South Africa

FOREIGN RELATIONS

Former US ambassador hopes Ramaphosa has put SA foreign policy back on track

U.S Ambassador Patrick H. Gaspard during a visit to the Luthuli Museum on April 2, 2014 in Groutville, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images / The Times / Tebogo Letsie)

Patrick Gaspard believes a return to ‘robust, dynamic, engaged moral leadership’ will help South Africa tackle looming challenges in Africa.

America’s former ambassador to South Africa, Patrick Gaspard, is greatly encouraged by the apparent shift back towards a more human rights-based South African foreign policy by the Ramaphosa administration.

Gaspard, now president of the Open Society Foundations — the philanthropic arm of financier George Soros — is delighted that International Relations and Co-operation Minister Lindiwe Sisulu and her spokesperson recently announced that South Africa would vote for a resolution at the UN General Assembly this December, condemning the Myanmar military for gross human rights abuses against the Muslim minority Rohingya people.

In November, when South Africa abstained from the resolution in the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee which deals with human rights and humanitarian issues, the government was widely criticised.

But on 22 November Sisulu signalled an about-turn. She condemned human rights violations in Myanmar and announced she would give a directive to South Africa’s diplomats at the UN in New York on how to vote when the same Myanmar resolution was debated in the UN General Assembly plenary in December.

This vote would supersede the one in the Third Committee, she said.

Her spokesperson Ndivhuwo Mabaya spelt out to Daily Maverick that Sisulu’s voting directive meant that South Africa would change its vote and support the Myanmar resolution.

Gaspard, who is in South Africa to join the celebration of 25 years of Open Society Foundations philanthropy in this country, read Sisulu’s statement as possibly marking a significant shift in Pretoria’s foreign policy.

That story created a sense of hope because it felt as if at long last we were going back to the values-based leadership on foreign policy that we all became accustomed to in that first instance with that class of ’94,” he told Daily Maverick in an interview.

And what we have been sorely lacking for some time now.”

Under Mandela, South Africa had played above its weight in foreign policy and used its moral influence and its unique history of reconciliation and transformation to mediate in difficult conflicts, such as Northern Ireland.

Then Thabo Mbeki had taken a “a pinpoint, strategic pan-African approach to foreign policy”.

But then after that, under the Zuma administration… the strategic direction of foreign policy here became more opaque.

It seemed as if it was guided by a more narrow self-interest, but a self-interest that was even hard to pin down and give clear definition to.

So now with the announcement of the reversal of the vote on Myanmar, the desire to defend the rights of the Rohingya, who have been forced to flee to Bangladesh, it feels as if South Africa is moving back towards that moral suasion that we were all so inspired by.”

This was coming at a very important time because of all the challenges that were looming in South Africa’s neighbourhood. These included the difficult transition in Zimbabwe; the scheduled post-Kabila elections in Democratic Republic of Congo — “which may or may not happen on 23 December, but which could lead to some real traumatic dislocation in the country”; the “fascinating” transition in Ethiopia, which seemed to be moving towards greater openness, especially when one looked at its rapprochement with Eritrea; the large number of elections coming up across Africa; and then in places such as Tanzania where laws were being passed that closed off civil society space, or where journalists were being jailed.

All of that cries out for, begs for, the kind of robust, dynamic, engaged moral leadership that South Africa has the capacity to bring to the table, straight across the region, the continent and the world.”

It’s been almost two years since Gaspard, who had been appointed by then President Barack Obama in 2013, left his post as US ambassador to South Africa.

But still President Donald Trump has not appointed a new ambassador. Diplomats at the embassy and the many US businesses invested in South Africa whisper that as a result they are not receiving coherent direction from Washington.

Have SA-US relations indeed suffered from the absence of an ambassador? Gaspard replies:

We have a brilliant chargé (acting ambassador) Jessye Lapenn who is really committed to the bilateral relationship. Who is indefatigable.”

And all of Lapenn’s diplomats are continuing to do remarkable work, he says. America also remains fully committed to Pepfar, the US programme which has funded billions of rands of Aids treatment in SA.

Gaspard nonetheless finds it “unfortunate” that there has been no ambassador for almost two years.

And regrettably that’s the case in far too many places around the world. But more important than not having an ambassador, I think it’s been just outright distressing that the President of the US in the only time that he tweeted the word Africa in his two years as President — and we do know that Twitter is his official communication form by choice — was when he was supporting the claims that were being made by AfriForum.”

[This was Trump’s tweet that he had instructed his Secretary of State to investigate “large-scale killing of farmers” and the South African government’s “seizing land from white farmers”.]

And at the time I personally accused the President of sending signals to the extreme right and white supremacists in the United States who have made common cause with AfriForum and other like-minded organisations,” Gaspard said.

Despite Trump’s negligence, business people in both countries were still driving a vibrant business partnership and both Democratic and Republican Senators were also actively advancing the relationship, Gaspard said.

As ambassador, Gaspard had been actively involved in the protracted and difficult negotiations for the renewal of the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) which gives South African exporters duty- and quota-free access to the lucrative US market for most of their goods.

Gaspard said that on returning to South Africa, he had been excited to discover that South African business leaders were aware of the need to take full advantage of Agoa and to use it to move to a new trade agreement after its likely expiry in 2025.

So I think the relationship will grow from strength to strength, to use a South African phrase.”

In November, though, Trump at last announced that he had nominated Lana Marks, a Florida-based luxury handbag designer, as Gaspard’s successor. She still has to be confirmed by the US Senate.

Trump’s pick has sparked considerable criticism, however, particularly because she was born and raised in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa before moving to the US and becoming a US citizen. US diplomats say it’s highly unusual for the US to appoint an ambassador to the country of his or her birth, in case that creates a clash of interest.

Also, Marks has no known record of having done anything for the black majority in South Africa, some critics have pointed out.

Gaspard offered to share with Marks his experience as ambassador if she wanted it.

He said she seemed to have been active in business and so should be well placed to help the hundreds of US companies in South Africa whom he knew wanted a lot of red tape to be cut so they could help grow the economy.

I also understand that she speaks Xhosa. I’m envious. I would have loved to have been a Xhosa speaker or a Zulu speaker serving in South Africa,” Gaspard, said, adding this could be an advantage to the embassy in reaching parts of the South African community.

But I have to also say that I hope and expect that the new ambassador, should she be confirmed by the US Senate, that she will appreciate that the language that Donald Trump has used about South Africa, the attacks that he has made — even before he was President, Donald Trump said some really brutal, difficult things about South Africa. I hope that she will have the sensibilities to understand that she has to approach this role in a way that signifies something different about US intentions here in the region and a desire for a kind of humble partnership.

Because that is not the signal that has been sent, regrettably, by the current president. And she is inheriting his rhetoric, inheriting that signal. In much the same way that I had to carry responsibility for any positive or negative perceptions that South Africans might have had about the president who appointed me.”

Gaspard’s own view of the land question is that it’s right that it is preoccupying the political debate as it is a central question in South Africa.

But he recalled how he had been really “vexed” when speaking as ambassador to black South African students that so many of them expressed a sense of “great betrayal” by Mandela’s generation during the Codesa negotiations for a democratic South Africa.

They felt that generation had negotiated only political transformation and not economic transformation and even that they had made economic transformation more difficult, if not impossible, by “baking in” certain disadvantages.

He would always tell the students that he didn’t read the history that way.

That what I instead saw was a generation, the Mandela generation… that settled this profound political matter and worked towards the enfranchisement of the black majority in the country.

And through that work created the opportunity for the next generation to take on the structural questions that persisted from the apartheid period. And the land question for me is part of that, those structural, systemic challenges here.”

Gaspard said the Open Society Foundation was supporting think tanks and activists who were examining the whole question of the dislocation and displacement of black people from the land.

But he added that he sometimes felt “that land is a euphemism that is used more broadly for economic inclusion and, economic opportunity”.

If there’s growth in this economy and through that growth increased opportunity for young people to prosper, the land question is seen differently. I think for some time economic policy was not managed in a way to lead to sufficient growth.

That’s put pressure on economic opportunity which has made the land question so central and yet so profoundly polarising. So it’s not just about the land question, it’s about what are you doing to increase this pie.”

Trying to carve up differently a pie which didn’t grow would “continue to be a losing proposition”.

George Soros, the Hungarian-born financier and currency trader who is now a US citizen, began his philanthropy in South Africa in 1979 by funding black students to study at the University of Cape Town. In 1993 he established the Open Society Foundation in South Africa and it has since pumped more than R1-billion into more than 700 civil society organisations campaigning for an open society and for a better life for all citizens.

Gaspard summed up its work by saying that the Open Society Foundation “has managed to partner effectively with civil society to help to centre in the body politic of South Africa, the aspirations of a black majority that clearly was on the outside looking in at opportunity, at that moment in 1993”.

He cited in particular the work done to support independent journalism, civil society projects to enable transparency in government and in procurement, equal access to justice and to health care.

He recalled the thousands, perhaps millions of lives that had been saved when the government finally “heeded the activism of civil society and embraced actual science and antiretrovirals”. This referred, among others, to the Open Society Foundation’s support of the Treatment Action Campaign, which led the civil society charge for the AIDS-denying Mbeki administration to start administering proper treatment to AIDS sufferers.

Gaspard also cited the Open Society Foundation’s financial support for the 51 Thuthuzela Care Centres across the country which provide safe spaces for women who have been victims of sexual violence.

And he mentioned the foundation’s support for the financing of a quarter of a million houses being built for poor families.

All of this work gave him “an enormous surge of real pride”, he said.

Asked to look ahead to the next 25 years, Gaspard joked that he hoped “democracy takes hold, and puts us out of business”.

More seriously, he said the most important question the Open Society Foundation would have to address in the immediate future was that of economic inclusion, economic advancement and more broadly-shared prosperity. This was “still the existential question” here in South Africa.

Solving it in South Africa would also help solve it in the rest of the continent and even beyond.

As you’re sitting here in the City Bowl in Cape Town,” he said, gesturing out of the window of the plush Waterfront hotel, past the masts of luxury yachts towards Table Mountain, “and you consider the challenges of communities not very far away from here, one can’t help but be acutely aware of disparities that just seem to be unsustainable if one is to be able to create, maintain resilient open societies.”

Gaspard said the Open Society Foundation’s work would continue to be anchored in advancing human rights, independent journalism and strategic litigation. But it would also turn its energies more forcefully towards economic inclusion, with a focus on youth, but more especially on women, in recognition “of the disparities that women in South Africa face in the political economy, in the household economy, in the culture and the politics”.

Gaspard has been in the global news recently because of a growing dispute between Soros and Facebook. In January at Davos, Soros bluntly called Facebook and Google a “menace to society”.

In retaliation Facebook hired a Republican Party-aligned public relations firm, Definers Public Affairs, to probe Soros. The company reported that he was probably financing the civil society coalition movement, Freedom from Facebook, that was campaigning against many of Facebook’s practices.

This so-called “opposition research” into Soros drew intense criticism because he is now frequently the target of far-right and anti-Semitic attacks and conspiracy theories.

Although Facebook has since dissociated itself from Definers, Gaspard has said this is not enough and demanded a congressional inquiry.

He told Daily Maverick that Facebook had insufficiently responded so far to the Open Society Foundations’ questions to them “about how they attacked the Open Society Foundations and George Soros and tried to distort our record of support for Americans who are using their First Amendment rights to ask some really important questions about the monopolistic nature of Facebook’s enterprise, the way Facebook is really able to skirt privacy laws around the world”.

Gaspard said most people used to think that Facebook “was an endlessly virtuous platform that would lead to a flowering of democratic practice”.

But instead we’ve seen authoritarians like Vladimir Putin manage to use these platforms in a manipulative way too often, with the acquiescence of the companies themselves, to distort democratic practice and outcome, to close off civil space and to endanger activists and to drive deep polarisation all around the world, through a distortion of news, through the phenomenon of fake news.”

Those questions were central to democratic outcomes.

Gaspard agreed that everyone had to remain vigilant about not curbing the freedom of expression of Facebook and other social media platforms.

But that did not mean looking the other way while these companies continued to operate in unregulated spaces. By contrast with Europe, in the US tough questions had not been put to them about privacy rights, about the integrity of US elections, “and on their entire commercial model which in a way requires them to make addicts of us all”.

They were also distorting people’s perception of the world by constantly feeding them information, however marginal, which supported their own views of the world.

Gaspard said Facebook had failed to act, despite warnings from activists, when the Myanmar military created fake profiles, presenting themselves on social media as citizens and entertainers. They attracted many ordinary people to these profiles.

And then slowly but surely began to say some of the most venomous things about the Rohingya, in a way to socialise a community against the Rohingya.”

There was a responsibility that came with the right to freedom of expression.

And that responsibility clearly can’t be self-policed by Facebook, by Google, by Twitter.”

He added that Soros believed the biggest threat to his great ideal of an open society in the world today was the erosion of autonomy of thought by social media platforms. DM

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