Mission unaccomplished: We have an embassy problem

Mission unaccomplished: We have an embassy problem

The fallout from Trump’s Twitter land bomb suggests something seriously amiss at our Washington outpost.

There was the predictable part of International Relations Minister Lindiwe Sisulu’s reaction to the Twitterstorm that US President Donald Trump unleashed last week on the vexed debate about expropriation without compensation.

At her monthly media briefing on Monday, Sisulu said SA lobby groups opposed to land reform should stop spreading blatant lies on the issue overseas – and implied that such strong-arm tactics undermined “domestic stability”.

Well, of course, that is what you would expect her to say.

But this boilerplate denunciation of the “usual suspects” was, according to a News24 report, followed by an admission by the minister: “Sisulu admitted to being ‘taken aback’ by a tweet by US President Donald Trump last week in which he said he had asked his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, to ‘closely study the South African land and farm seizures and expropriations and large scale farm killings’.”

At one level, Sisulu is in good company. Even members of the president’s inner circle are often flummoxed by his late-night musings and inflammations of the Twittersphere. Further, Trump adversaries such as the Washington Post have chronicled more than 3,000 untruths the 45th US president has articulated in public. Even his most ardent defender and now personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, offered the extraordinary view recently on his client’s travails: “Truth isn’t truth.”

At another level, though, Sisulu’s wonderment on Trump’s 10-second damnation of SA, the first-ever statement he has offered on Twitter on our continent, incidentally, suggests something seriously amiss at the SA embassy in Washington.

When I set off, now nine years ago, as ambassador to Argentina, I received very few direct instructions on how to do the job of selling SA in South America and reporting back – with pre-emptive accuracy – on matters of direct interest from there to Pretoria.

However, a warning offered to me by Sisulu’s predecessor, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, was this: “I receive too many reports, the content of which I can view on CNN.”

I interpreted this to mean that any cables from our embassy, should, where possible, contain insider information and a frank, even brutal, assessment of the issue being reported on from the country in question. This meant our very small, relative to the size of the SA Embassy in Washington (SA’s largest), outfit established a network of contacts, held meetings with our country’s friends and foes (very few in Argentina), and reported home with speed and accuracy.

The bilateral trade and importance of Argentina to SA by comparison with the importance of the US in our country’s fortunes is slight.

The seismic consequences of the single Trump tweet to assess the importance and the damage that inattentiveness to the governing imperatives and impulses in Washington DC have for our domestic polity and economy, is inarguable.

Indeed, Sisulu herself at the same briefing stated: “South Africa is concerned about the trade relations with the US and did not want to have adverse relations with any country.”

Under the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) this country enjoys R112bn in goods and service exports under hugely preferential rates. It is the linchpin of our entire automotive industry and it is conditional: one of the key conditions for its continuance is the protection of property rights. Sisulu’s concern is more than justified.

But instead of seeking scapegoats for Trump’s eruption … Sisulu should start with some departmental introspection.
On Monday, the day of her media briefing, I received an e-mail from a Washington fixture who for decades now has promoted US trade and interests in SA and the wider continent. He is savvy and intensely well connected.

In answer to the performance of our embassy on the frontline of the unfolding events in the US-SA relationship, he provided a dispiriting, and I fear accurate, summation of matters.

“South Africa has had mixed effectiveness in its diplomatic presence in Washington since 1994. Franklin Sonn, Welile Nhlapo and Ebrahim Rasool (previous ambassadors) were exceptions. The embassy staff is dispirited and riven with internal divisions … it lacks presence at key think tank events and rarely uses these institutions to propel its messages. The embassy does little pre-emptive diplomacy and often lets events reach critical stage before responding. The failure to get ahead of the land issue is a good example.”

Now to be perfectly fair, properly explaining with detailed precision the government’s stance on expropriation is like wrestling with an eel: it moves all over the place and is now subject to as many caveats and contradictions as the old NP regime’s sports policy. On that sad matter, one Nationalist cabinet minister was asked about the latest iteration of the policy and he quipped: “I don’t know since I haven’t spoken to Piet Koornhof today (then minister of sport).”

As Carol Paton wrote in a brilliant and deeply depressing opinion article in Business Day on Tuesday: “It was Ramaphosa himself who made the argument for constitutional change (at the party conference recently) … the decision was an alarming sign that he is making it up as he goes along.”

Indeed, his row-back on the issue in a recent opinion piece in the Financial Times underlines Paton’s assertion.

However, contradictions and incoherence in government policy do not inoculate foreign missions from doing their best to sell it or at least pre-emptively advising the mandarins in Pretoria of the likelihood of a push-back from Washington.

I recently enquired of a senior official at a key think tank in Washington, who writes authoritatively and sometimes critically about aspects of SA policy, whether he had ever had any interactions with our embassy. “Not once,” he tartly responded.

You could join the dots, even from this distance, between the visits of AfriForum to Washington, their engagements with Fox TV news and with key legislative aides, and the well-known proclivity of Trump to glean his news (and policy) from the same TV channel. So a key question to ask, for example, is: how intensely has our embassy (probably the most expensive mission we maintain) reached out to the channels and think tanks that matter in the current politics of the US?

The answer is likely not reassuring. Certainly, a glance at the embassy website suggests a group of people asleep at the switch. Under “public diplomacy” there is, perhaps symbolically, literally a blank page. There are indeed statements on land reform but they all emanate from Pretoria.

If, instead of public engagement, the embassy practises stealth diplomacy, the results to date are nugatory. Time, then, for Minister Sisulu to demand that her cost centres become profit centres.

Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications and is a senior adviser to K2 Intelligence of London. @TonyLeonSA.

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