Misery loves company, as the old saying goes. So however depressed the local weather, the stuttering economy or the winning loss of the Proteas exit makes you feel, spare a thought for Sir Kim Darroch.
He enjoys the dream diplomatic posting as British ambassador to the United States. But right now, despite residing in one of the finest residences in America – its Edwin Lutyens-conceived building boasts a great ballroom and Palladian frontage that is the envy of his peers – he must be the loneliest person on the planet.
In his unvarnished opinion, Britain’s emissary to its most significant international partner described the 45th president of the United States as “radiating insecurity”. In his undiplomatic view, he did not believe the Trump White House “is going to become substantially more normal; less dysfunctional; less unpredictable; less faction riven; less diplomatically clumsy and inept”.
He did not, however, discount the prospects of the same man winning a second term as president, using a rather dystopian science fiction trope from circa 1984: “Trump may emerge from the flames, battered but intact, like Schwarzenegger in the final scenes of The Terminator.”
Of course, Darroch’s anti-Trump jeremiad was intended for the eyes only of his mandarins in Britain’s foreign office (it would be interesting to read the cables penned from Pretoria about our own dystopian politics). But with deep malice, someone in that fine Edwardian building in Whitehall which houses the foreign office leaked the contents of this confidential cable to the Mail on Sunday, and thus to the entire world. The notoriously thin-skinned president offered in response: “The Ambassador has not served the UK well, I can tell you that. We are not big fans of that man.” Very unusually, Trump declined to say anything further on Darroch, although suggesting: “I can say things about him but I won’t bother.”
Later on Monday, Trump ramped up the pressure by announcing his administration will no longer deal with Darroch, rendering the ambassador in such a key post at such a vital time, more or less, useless.
On Monday the strong suggestion was that Darroch was leaked by disloyal colleagues since he is marked as a “Remainer” who does not want Britain to exit the European Union on any terms or without any deal, in fact, and so is a target for discrediting.
In my brief career as an ambassador to the even more dysfunctional South American administration headed then by Argentina’s Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, I used to send home weekly “cables” (in fact secure e-mails) reporting all manner of things on the country where I represented South Africa, from dire economic news, political gossip (well sourced) and all manner of matters which I thought were pertinent to the interests of South Africa.
I did this on the basis of one of the very few instructions I ever received in my exit interview with then foreign minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane. “I receive far too many reports, the contents of which I can view on CNN,” she informed our group of departing envoys. I took her instruction to heart, and took her to mean that any cables from our embassy should, where possible, contain insider information and a frank, sometimes brutal, assessment on the issue being reported from the country in question.
If not, why bother to post diplomats, at great expense, in the world? Happily none of my assessments were leaked. But my US counterpart at the time fell prey to Julian Assange’s Wikileaks hacks and so the very mental health of the president of Argentina and various acts of corruption were the subject of the US cables home. Naturally, the Kirchner-loathing press republished these in excruciating detail. Only a phone call followed by a personal visit from then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton settled this matter, and restored bilateral relations.
So, Sir Kim Darroch was doing his job professionally, and someone in his department, very unprofessionally and malignantly, was not.
I have no idea whether she has done anything to advance the interests of South Africa in Scandinavia. But since she has so little understanding of the diplomatic function, one must assume she has not.
But, unbelievably or perhaps assuming that her surname inoculates her from normal sanction and discipline, she has spewed forth hate-filled vitriol against her own countrymen and women. Undaunted by the mild wrist slap new Dirco Minister Naledi Pandor gave her, Mandela this week took to attacking in vicious, personal and ridiculous terms, veteran anti-apartheid journalist Max du Preez.
The sanction Mandela received is an extension of her term of office. Quite what either long-suffering Danes or hard-pressed South African taxpayers have done to deserve a continuation of the public biliousness from our lady in Copenhagen is not entirely clear.
However attacking whites and even the United States in public, as our president did last Friday, has become the new normal.
Ramaphosa’s attack on the US for alleged “jealousy” over China’s Huawei was out of time, self-harming and misdirected. Our president must have known at the time of his remarks that America had already reeled back the sanctions against the export of US technology to the besieged Chinese tech giant. He certainly knew that the issue was not just about US resentment but about credible fears on security embedded in Huawei phones.
Further, in his statement Ramaphosa reduced our role in international affairs to Beijing’s poodle. Because, for South Africa’s head of state to choose the week of massed protests against China in Hong Kong to hit out at America and remain silent on the further erosion of freedom in this Chinese zone confirms the lap dog image. By all means take a position, but do so on principle, even-handedly and factually. And – most important – align your helter-skelter shots to some overarching strategy.
Or maybe, as they say in South America, it’s just a case of magical thinking. Like an SA-style Silicon Valley, bullet trains and new cities to be built when we have to borrow money, from foreign bond holders, to pay R600bn each year to our civil servants. At any rate, we should be told.
Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications and is a senior adviser to K2 Intelligence of London.
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