South Africa


Diplomacy: The Art of the Impossible

Lindiwe Sisulu (then Minister of Human Settlements) during the debate on President Cyril Ramaphosa's state of the nation address at the National Assembly on February 19, 2018 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images / Jeffrey Abrahams)

Some thoughts on the diplomatic and bureaucratic dust-up that revved up the government when foreign diplomats offered advice.

Many years ago, back when one country was royally miffed at another, the usual process was for a senior foreign representative to get all togged out in his morning suit – the striped pants, a swallow tailcoat, that silver and black tie, a stiffly starched shirt with the upturned collar, a waistcoat, and even a top hat. And when he arrived at the host country’s foreign ministry, he probably had been conveyed there in a coach drawn by four matched steeds.

He would be received ceremonially at the front door and escorted to the appropriate senior official in order for him to present a formal note, usually drawn from a polished black leather briefcase or dispatch case, and present it to the host country’s official – and probably read it out loud as well, for clarity and emphasis. If it was still in the 19th century, it probably would have been in French.

The note would begin something like this:

The Government of the Serene Democratic Monarchy of the Republic of Brobdignang presents its compliments to the Government of the Grand Duchy of Grastark Sonder Zenda Unter ShangriLa, and wishes to convey its deep dismay over the arrest and subsequent defenestration of the Grand Duke’s second cousin by marriage, while he was in the midst of hunting unicorns out of season in the Grastarkian Royal Tundra game reserve. We regret to inform you that your government has left our government no choice but to bomb your highly esteemed nation back to the Neolithic Age….”

Very polite and formal it all was, right up until the final moments before the actual invasion, with the horses of the mustered regiments of the royal hussars pawing at the invasion start line and with the hussars holding tightly to their ornamental sabres in order to keep them steady, waiting for the command from the colonel, “Forward!”

But no, nations no longer communicate with each other in quite that way. And foreign ministries no longer routinely advise their diplomats to buy a bespoke morning suit for that kind of communication either. (In 30 years of work, I only needed to wear a tuxedo twice and a white dinner jacket once, but never a morning coat. We rented the costumes when we actually needed them, a total of three times.)

Yes, of course, diplomacy still uses the term “note verbale” for a relatively informal matter such as a request for modest favour with regard to a special visa; or a “démarche” when it is something more formal, more important, or more troubling. But, like everything else in life these days, representatives of various countries increasingly communicate with one another by email (with the respective offices sending notes to one another all the time) and other electronic connections.

Moreover, and maybe here is the really crucial bit: in today’s world, official communications between nations are very rarely solely the matter of an embassy speaking to a foreign ministry, or vice versa. Defence departments and ministries speak to one another; treasury departments do; heck, even zoos do it.

In fact, one of my first tasks in an assignment in the US State Department, way back in the 1970s, was to follow the complex travel and shipping arrangements for the movement of Suzy the Pygmy Hippo between the Washington National Zoo and the Singapore National Zoo. The State Department didn’t manage it or arrange anything, but I did receive regular updates, just in case, someone higher up asked about her whereabouts, her health, and her equanimity. No one ever did, and the two zoos and their respective government agencies took care of it all.

That was an easy example, but, unlike those halcyon diplomatic days gone by, the ones that once starred Metternick, Talleyrand, John Quincy Adams, Jefferson, and Bismarck, in the modern world government officials actually talk with their trans-border counterparts all the time. Presidents talk with presidents; interior ministers write to their counterparts; the police in country A communicate with the police in country B. Even intelligence folks meet with their friendly – or not so friendly – counterparts.

We have all watched how America’s Donald Trump and Russia’s Vladimir Putin have had numerous one-on-one meetings in the past several years, most of the time without State Department participation. Even this is not unique. Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev once wandered off into the woods in Iceland, without any State Department or foreign ministry keepers, to discuss nuclear disarmament and missiles. Well okay, everybody not in that meeting seemed a tad disconcerted, except for the two principals. They seemed to have had a fine time – even if the people in the respective foreign offices had well-mannered, official conniption fits.

And so, to the present moment and the strange events that broke into the news over the weekend. The first reports had it that the ambassadors from Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands, the British high commissioner, and the American charge d’affairs had recently met to hammer out a note for South African President Ramaphosa, warning (threatening?) that if he didn’t get a handle on corruption, it was curtains for future foreign direct investment into South Africa. Sounds pretty bad, that. Especially given the Guptagate State Capture commission, the Zondo Commission, and all the other lesser transgressions being examined. That seems to have gotten Dirco Minister Lindiwe Sisulu and her office up in arms about a serious violation of diplomatic norms, stemming from that note, and that her office would be calling in the culprits for some stern talk on Monday.

Meanwhile, it became clear that this note, really a joint memorandum from the diplomats, had been written some eight months earlier, that it had been prepared following a meeting with one of Ramaphosa’s investment “ambassadors”, and that it primarily focused on the problems encountered by investors and would-be investors over things like bureaucratic barriers, ever-changing administrative requirements, and uncertainties in administrative decisions. This was before all the State Capture and corruption commissions were underway. The diplomats were also relaying the concerns of the five nations’ respective chambers of commerce, quite reasonably trying to offer insights into the challenges faced by their members and would-be members.

This is exactly the kind of information a president like CR would want to have, just as those big international leaders meetings were coming up. No, not precisely a secret cabal, all this. But in the meantime, there was much screaming and arm-waving about interference in South Africa’s internal affairs and a new wave of imperialism.

By the time the meeting took place on Monday, it was actually becoming clearer that Dirco had reacted to a breathless, banner headline story in the Sunday press; that the origins of the meeting and memo were rather different than described, and that the memo had been written in the interest of making South Africa the investor-friendly country the president wanted it to be.

So, the meeting was held, and afterwards, Dirco issued its communication. It read:

Following a démarche by the Minister of International Relations and Co-operation, Ms Lindiwe Sisulu, the Director-General Mr Kgabo Mahoai accompanied by Ms Yolisa Maya, the Deputy Director-General met with the Heads of the Diplomatic Missions representing Switzerland; the United Kingdom (UK); Germany; the Netherlands and the United States of America (USA) to express South Africa’s displeasure that the Heads of Mission did not follow established diplomatic channels when communicating to the South African government.

The Heads of the Diplomatic Missions regretted the misunderstanding and further clarified that the discussion paper had been sent to The Presidency to contribute to the dialogue on how South Africa can attract more foreign direct investment.

The meeting concluded by agreeing that in future proper diplomatic channels and protocols will be followed in all diplomatic communications. The Heads of the Diplomatic Missions also reiterated their commitment to working actively in support of South Africa’s investment drive.”

Now, read this the right way and it seems South African officials now understood what this was really all about, and that the foreigners now saw better than some in South Africa are much more concerned about process than content, and – crucially – that there remains a well of suspicion about the intentions of western countries, vis a vis South Africa. Maybe a copy of the memorandum should have been forwarded to Dirco earlier, rather than letting someone discover it after the fact. But there is also the possibility it was sent, but not recognised properly for what it was, or even that the Presidency was tardy in sharing it with the other parts of government.

Regardless of any bureaucratic bobbles, this tempest in a teapot should still be a wake-up call, noting that efforts to nurture foreign investment are a complex task, requiring all parts of the South African government to work cooperatively – and that foreign missions and chambers of commerce all need to be engaged with closely in this effort. This challenge is, after all, much more important, and more complicated, than the sending of Suzy the Hippo to her new home. DM


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