South Africa


Political appointees trump career diplomats in new postings

Former South African National Defence Force chief Siphiwe Nyanda, left, and former intelligence minister Billy Masetlha. (Photos: Reuters / Siphiwe Sibeko) | Gallo Images / Sowetan / Mohau Mofokeng)

Career diplomats are disgruntled that they continue to be overlooked in favour of political appointments for plum ambassadorships. According to sources, these include the appointments of two securocrats of the past, Billy Masetlha and Siphiwe Nyanda, to hot spots in Africa – Tanzania and Mozambique respectively.

Two controversial securocrats from the past are in line to be appointed as ambassadors to key African countries over the next few months. Billy Masetlha, who was fired as intelligence chief in 2006 by then-president Thabo Mbeki for spying on behalf of Jacob Zuma, is headed for Tanzania as high commissioner, sources say.

Former SANDF chief Siphiwe Nyanda, who was fired by then-president Zuma as communications minister in 2010, supposedly because he would not kowtow to the Guptas, has been nominated as South Africa’s new high commissioner to Mozambique.

The two are among a predominance of political appointees included in the latest batch of ambassadors who have been nominated for foreign postings. Career diplomats are dismayed that President Cyril Ramaphosa has again favoured such political figures over professional career diplomats in this new round of appointments.

Nyanda and Masetlha are both destined for sensitive and challenging posts. In Mozambique’s northernmost province, Cabo Delgado, an Islamist insurgency is rapidly getting out of control and South Africa has promised to provide help, if necessary, military support. This may be why a former soldier has been chosen for the Maputo post – although officials say former cabinet minister Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi was first choice for the job but she declined it. 

Meanwhile, Masetlha, who has been in the political wilderness for many years, will take up the Tanzania job at a time of political turmoil in that country as incumbent President John Magufuli increasingly clamps down on political and civil society opponents and critics. Magufuli faces stiff opposition from popular opposition leader Tundu Lissu and former foreign minister Bernard Membe in elections next month.

The diplomats in the Department of International Relations and Co-operation (Dirco)  in Pretoria, had expected that Ramaphosa would give professional diplomats much better chances for promotion than his predecessor did.

As president, Zuma was notorious for dumping fired cabinet ministers and senior officials in or pushing cronies into South Africa’s embassies around the world.

At one point his political appointees totalled more than 80% of all ambassadors – possibly a world record, some Dirco officials said.

Although things have improved a bit, the career diplomats were expecting more from Ramaphosa and his Minister of International Relations and Co-operation Naledi Pandor. But the latest round of 16 includes 10 political nominees, though not all have yet been cleared by their intended host governments. 

 “In the entire list, there’s like six diplomats. Very depressing,” said a senior diplomat in the department about the latest round of nominations.

With 10 political appointees and six career diplomats, that represents a ratio of about 62.5% of political appointees to professionals.

Career diplomats often complain that they painstakingly work their way up the ladder of promotion in the department, only to be pipped at the post by a deployee who Luthuli House needs to dispense its patronage to, or an inconvenient or a disgraced politician or senior official for whom the president has to find a plum job.   

Two of the current batch of political appointees are getting their third back-to-back foreign ambassadorial postings – another gripe by the professionals who say they invariably have to serve at least one term back in Pretoria between foreign postings. 

Former South African Minister of Trade and Industry, Mandisi Mpahlwa. (Photo: Sipho Maluka/RCP Media)

Mandisi Mpahlwa, who was trade and industry minister under former president Thabo Mbeki, is heading for Kigali as the new ambassador to Rwanda. He has just completed a tour as ambassador to Mozambique and before that, to Russia.

Vusi Mavimbela, who Zuma fired as his first director-general in the Presidency back in 2010 because he suspected Mavimbela was too close to his rival, Tokyo Sexwale, is also getting his third successive ambassadorship, to Brazil, after completing his current posting in Egypt. Before that, he was ambassador to Zimbabwe. 

Other political appointments are new, such as Independent Newspapers foreign editor Shannon Ebrahim, the wife of former deputy minister of international relations and co-operation Ebrahim Ebrahim, who is heading for Colombo, as South Africa’s next high commissioner to Sri Lanka, officials tell Daily Maverick.

Masetlha, who is currently on the ANC’s international relations and co-operation sub-committee, was fired by Mbeki as director-general of intelligence in 2006 for spying on one of Mbeki’s political lieutenants and alleged involvement in the fabrication of the e-mails that purported to implicate senior government and ANC officials in a plot to side-line and incriminate Zuma, whom Mbeki had just fired as deputy president. 

Nyanda is widely seen as one of the ministers and officials who paid the price by standing up to the state-capturing Gupta brothers. But he has not escaped controversy in his own right. Open Secrets and Shadow World Investigations reported in Daily Maverick in July this year, that while he was still head of the SANDF, Nyanda had received about R4.3-million in loans from a company called Ngwane Aerospace, which was owned by arms deal middleman Fana Hlongwane. At the time Hlongwane was being paid millions of rands by British arms producer BAE Systems to ensure that the SANDF bought more Gripen fighter jets and Hawk trainer jets.

Nyanda later repaid the loan from the money he earned at another Hlongwane company, Ngwane Defence Group, where he worked after retiring from the SANDF, the article said.  

Apart from Masetlha, another former intelligence official, Mzuvukile Maqetuka, once the director-general of the State Security Agency (SSA) and previously ambassador to Algeria, has been nominated as ambassador to Russia, officials say.

And they disclose that another political appointee, former ANC MP Mninwa Mahlangu, who was ambassador to the US until 2018, has been earmarked to become high commissioner in Kenya.

Unisa academic Iqbal Jhazbhay has been nominated as ambassador to Palestine. He was ambassador to Eritrea from 2012 to 2016. 

Former deputy minister of arts and culture Rejoice Mabudafhasi. (Photo: Flickr / GCIS)

Rejoice Mabudafhasi, former deputy minister of water and environmental affairs in May 2009, before that deputy minister of environmental affairs and tourism between 1999 and 2009, and a current member of the ANC’s national executive committee (NEC), has been nominated as ambassador to Poland.

Officials add that Western Cape Muslim cleric Sheik Qosiem Gabriels has been nominated as consul-general in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

According to officials, the six professional diplomats on the current list to take up new heads of mission posts are current deputy director-general Mxolisi Nkosi, who is destined for Geneva as ambassador to the UN; Mathu Nompozolo-Joyini, who is heading to New York to replace Jerry Matjila as ambassador to the UN; Ruby Marks, who is to become ambassador to Benin; Dave Malcomson, who will be the next high commissioner to Malaysia; Bongi Qwabe, who has been nominated as ambassador to Algeria; Tsengiwe Khumalo, who has been nominated as consul-general to Sao Paulo, Brazil. Ebrahim Edries is to become the de facto ambassador to Morocco (though he will officially be charge d’affairs/acting ambassador because South Africa does not officially appoint ambassadors to Morocco).

Most of these appointments have not been confirmed as the countries where they are headed have not formally given approval yet. This is mainly why Dirco referred Daily Maverick’s request for comment to the Presidency and the Presidency wouldn’t comment. 

The legacy of the ANC’s messy internal politics and rivalries which once embroiled the likes of Masetlha and Nyanda, also bedevilled some of the previous round of ambassadorial appointments. Officials told Daily Maverick that the appointments of former state security minister Siyabonga Cwele to China, of former tourism minister and former sports and recreation minister Tokozile Xasa to Brussels, and of former state security minister Dipuo Letsatsi-Duba to Turkey, had all been blocked for several months because intelligence officials had not given them security clearances. 

Now, the officials say, all three have received security clearances and should be en route to their postings soon. This, incidentally, would further add to the preponderance of political ambassadors being sent abroad. All three are serving members of the ANC’s NEC. 

A young Dirco diplomat said apart from this high number of political appointees, older career diplomats were also still being favoured in the latest round. “We need fresh blood. We can’t keep recycling these old people. Do you know how many young vibrant minds we have in the department who would do amazing as ambassadors if given the chance?

“We do need a mix … it just can’t be business as usual! Other countries are thinking about the future, already grooming young diplomats.”

Elizabeth Sidiropoulos, national director of the SA Institute of International Affairs, recalled that one point that had come out strongly from the review panel on foreign policy commissioned by Lindiwe Sisulu, the previous international relations and co-operation minister, was that there had been too many political appointments to ambassadorships made by the Zuma presidency. 

This had diminished the morale of the professional diplomatic corps. “We probably all agree that political appointments will happen, but these have to be judicious. This means the character, the integrity, of the individual, as well as the person’s competence and soft skills are important.” This was especially true for a small to medium-sized country such as South Africa, which relied heavily on its ability to exert influence or “soft power”.

She noted that three major posts, Beijing, Brussels and Washington DC, had been, or were being filled by political appointments (former deputy minister of international relations and co-operation and current member of the ANC’s NEC, Nomaindia Mfeketo, was posted to the US ambassadorship last year). These were among the most important ambassadorships for South Africa as these – with the UK – were the country’s biggest trade partners, Sidiropoulos said. 

“The EU is our biggest investor,” she said. Referring to Letsatsi-Duba’s appointment to Ankara, she said: “Turkey is increasingly a player in Africa not just economically but also in Africa’s conflicts (Libya is the most obvious at the moment). Critical priorities in all of these missions are: Trade and investment relations – the economy is paramount for us. 

“And can the ambassadors harness the relationship to advance our African agenda? A good solid understanding of those drivers would be important and how to realise them. We need ambassadors that are well versed in the dynamic international relations environment and the geopolitics at play. 

“The currents in Europe, the US and China are towards more populism and narrow nationalism. That will make it increasingly difficult for us to make our economic or political cases on different issues – from trade to investment, climate change and security,” Sidiropoulos said. 

“Our diplomats are at the forefront of creating bridges and they need to be able to recognise the trade-offs that are sometimes necessary. They are key to building goodwill at the highest political level for South Africa wherever they are posted.”

However, she noted that some political appointments had worked well in the past. But that required proper preparation. “It is essential that political appointees are briefed properly, use their career diplomat staff to good advantage (some tend to ignore them), but also need good content knowledge on the different issues that will come across their desks.” DM


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