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A tribute to Ambassador Lindiwe Mabuza

South Africa


A tribute to my ‘mother’, Ambassador Lindiwe Mabuza

Former diplomat, freedom fighter and poet Lindiwe Mabuza. (Photo: Flickr / photographer695)

This is how I came to call Ambassador Lindiwe Mabuza my mother. And how, until her last days, she was committed to the improvement of the African people.

The name “mother” is jealously guarded in western societies. It only refers to one who has birthed you — everyone else takes a prefix. Stepmother, godmother, foster mother. Never mother. Even though Lindiwe Mabuza spent so much of her life in these societies, her sense of the African way of life never left her. This is how I came to call her my mother. And how, until her last days, she was committed to the improvement of the African people. 

I was always in awe of her humble, although never modest, appeal. So, ubu Ambador bakuthole endleleni, I once quipped as she was telling me of her story as a representative of South Africa. And perhaps that is why she was not overtaken by being “her excellency” because she had played the role of representing the best aspirations and interests of the South African people without the title of “Your Excellency”, but as teacher.

She understood diplomacy in its most basic sense — as a bread-and-butter issue. As a representation of the values and pulse of a people. Two stories are important to share in this regard. 

First, she insisted that ubuntu did not belong to Africans. It was a universal value system that we could use to relate to others. This she demonstrated with a story that is relevant today as we deal with the human crisis that is Covid-19. The story of her time in Nordic countries is well told. One story stands out in which a young school pupil, having heard the story of apartheid and the plight of the black people of South Africa, decided to sacrifice his small savings to the cause against apartheid.

That white child, separated not only by the distance between the black people of South Africa, but by our notions of race, could visualise and place himself in the shoes of these oppressed people, and act in solidarity with us. As author JK Rowling has observed, “unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s places.”

In this sense, this young pupil had felt and displayed ubuntu. Thus, Ambassador Mabuza’s work was an effort to make sure that other people in the world could learn and understand the wrongs of apartheid so that they could think themselves into our place. In that way, they could extend ubuntu to us. And they did, as this boy did.

She also understood that teaching wasn’t enough. We had to share with others who we are. And the best way to show people who you are is to share your culture with them. Thus, cultural diplomacy was a critical tool in her formulation.

During the time we worked together as the Review Panel on Foreign Policy, appointed by then foreign minister, Lindiwe Sisulu, she co-opted me to work with her in entrenching cultural diplomacy into South Africa’s foreign policy and relations. Across the world, works of culture are displayed and traded, as the best representation of the South African people. This is in no small part because of the work of Ambassador Mabuza. 

She always insisted that “there are no former ambassadors” and she lived up to that. 

But in a time of “former freedom fighters”, it is comforting to know that if she should find herself at the gates of heaven, with Saint Peter tired of turning back freedom fighters who had since turned on the cause, she will have her friend “OR” to whom she was so grateful for having trusted her with the work she was able to do, and the late prime minister of Sweden, Olof Palme, her friend and comrade who supported her work as a freedom fighter. 

Ambassador Mabuza’s life’s work and values, including principled leadership, diplomacy and ubuntu could truly serve us well in these difficult times.

Lala ngoxolo qhawekazi. Ugqatso ulufezile. DM


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