The departure of Maite Nkoana-Mashabane from the Cabinet marks the end of a terribly retrogressive period in South African foreign policy.
It may be said, of course, that her departure from the Ministry of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) was the actual turning point – to be sure, things improved under the leadership of Minister Naledi Pandor, and since last year, of Zane Dangor as Director-General, both of whom are exceedingly knowledgeable and professional – but Nkoane-Mashabane was an important component of the wrecking ball that was Jacob Zuma.
Her spectre remained well beyond her tenure as political head of Dirco.
The fact that it has taken so long to finally remove Nkoana-Mashabane from the executive is a mystery and open to speculation.
Nonetheless, whereas her predecessor, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma was (and remains) dour, unimaginative, intellectually humourless, painfully morbid and miserable, reminiscent of Chekhov’s most depressing characters and society, Nkoane-Mashabane was simply out of her depth.
She walked around apparently oblivious to how she got to the top of the post she was sat upon (not to be confused with the pillars of saints and ascetics of Ancient Greece), and imagined that Zuma would always be there to protect her.
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She was eventually let down gradually, demoted, where she disappeared like a copper penny between the couch cushions in the Ministry of Rural Development and Land Reform (2018 to 2019), and then of Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities in May 2019.
In the two later positions, it is almost impossible to find anything significant, progressive and durable that Nkoana-Mashabane achieved. Her tenure as minister at Dirco was marked by the slide in South Africa’s moral authority in world affairs.
The highest point of South Africa’s standing in the world was, arguably, membership of the G20. It is possible to force membership of BRICS as a sign of South Africa’s “arrival” and strengthening of power and influence, but that grouping is better as a topic for discussion than it is for significant, progressive and durable change towards the Global South making the transition from rule-takers to rule-makers in the global political economy.
We should not be Panglossian about global power and influence, though. The G7/8, especially the Atlantic Community, remain in full control of and influence over world affairs, notwithstanding, for now, the rise of India and China.
There was no discernible policy initiative that could be considered as significant, progressive and durable during the decade or so when Nkoana-Mashabane held the traditionally third-most important post in the Cabinet – after the Presidency and Ministry of Finance.
Her tenure fits perfectly into what has been described as the “lost decade” – and she has, by and large, escaped scrutiny. Foreign policy was made in spite of her and, for what it’s worth, it was “all over the place”, as The Economist explained in March 2011.
Within Dirco she was a disaster, “a train crash in slow-motion”, as a respected and seasoned diplomat termed it. Nkoana-Mashabane squandered the human, intellectual and symbolic capital when she decided on and presided over political appointments, overlooking career diplomats and highly competent bureaucrats.
It is therefore refreshing that Dangor was appointed as DG as opposed to the political appointment of Jerry Matjila, who would be implicated in “possible fraud, corruption and gross negligence” on the back of half-a-billion rand of irregular expenditure in the African Renaissance Fund.
An “ANC veteran”, Matjila was “redeployed” and would go on to represent South Africa at the United Nations Office in Geneva, again with scant consideration for professionals, bureaucrats and diplomats with extended epistemic capacity.
The untouchables in an age of impunity
It is well worth reminding ourselves of Nkoana-Mashabane’s greatest hits.
With membership of the G20 as the highlight of South African foreign policy decisions – membership of regional and continental organisations and the UN system was always going to happen – the most memorable items of Nkoana-Mashabane’s tenure were embarrassing encounters abroad.
She was very much among the Zuma appointees; those who were once untouchable and who thrived during South Africa’s “age of impunity”.
This impunity and a veritable arrogance were reflected in her irascible response to a bog-standard security procedure in Norway in 2011 at the end of a state visit. Nkoane-Mashabane refused to have her handbag put through a scanner, which caused her to miss a flight from Norway to Bulgaria, after which a private charter executive jet was hired to transport her at a cost of R235,343.
This “frivolity” was in character, considering – as Patrick Bond wrote – that Nkoana-Mashabane “ignored applications for the Dalai Lama’s visa… [that year], so he could attend last month’s celebration of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s 80th birthday… Accusing Nkoana-Mashabane of being ‘very economical with the truth’, Tutu announced: ‘Our government is worse than the apartheid government, because at least you were expecting it from the apartheid government. Hey Mr Zuma, you and your government don’t represent me. You represent your own interests’.”
It is trite to repeat, but foreign relations rests heavily on diplomacy, protocol, decency and, well, decorum. Whether or not we like the idea, the basic requirement is to be diplomatic and, well, polite. As minister of foreign affairs, you represent the people of your country, and it’s probably best to not be an embarrassment.
None of this was apparent in much of Nkoana-Mashabane’s engagement abroad. Her very presence in Washington, accompanied by a retinue on an S&T-funded shopping spree, was deeply embarrassing.
“Nobody could look her in the face. It was so cringeworthy,” a senior executive of the International Monetary Fund told me.
Al Jazeera debacle
The cynosure of her lack of decorum, and the almost complete impunity with which she bestrode Dirco, was probably the interview she had with Al Jazeera in 2016.
Wrote one commentator, not unfairly, “Under the glare of an international spotlight, there is nowhere to hide. In South Africa politicians are used to treating the media with disdain; arriving late, evading questions, controlling the floor with rants…
“And so naturally Nkoana-Mashabane thought she would simply do the same on Al Jazeera. The frightening part of it was her disdain for the interviewer, Jane Dutton, as well as her complete detachment from reality. Her responses were peppered with self-referential non-sequiturs and an insistence on referring to herself as ‘Maite’.
“When asked about what young people thought of the ANC, she started a discussion about her own children and grandchildren. The interview ended in a defence of Zuma. It was the face the Zuma administration placed before the world… To call the interview a disgrace and an utter embarrassment would be an understatement. Nkoana-Mashabane was so incoherent and unintelligent in the responses that the Twittersphere was rightly asking whether she was actually sober.” (See, also, here and here).
Over most of her tenure as foreign minister, Nkoana-Mashabane seemed untouched by the world around her. She showed little interest, none of any significance, in the world of the 2010s.
Chekhov would not have objected to my borrowing from his work; Nkoana-Mashabane seemed for the most part in a state of half-consciousness “knowing neither grief nor joy” and in a constant state of hypnosis over the position she held, and weighed down massively by anxieties, persecuted by her shortcomings and “struggling with nature”.
Pity the nation which looks to Nkoana-Mashabane as a symbol of “excellence”, one that places her beyond scrutiny or critical evaluation. South Africa is better off without Nkoana-Mashabane and, it should be said, without Matjila. DM