definitively right in one’s face – given its tough messages about rape and the trafficking in women. Gaspard adds that for him, “It was so exciting to see all the South African women who had come out to see it.”

The art and culture is fun, but there is the rest of his job as well. Asked what his big message is, in short hand for South Africans? Gaspard says, “The one word I want associated with my time here in South Africa is ‘investment’. We’re already touched on President Obama’s YALI program, that is an investment in the leaders here.” But in the economy as a whole, “the region is attracting more foreign direct investment than foreign aid and that is a huge, huge deal…. We have to decide what that ought to mean for us.” Besides Ford and General Motors plants churning out thousands of vehicles, “last year, South Africa exported over 60,000 BMWs and Mercedes that were built out here (to America).” He notes that the bilateral relationship has been transformed by that investment and the growing interdependence between the two nations.

And the climate of stability (or, perhaps, instability in South Africa, per the rating agencies), does that matter for those goals?  “All of our economies have gone through a significant period of turbulence, post-2008, and we’ve all recovered at different rates and varying degrees… and it is a little disconcerting for some of us as we look at the environment here that certain pieces of legislation like the MPRDA [the Minerals and Petroleum Resources Development Act], the private security bill and the agriculture bill… don’t create an environment that is conducive to economic growth… they certainly give investors pause…. [While] investment is not a panacea, but for people on the periphery on the economy, all of us together need to puzzle this out… to close the skills gap so that young people can make their way up the skills ladder. We need more strategic initiatives like that, and more planning that speaks to the National Development Plan.”

Looking still closer at investment and trade, the conversation turns to AGOA – the African Growth and Opportunity Act, the American law that allows over three-thousand product line, duty-free imports from Africa to the US that is set to expire, absent new congressional approval, next year. Are South Africans sufficiently attuned to the continuing utility of AGOA for South Africa?

Gaspard says that with AGOA up for renewal, President Obama supports that renewal. Prodded a bit further, he admits that reciprocity – South African restrictions on chicken and beef (and other food) imports to South Africa could conceivably affect the climate towards AGOA. He notes that PEPFAR – the president’s special program on HIV/AIDS – continues to be a major impact in South Africa, even though its total dollar commitment in this country from the US has been declining. Gaspard notes, however, that on that score, PEPFAR’s role in dealing with this vital health issue is shifting as the South African government has been taking up a growing share of the cost of dealing with the actual  epidemic – and that the two countries have been widely successful on this front since PEPFAR’s inception. Returning to AGOA, “AGOA, PEPFAR, these are both programs that share wide, bipartisan support in the Congress…. And Democratic and Republican members of the House feel just as strongly as the president does on this, although there are some issues to be worked out for resolution on market access.”

Moreover, AGOA is not a jobs transfer program sending jobs out of the US, Gaspard insists. Workers have figured it out; they’re pretty sophisticated, he says. Job and production mobility are not going to go back to the way they were a generation or two earlier. But, in fact, economic success in Africa should generate more jobs, and then, those incomes should result in more demand for American goods and services – from that half a billion person’s worth of an African middle class coming into being in a decade or two, if trends continue. “Rooting for success here [in Africa], just means rooting for ourselves,” he says.

Amb. Gaspard is about to fly back to the US to participate in the upcoming US-Africa Leaders Summit set for 4-6 August. What about the potential for success of that gathering; what, exactly, is it going to achieve? Is this meeting already set for failure by virtue of the lack of individual bilaterals between heads of state, or because of the absence of a full court press on specific investment plans, as some critics have charged?

Amb. Gaspard, not surprisingly, disagrees with this pre-emptive critique of the summit, arguing that given what he calls “an absolutely unprecedented in scale” meeting in the US, there will be robust conversation on increasing access to energy on the continent, do all we can on greater food security, improvements in regional peace, and economic development on the continent on the whole. “I know that my South African counterparts with whom I have been engaging with for the past several months are excited by this.”

There will be a delegation of government and business leaders with President Zuma, Gaspard adds, and he also notes the schedule includes what Gaspard expects to be a robust meeting on civil society concerns as well (although the full roster African heads of state are not scheduled to be in the room for that specific meeting, it should be noted). Nevertheless, Gaspard argues, “We’re going to walk away with a real road map about what our engagement ought to look like over the next few decades.”

Asked how this summit will stack up in comparison with similar summits between African leaders and the Chinese, he agrees that comparisons should be made, but also with the trade relationship and the role of US companies in skills transfer and building up communities vis-à-vis other nation’s counterpart investments. “It’s not an extractive relationship at all.” Is this a (not so) veiled criticism of the Chinese? “No, I’m making a statement of fact about our real relationship” on BEE and rest of the engagement agenda. “South Africans should ask the same tough questions of Chinese companies they ask of us”, he responds.

The BRICS bank, what’s his view on this new announcement? Gaspard says, that if the new bank makes good investments in sustainable development, it can’t really be a bad thing. “If it leads to the likelihood that we have more thoughtful, responsible planning around projects, it can’t be a bad thing,” he says.

Turning to South African domestic politics, always a touchy area for a foreign diplomat to traipse through, he’s asked about some straight-from-the-shoulder advice he offered about the place of unions – drawn from his own labour background, perhaps – to South Africans in a speech at UNISA a few months back. Gaspard responds, “I don’t know if I was tough, but it was an attempt to be candid in the hopes that, maybe, some of the hard lessons we learned in the States might make a contribution here when you are at a point when you are trying to make some determination about whether you have effective laws that already exist that govern the relationships between workers, industry and government – [this] at a time when everyone’s got to be concerned about the legacy of Marikana and what that says.”

Gaspard continues, “It’s been a tumultuous period, and we’re no longer at the time where South Africa is just simply seen through the prism of the ‘Madiba Magic’. Companies are making some really brutal decisions about where they are going to put their stake in the ground, based on what outcomes are going to look like for their bottom line. Workers need to have the most sophisticated recognition of that. There was an understanding – in America – seen through the concessions of the workers in the auto industry and the airline industry…. Even as we are so far away from the lofty standards – in both societies – we have set for ourselves…. But it cannot be a zero sum game… Folks need to figure out what other tools are in the tool kit before the ‘nuclear option’.”

Talking about the then-current NUMSA strike, Gaspard points to the impact of that strike in the auto industry, noting that the strike in the Ford plant in Silverton has meant several thousands of SUVs have not been made, and that circumstance may well have an adverse impact on decisions about future investment by the company for a future assembly line for SUVs. While that doesn’t mean workers should not be agitating for better conditions, he hastens to add, nevertheless, everyone has to understand the interdependence of things.

In parting, Gaspard says South Africa is uniquely positioned to play a vital leadership role on the continent on regional peace and security and multilateral trade facilitation. Everyone needs South Africa to lead with its chin on these areas. “It is one we ought not to miss.”  DM

Photo: President Obama and Ambassador Gaspard aboard Airforce One (US Govt Flickr stream)

Read more:

  • The Art in Embassies Program Brings South African and U.S. Artists Together at the US Embassy website.
  • Patrick Gaspard confirmed as president’s nominee for next US Ambassador in SA at the Daily Maverick;
  • Patrick Gaspard Writes Poems, Collects Comics, Kills for Obama at the (US)

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