There was a brief moment of confusion on Wednesday night as President Cyril Ramaphosa — who looked slightly tired and out of it — read out the names of his new, reduced Cabinet.
The International Relations portfolio was on the list right after the Human Settlements portfolio, which former International Relations minister Lindiwe Sisulu will now occupy for the third time. She was in that portfolio before being promoted to International Relations in February 2018.
By a possible Freudian slip, Ramaphosa skipped announcing Naledi Pandor as International Relations Minister, but he did name her deputies, Alvin Botes and Candith Mashego-Dlamini. Right at the end of his announcements his spokesperson, Khusela Diko, pointed out the error.
Sisulu’s removal came as no big surprise. Daily Maverick recently reported that there were disagreements between Sisulu and Ramaphosa on diplomatic issues, such as the downgrading of the South African embassy in Israel (an ANC conference resolution) and the handling of the spat between South Africa and Rwanda, which became pretty ugly and personal towards the end of 2018.
Ramaphosa has gone to great lengths to mend bridges with Rwanda, while some of his close allies are unhappy with South Africa’s cutting of ties with Israel. Even within the ANC, some reckon that the communication channels should be kept open for possible future talks between Israel and Palestine.
A source close to the department said another issue was Sisulu’s stance on the December 2018 elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo, when she appeared to favour opposition candidate Martin Fayulu. Many Western observers and diplomats believed Fayulu was cheated out of an elections victory by former president Joseph Kabila, but not all South African officials agreed with this stance.
(According to the leaked results from CENI, Fayulu won almost 60% of the vote, which closely correlated with the Catholic Church’s observer mission’s claim – Ed)
More sources also allege that there was a breach of trust between Ramaphosa and Sisulu, but it is unclear what exactly the disagreement was. Sisulu’s appearance on a platform with ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule in the Free State during a lecture commemorating the 107th birthday of her father, Walter Sisulu, was considered to have been a direct challenge to Ramaphosa.
Sisulu assumed membership of the ANC Women’s League — known critics of Ramaphosa — for the first time in her life in an apparent attempt to build a political support base within the party. The Women’s League has, however, since rallied behind Ramaphosa and greeted the exclusion of its president, Bathabile Dlamini, from his Cabinet with quiet resignation, rather than defiance.
Ahead of the ANC’s 2017 elective conference at Nasrec, Sisulu made a run for the ANC presidency, but despite a solid campaign (“It’s a must” was her battle cry), she lacked a sufficient support base. Sisulu ended up as deputy president on Ramaphosa’s slate, replacing Pandor, who stepped aside. Sisulu, however, lost out to David Mabuza.
Pandor is one of the most senior ministers, having served since 2004 in the Education, Science and Technology and Home Affairs portfolios respectively. She has — by own admission — no experience in diplomacy and has never been a regular on the summit circuit at the African Union in Addis Ababa and at the United Nations in New York.
Pandor has, however, indicated that she plans to push South Africa’s human rights agenda in its foreign policy. At the swearing-in ceremony in Pretoria on Thursday, Pandor told SABC News her appointment to the portfolio came as a surprise, even to her. Ramaphosa’s combination of the departments of Higher Education and Science and Technology seemed to have been tailor-made for her.
Pandor said when the president told her where he wanted to appoint her, “I said I’m very honoured. I will have to learn diplomacy, it is not my strength, but I’m very honoured, very privileged”.
She continued: “South Africa holds a very very important place in the world given our history and the interest of the world in the programme of South Africa.”
The next few years will also be important for South Africa on the international stage, because it occupies a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council for two years from 2019 to 2020, and because it will chair the African Union in 2020, after Egypt.
“These are very important roles that the government and our people are going to play on the African as well as the global stage. And I think in that space we must always maintain who we are and hold up the interest of Africa and certainly the matter of human rights and how South Africa’s values are reflected in the Bill of Rights and the Constitution of South Africa,” said Pandor.
She will also have to help steer Ramaphosa’s investment drive as he is likely to continue his wooing of foreign investors at every opportunity.
Officials and diplomats reacted with relief as the news broke of Sisulu’s removal from the international relations portfolio on Wednesday night, and one even went as far as saying they were “ecstatic”. Even though there is respect for Sisulu, many said she — and some of her long-standing staff in the ministry who will now leave with her — was difficult to work with.
Some officials did, however, express concern over Pandor’s lack of experience in international affairs and diplomacy. Still, she was warmly received and congratulated. The department’s official Twitter account @Dirco_ZA tweeted its congratulations to Pandor and added:
“We look forward to working with you towards a better South Africa, a better Africa, a better world.”
The German ambassador to Pretoria, Martin Schäfer, was one of the first off the mark among the diplomats, when he tweeted a “wholehearted welcome to our world of international affairs, diplomacy and co-operation”, adding:
“We look very much forward to fighting at your sides for a peaceful multilateral world order!” He was closely followed by British High Commissioner Nigel Casey and the Swedish ambassador Cecilia Julin, who tweeted the feminist foreign policy angle, welcoming Pandor to the “Female Foreign Ministers Club”.
The European Union ambassador to Pretoria, Marcus Cornaro, was also among the first to tweet Pandor, saying: “World needs a voice like yours to work for effective multilateralism (sic).”
The embassies of Iran and Russia also tweeted their congratulations, as did the French embassy, which in 2018 conferred upon Pandor the Officier de l’Ordre National de la Légion d’Honneur for her efforts to nurture co-operation between France and South Africa in science, technology and higher education.
The US Embassy in Pretoria tweeted an entire statement in which it “warmly congratulates” Pandor, recalling how well the embassy worked with her in her previous portfolios of education and science and technology
“With Minister Pandor now at the helm of Dirco, we look forward to working closely with her and all for the team at Dirco to advance our shared bilateral, regional and global interests.”
Most significantly, there was also a congratulation from the Rwandan foreign minister Richard Sezibera, which said:
“I look forward to working with you to strengthen the relations between our two countries.”
From the Jewish community, there are some reservations, however, because of remarks Pandor made supporting the downgrading of South Africa’s embassy in Tel Aviv during the State of the Nation Address debate in Parliament in February 2018. She said, to a standing ovation:
“The majority party has agreed that the government must cut diplomatic ties with Israel.”
National Director of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies, Wendy Kahn, said the board asked for a meeting to talk to Pandor about her remarks in Parliament about Israel, which never materialised.
Kahn, however, added that Pandor “is an experienced and accomplished politician and we hope that she will use her experience and credibility in her new position as Minister of Dirco to help SA find a role in brokering peace between Israelis and South Africans”. DM