Ambassador Patrick Gaspard’s love affair with South Africa began as a child and our politics turned him into an activist and a political animal. When he served as political director in the White House, he was described as “one of the most powerful men in American politics”. Instead of remaining at President Barack Obama’s side for a second term, Gaspard asked to come to South Africa as the United States’ chief diplomat. He hasn’t had the easiest term here, managing chicken wars and fending off “regime change” allegations. In his last week in South Africa, before he takes up his powerful position in international philanthropy, he spoke to RANJENI MUNUSAMY about his plans to keep “Hope” alive.
There is a picture that enjoyed pride of place at Hill House in Waterkloof, Pretoria, the official residence of the American Ambassador to South Africa. On the piano in the big reception lounge is a framed image of President Barack Obama at his desk in the Oval Office in deep conversation with Patrick Gaspard. Gaspard is sitting on a chair next to the desk facing the window of the Oval Office. West Wing-themed movies and television series have often portrayed the scene of intimate dialogue between the President of the United States and a senior aide (or a scheming villain).
There is a close bond between the two, clearly evident in the picture. Gaspard played a key role in Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, themed “Hope” and “Yes We Can!”, as well as the 2012 re-election campaign. In a profile piece on Gaspard in The Daily Beast in 2010, when he was White House political director, a Democratic National Committee organiser refers to him as “smooth operator” and “a sounding board for the president”.
There are several pictures around the house of Obama and Gaspard together, including one taken on Air Force One.
“One horrible thing about being President of the United State is every moment is recorded by a staff photographer. At the top of every single meeting, pictures are taken,” says Gaspard.
As a result, White House photographer Pete Souza has taken an estimated two-million pictures over the eight years of the Obama presidency, including many delightful images of the world’s most powerful leader playing on the floor with children.
The picture with Obama in the Oval Office has special significance for Gaspard. It was taken at the beginning of Obama’s second term and captured the conversation when the president was broaching the subject of Gaspard’s future role in his administration. It was then that Gaspard told Obama about his desire to come to South Africa.
“South Africa has long occupied a central space in my imagination”, says Gaspard. “When I was 10 years old, my father explained to me and my siblings the images on the news of young people engaged in civil unrest in a distant land. He explained who Nelson Mandela was, what the ANC (African National Congress) was and what the PAC (Pan Africanist Congress) was. He also explained how that struggle aligned with the challenges in the African diaspora.”
Gaspard became an anti-apartheid activist as a teenager, skipping school to participate in demonstrations demanding sanctions against the then South African government. When he was 19 years old, the US Congress led by Republicans passed the sanctions bill but it was vetoed by President Ronald Reagan. Under public pressure, Congress over-ruled the veto.
“I always understood the President of the United States to be the most powerful person in the world. Our collective action over-rode the president and enabled America to be on the right side of history,” says Gaspard.
Through his work with former New York mayor David Dinkins and the Coalition of Black Trade Unions, Gaspard was one of the lead organisers for Nelson Mandela’s first trip to New York City in 1990. The following year, Gaspard made his first trip to South Africa.
“I fell head over heels in love with the South African people and their resilience. I was determined from that moment to return to South Africa and be of service to our two countries.”
When Gaspard explained all this to Obama, the president immediately agreed, especially because of his own “affinity” for South Africa. “It was his first political home as well,” says Gaspard, referring to Obama’s own activism in support of South Africa’s liberation struggle.
During Gaspard’s three-year term in South Africa, he devoted his time to strengthening partnerships between the two countries, particularly in education and healthcare. The renewal of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa), the trade agreement that allows preferential access to the US market in exchange for the import of meat products, set diplomatic feathers flying. It took dexterous footwork and some behind-the-scenes interventions to get the agreement renewed and the trade relationship between the US and South Africa back on track.
At a farewell reception with his South African friends on Wednesday evening, Gaspard confessed that he had spent an inordinate amount of time during his term talking about chicken. Even for someone known as a “smooth operator”, the episode was taxing.
There were other testing moments. “It is no secret that there have been real challenges in the relationship,” says Gaspard. This included differences over “strategy and urgency of engagement”, which must be diplomatic speak for one side being difficult and playing hard to get. He says he also wishes the two countries had partnered better to combat the Ebola crisis in West Africa. On issues such as increasing broadband access and the provision of pharmaceuticals, Gaspard says the US has more to offer and could play a more helpful role.
“We want to contribute to the conversation here. We hadn’t had the opportunity to go as deeply as we had liked to. I hope that will change going forward.”
Going forward, South Africa might come to regret not making the most of the relationship with the US when there was a president and ambassador who both had a fondness for our country and tried to enhance co-operation. There might be some nail-biting going on at the Department of International Relations and Co-operation (Dirco) about diplomatic relations under the Trump presidency, particularly considering the provocative statements and unsubstantiated accusations made against the US government.
This included claims that the US was trying to instigate “regime change” in South Africa and that prominent South African leaders were on the payroll of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
“I was outraged when political actors lifted random conspiracy theories,” says Gaspard. He says these were used to distract from those who were really responsible for South Africa’s difficulties. But there was a distinction between individuals in political parties making such statements and people in government.
“For the most part ministers, Members of Parliament, the presidency and Dirco had not been responsible for amplifying the charges. Instead they were quite responsible about pushing back.”
When ANC Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe accused the US Embassy of meeting daily to advance regime change in South Africa, Gaspard made light of it.
“I wish that someone would invite me to these meetings. Let’s not blame others for our own challenges,” he tweeted at the time. In another tweet he said: “I’m so disappointed as I always imagined that if I organised a coup it would look like Mardi Gras – food, music, dance.”
But he didn’t always laugh it off. When Deputy Minister of Defence Kebby Maphatsoe attacked the US government and accused former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela of being a CIA agent, Gaspard says he did not hesitate to lodge a formal complaint to the South African Government. Maphatsoe later withdrew the comments and apologised.
Gaspard says he was glad to discover that that level of paranoia did not have resonance among ordinary South Africans.
But how will the incoming administration relate to South Africa, particularly after Donald Trump’s own reckless tweets about our country? In December 2013 Trump tweeted: “I really like Nelson Mandela but South Africa is a crime-ridden mess that is just waiting to explode – not a good situation for the people!”
In April last year, Trump tweeted: “As I have long been saying, South Africa is a total – and very dangerous – mess. Just watch the evening news (when not talking weather).”
Back then, it did not matter what Trump thought of South Africa. Now it does. How much will the system allow Trump to change diplomatic relations?
“There is something about the presidency that forces one to be damn serious,” says Gaspard. “You realise that you don’t have complete command and control over the agenda. The headlines command your attention. As powerful as it is, it is the most humbling office in the world.”
“I am sure the president-elect is already discovering that,” Gaspard adds.
Although Gaspard is expected to be optimistic and tactful, his hope that Trump will discover humility in the White House is like expecting Maphatsoe to discover a theory he wouldn’t have to later apologise for spouting.
Gaspard’s term coincided with a period of political turmoil and a series of scandals in South Africa. But he says he was impressed by what he witnessed, particularly the reaction to the Constitutional Court ruling on Nkandla. From within the ANC, government, the presidency, civil society and ordinary people, there was respect for the ruling that affirmed and buttressed the Office of the Public Protector, he says.
“That was the most consequential moment in South Africa since 1994, since Nelson Mandela put his hand on the parchment and was sworn in,” says Gaspard. “Democracy was put to the test and South Africa came out proving it is the most resilient place on the planet.”
He says he is also inspired by the “rebirth of civil society activism”.
“It was a fascinating and great time to be here. I am as optimistic as ever.”
But, says Gaspard, it is hard not to be despondent about the state of the world considering developments like Brexit, events in the rest of Europe and the drift in US politics. Even those who were happy with the outcome of the American elections cannot deny the “toxic environment and polarisation”. But the world is coming out of one of the darkest periods with the great recession, there is less warring and there is more democratic participation.
“Despite our anxiety, this is the most peaceful and prosperous time in the history of the African continent. I am still hopeful.”
That campaign of “Hope” that brought the world the Obama presidency is a permanent condition, it would seem. Gaspard says it is a great source of pride to reach the end of the Obama administration with no scandals, allegations of misappropriation or untoward activities of lobbyists.
Gaspard is not a career diplomat and is now off to a new vocation in philanthropic work. In January he takes up the post of vice president of programmes at the Open Society Foundations, responsible for advocacy work in Washington and Brussels. He will oversee the Open Society Foundations’ programmatic work in over 100 countries.
Gaspard says transparency, ethics and openness have impacted on all the work he has done and will now define his new role. The promotion of human rights and equal access to justice will also feature in his work. At home in the US, the treatment of all citizens by law enforcement officials is something he is particularly concerned about. And there might be ways for him and Obama to work together in future.
“I always considered myself to be fortunate and blessed by the relationship I have with President Obama for 12 or 13 years now. When I first met him, I recognised him as somebody that can take complicated issues and translate them in ways that have resonance with the aspirations of the American people.”
“It is a gift he will always have. Whatever he decided to do next, we could find synergies to be supportive and partner with him. He’s just my guy.”
When Gaspard left the White House, Obama’s gift to him was a picture of the two of them depicted in the Marvel superhero comic, The Avengers. The illustration, with the White House in the background, is titled “The Democratic Avengers” with the payoff line: “The Battle For Change Begins Here”.
It is signed by the president and inscribed: “Patrick – Thanks for all your derring-do!” The two crusaders are now off on their next adventure and new battle for change. It is possible that we might only appreciate their true value and their friendship with our nation when they are gone. DM
Photo: Ambassador Patrick Gaspard bids farewell to friends at Hill House, 7th December 2016. (Photo: US Embassy)
"Man is by nature a political animal" ~ Aristotle