Remarks this week by international relations minister Naledi Pandor represent a rhetorical Venn diagram between her intelligence and experience on the one hand, and her obligation to parrot the party line, encased by impractical commitments and ideological rigidities on the other.
This awkward intersection was on full display during the visit to Pretoria on Monday by US secretary of state Anthony Blinken, the highest-ranking official of the Biden administration to visit SA since the US president’s inauguration in 2021.
Pandor’s public diplomacy was sadly stale, predictable and laced with contradictions.
In her opening remarks ahead of the bilateral talks, Pandor berated Blinken for the steel and aluminium tariffs imposed on SA imports to America. Fair enough, since the US market accounts for about 17% of SA’s exports and outputs in these products.
Perhaps Pandor is not in touch with her ministerial colleague, Ebrahim Patel. For on the very same day as Pandor was criticising the issue of market access for SA exports abroad, Patel moved in the opposite direction. His International Trade Administration (ITAC) division announced higher duties and tariffs on imported frozen potatoes, ranging between 23% and 181%, depending on the country. So very expensive chips going forward here, but the same protectionist logic as the US applies to SA steel and aluminium imports.
Back in the old apartheid days, a colleague of sports minister Piet Koornhof joked that he didn’t know the current iteration of the bewildering and often contradictory changes to apartheid sports policy since “I haven’t spoken to Piet today”.
Same sort of thing with the hapless Patel. This week a surcharge on frozen potato imports from three countries, last week a stunning reversal on punitive measures against five countries found to have been dumping bone-in-chicken imports here. In both cases, dumping was the alleged offence and protecting high-priced, sickly local industry behind a wall of tariffs, the cure. Except when, as in the case of chicken, the remedy is suddenly removed.
Just 10 weeks ago, on May 22, Patel shot down calls by DA MP Dean Macpherson for the removal of tariffs on chicken imports, saying “such an extreme measure would destroy local jobs”. Yet here we are, and Patel, to meet the demands of rising discontent over inflated chicken prices, last week took the Macpherson-suggested “extreme step”.
Perhaps Pandor did not read another draft policy directive from Patel which seeks to ban for six months all scrap metal exports from SA. This of course has nothing to do with trade policy but simply reflects the unwillingness and incapacity of Patel and Pandor’s other colleague, the black-hatted police minister Beke Cele, to interdict the rampant criminality which has crippled local infrastructure with the pillaging of railway lines, electricity pylons and road barriers, all illegally stripped to meet huge world demand. Using the blunt force of export bans to compensate for lack of effective policing carries its own costs, in terms of the balance of trade and export earnings. And doubtless the theft will continue anyway.
Pandor, in her remarks, also made the highly contestable claim that her government “has been hard at work to make it easier for foreign investors to invest in our country”. The violent xenophobia gripping this country right now and the lack of reliable electricity aside, to mention two headline depressing events likely to deter even the hardiest foreign investor, other blunt instruments in the government toolbox are simply off limits for a reset any time soon.
Property rights remain under assault, bilateral investment treaties have been binned and then there is the issue of BEE, a holy grail for Pandor and her colleagues, despite the concerns raised by the very foreign investors, Pandor states it is her government’s intention to ease the burdens of doing business here.
Thus, for example, the American Chamber of Commerce in SA (AMCHAM) in its 2021 business barometer notes on the one hand there are an impressive 662 US companies operating in SA employing over 220,000 people. In citing the “uncertain outlook” for many of these companies going forward, it notes BEE was one of the most “challenging” barriers here for more than half the companies it surveyed.
This “challenge” rose even higher on the list of negatives for smaller US companies based here. It was their second biggest challenge, just pipped at the post behind “energy supply reliability”. Precisely why being obliged to hand over a percentage of a company’s equity to racially coded local beneficiaries, is such a challenge for smaller companies and not big multinationals, was made explicit in the otherwise diplomatically worded report. It states: “International multinational companies are allowed to make ‘equity offset arrangements’ (for example options, futures, and other exotic market instruments), rather than diluting equity … smaller companies have no such option.”
The wellspring of small business — either local or foreign — as the jobs generator for a crippled economy, is of course one of the prime casualties of the fixed, inflexible and illogical practices of government.
Pandor, of course bears, no prime responsibility for any of these economic negatives, U-turns and contradictions, though she faithfully reads from the party hymn sheet in her public utterances and is collectively bound to them in practice.
It is in her domain of foreign policy that her appearance with Blinken this week moves from collective responsibility to individual accountability.
Thus, speaking Monday on the Ukraine war, she repeated the absurdist government line that “the West” is “sometimes taking a bullying and patronising line” against SA to “align its policy on Ukraine”.
It is Pandor herself who got her lines crossed, or has no ethical bottom line.
The pesky record book shows that just after Russia’s flagrant and illegal invasion of Ukraine in late February, Pandor’s line was exemplary and clear. She initially and unequivocally called for “Russia to immediately withdraw from Ukraine in line with the UN Charter”.
Days later she rowed back after being scolded by Ramaphosa and his advisers “after the Russians were up in arms over the matter”, according to credible news reports.
Parking her conscience in the basement, Pandor retracted and publicly went on to repeat (as she did on Monday) that there should be dialogue and diplomacy to resolve the crisis. No matter that the invading country, to which SA implicitly aligns itself, grinds on a war of destruction against a sovereign state and its citizens and the last interest it has, is in a diplomatic settlement. Pandor is intelligent enough to know this, yet she repeats the canard anyway.
Doubtless because he is a 99-year-old white man, Pandor would have little regard for the words of Henry Kissinger, one of the master diplomatic practitioners of the 20th century.
In his new book Leadership he writes of retrogressive societies and countries which lose their “psychological and political resilience and are assailed by premonitions of impotence”. This week’s performance in Pretoria suggests we have entered this sad domain.
Tony Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications. @TonyLeonSA