To say that international perceptions about South Africa are presently not good is an understatement. Our economy has been on a steady decline and we tend to be recognised for our scandals – Marikana, Nkandla, Nenegate and the fact that our Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan is being pursued by the police for reasons that remain unclear. Ever since President Jacob Zuma fired Nhlanhla Nene as Finance Minister in December, South Africa is being watched closely for further political and economic turmoil. International ratings agencies, in particular, have a beady eye on our country as relegation to junk status hovers menacingly over us.
So when Al Jazeera requested an interview with the Minister of International Relations and Co-operation, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, the Doha-based international news network probably anticipated a solid performance and well-rehearsed diplomatic line. That line, one would expect, would be that all was well in South Africa politically, things were not as bad as they seem economically and we’re open for business. What they probably did not expect was manic rambling, incoherent arguments and patronising responses to serious and necessary questions from anyone observing unfolding events in South Africa. And this came from the person whose job it is to make South Africa look good globally and represent our interests in dealings with other countries and multilateral organisations.
Watch: Al Jazeera interview with Nkoana-Mashabane
Nkoana-Mashabane, for some reason, was preoccupied with a hole in her head rather than telling the world that South Africa is still a solid democracy, and that the government she is part of was working hard to overcome the air of despondency and frustration evident in communities. Regarding the question of upheavals in Parliament, this was an undesirable situation as there should not be violence in the House. The matter is clearly of concern as violence should never be the answer in situations of conflict.
Those are, of course, stock diplomatic answers Nkoana-Mashabane could have provided without having to think too hard. Instead, her response to the question about brawls in Parliament was to dress down the South African-born journalist, Jane Dutton, for not having a hole in her head from carrying a water can.
“You and I might be the same age group but you have never carried a water can on your head. I did, when I was 10 years old. And not because I chose to. I marvelled at the flush toilets because that was a pipe dream for me but not for you. So [these are] things that you and I might take for granted because we come from different worlds, though we come from the same country,” Nkoana-Mashabane said.
Perhaps it was justified to remind a white South African of their privilege if that was a precursor to answering the questions and properly representing the country on an international platform. But no. Nkoana-Mashabane became fixated with the hole on her head from carrying a water can as the central point of her argument, which for the duration of the interview remained indistinct.
“But what does that have to do with the brawl that we saw in Parliament,” Dutton interjected, trying to get an answer to her question.
“Can I finish?” Nkoana-Mashabane insisted with a school-ma’amish demeanour. As a viewer, you begin to hope at this point that she is about to make a poignant argument about how her cranial crevice is symbolic of a small dent in South African politics but how the country is persevering nonetheless. Instead Nkoana-Mashabane boasts about her own activism and how she campaigned to become a Member of Parliament.
Eventually she gets to the subject of the brawl in Parliament, but then deflects to how such commotions happens in other countries without becoming “a big hoo-ha”. The viewer is left without an explanation as to why there is violence in the South African Parliament and how government views this. Nkoana-Mashabane repeatedly attempts to steer the conversation away from the matter to the backlog in service delivery, which she seems to think is a preferable subject.
Dutton refers to Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema’s recent interview with Al Jazeera when he said if faced with violence from the state, he was prepared to take power through “the barrel of the gun”. Again, the response should be easy: We should all remain on the right side of constitutionality and the rule of law. Our thriving democracy makes the barrel of the gun unnecessary.
But Nkoana-Mashabane is so distracted by the water delivery analogy that she does not pay attention to the question. She thinks Dutton is talking about Zuma, not Malema. It again becomes about her rather than the big picture and South Africa’s political stability. She claims to not have read about Malema’s comments, which in itself is worrying as the statements of an opposition leader threatening violence impacts on international perceptions of South Africa.
“Before I can get frightened by Julius, I am frightened by seeing an old woman carrying a water can in the streets of South Africa in 2016…” Nkoana-Mashabane then meanders off to how Zuma and Malema were not the same age and therefore culturally, she could not address them in the same way. This matter was not even raised in the interview so it is a bizarre leap, revealing the heavy fog Nkoana-Mashabane is traversing in her mind.
Dutton then broaches the subject of Nene’s firing and the “dramatic impact on South Africa’s economic reputation and the rand”, and how such risky political manoeuvres do not aid service delivery. There is no possible way Nkoana-Mashabane could have been unprepared for this question as it was the single most damaging move to the economy in post-democracy South Africa. But she stumbled incoherently, explaining that Nene was not the first minister to be removed from his post and the president’s powers to appoint whom he wants in Cabinet. There is no attempt on her part to inspire confidence in the recovery effort by government and business since then to stabilise the economy.
Dutton tries to get answers on the Hawks’ investigation into Pravin Gordhan and whether this could result in him losing his job. All Nkoana-Mashabane needed to do was refer to the numerous statements of the Presidency saying Gordhan had Zuma’s backing and they were working well together. Whether this is in fact the case is debatable but it is the official line from the Presidency, which, presumably, everyone in government should adhere to. But Nkoana-Mashabane instead carps that she has never before been in an interview where she has had to discuss speculation about Cabinet appointments.
Another strange leap in her thought process takes her from the question of Gordhan’s job security to fawning over Zuma’s leadership skills. “I learn so much from that leader of mine that I respect so much, not for anything but because he fought for freedom. Secondly he is a very patient man with the freedom that he fought for…”
When Dutton raises the issue of Zuma’s breach of the Constitution and the possible reinstatement of corruption charges against him, prompting calls from high-level individuals for him to step down, Nkoana-Mashabane demands that she explain what “high-level” meant. Dutton’s mention of Trevor Manuel sends Nkoana-Mashabane off on another tangent about her appointment as an ambassador to Malaysia and Manuel’s appointment as finance minister “because of the colour of his skin”.
“He was called a minister of common sense… later on he became a highly respected, now former minister of finance.”
A video clip of a young South African man expressing his disappointment with the ANC triggers another incomprehensible personal anecdote from Nkoana-Mashabane, but not before she undermines his opinion as that coming from “a very young person”. The latter part of the interview is an absolute cringe fest as Nkoana-Mashabane talks over the interviewer, insisting on preaching points irrelevant to the questions and employs strange mathematics to dismiss the EFF’s growth in popularity.
The final question from a bewildered Dutton is an opportunity for Nkoana-Mashabane to redeem herself: how does she see the US presidential elections playing out and does she have a favoured candidate. This question would elicit the same response from any diplomat around the world: We respect the will of the American people; we will work with whoever is elected president.
Nope. Not our chief diplomat.
“Maybe my granddaughter, who happens to be named after me, will have a favoured candidate of another country. But as for my children, they are still concerned about their own country,” was Nkoana-Mashabane’s perplexing response. Perhaps she thought the question was about her family’s preference for either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. Perhaps she has no concept of what her job is.
“The day shall rise and the sun shall set and South Africa shall remain a global player…” she rounded up, before Dutton mercifully brought the interview to an end.
South Africa’s politicians have been known to come up with mumbo-jumbo before. From Zuma claiming that all the continents could fit into Africa to Energy Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson blathering about a cow giving birth to a fire, we have had our share of nonsensical statements.
Nkoana-Mashabane has hitherto been one of the least controversial ministers in the Cabinet, seemingly keeping our foreign relations on par in a generally crisis-hit government. Her only bout of ignominy recently was falling asleep in Parliament and being called out as a “sleepist” by the EFF’s Mbuyiseni Ndlozi.
The Al Jazeera interview reveals how disconcerted ANC politicians are with having to defend the multiple crises plaguing the Zuma administration and how inept they are at representing South Africa’s interests. It was by no means a hard-hitting interview – if anything, Dutton allowed Nkoana-Mashabane the latitude to have her say and veer off topic for much of the programme.
However, South Africans need to pay more attention to those who represent us and it is us who should be asking the hard questions of our political leaders. There is a constant assault on our intelligence and an avalanche of nonsensical statements from politicians. There is now a move to sanitise the news so that citizens are shielded from the true state of our nation.
What we need to be shielded from is ineptitude and drivel from those elected to serve us. An incompetent leader is like a hole in the head – vexing, unnecessary and potentially threatening to our existence. DM
Photo: A frame-grab from International Relations and Co-operation Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane Al Jazeera interview.
"The thorny question of violence is not just a matter of tactics. It is the defining question in the life and death of [social] movements." ~ Manuel Castells
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