Imagine you addressed a conference on SA’s economic prospects, and you omitted to mention the catastrophic daily electricity blackouts darkening the country and imperilling business and investment. Or, as a conveyancing attorney, you forgot to state the price of the property sale you were briefed to execute.
In the first case you’d never be invited back, and in the second you’d be charged with professional malpractice.
Fortunately for Naledi Pandor, the minister of international relations and co-operation, there is no prospect of the UN General Assembly rescinding her invitation to address next year’s talkfest in New York. Or of her being charged with professional dereliction of duty based on her remarks on Wednesday at this annual gathering.
Pandor’s speech to the General Assembly — she stood in for President Cyril Ramaphosa, who hurried home to “resolve”’ the Eskom crisis some seven years after first promising to fix it — was striking not for what she did say, but for what she did not.
The quote “in the future, everyone will be world famous for 15 minutes” certainly doesn’t apply to Pandor’s oration, in which she set out to explain SA’s position in a world riven by conflict.
About the greatest crisis engulfing the world right now — Ukraine — she was entirely silent. She makes Thabo Mbeki’s infamous “quiet diplomacy” on Zimbabwe seem positively voluble by comparison. Like an ageing rock star who hasn’t produced a new record for decades, Pandor gave a warmed-up mishmash of the greatest hits of yesteryear.
Zimbabwe indeed got a mention, but only in the context of chastising the EU and US for their “unilateral and coercive measures” against our democracy-hugging neighbour.
There was also her obligatory shout-out against the embargo on Cuba; naturally Israel got a scold for practising “apartheid” and for its “destructive actions” in the occupied territories.
Even the quest for “self-determination” in the obscure Western Sahara was deemed worthy of a ministerial nod before the world gathering. As for the right to self-determination for Ukrainians? Nada from Pandor.
Just how important the Ukraine war is right now can be referenced in myriad ways. The more engaged and serious players in world diplomacy made it front and centre of their UN addresses.
The most destructive land war in 70 years in Europe, being fought right now, could trigger a nuclear conflict, as Russian President Vladimir Putin warned this very week.
Then there are the fuel, food and energy crises, not to mention the safe-haven surge in the dollar.
Each one of these knock-ons affects the very people and regions on whose behalf Pandor supposedly speaks.
Her clichéd pontifications on “global solidarity”, “peace and stability”, “a better world” and “a polarised world” are the sort of tribute that vice pays to virtue, since she did not dare to utter the name of the vandal who is now violating the very foundations of the UN Charter in Ukraine and elsewhere.
But like Harry Potter’s Lord Voldemort, Pandor cannot allow the words “Russia” or “Putin” to cross her lips despite her professed support for a “rules-based international system predicated on international law and strict adherence to the provisions of the UN Charter”.
Her sonorous declamations predictably aroused no interest or attention even at home, much less in the wider world.
But there was an unintentional moment of high comedy when Pandor said, with an entirely straight face (and I watched the video feed to save readers the effort): “South Africa continues to believe that conflict resolution must not come through fuelling conflicts, but through investing in efforts aimed at political dialogue.”
Pandor does not share the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s view of the General Assembly as “the theatre of the absurd”; she takes it seriously and believes the world body is the leading forum for multilateralism.
Yet just days before her speech and her call for conflict resolution through dialogue, the South African delegation effectively tried to deny the General Assembly platform to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky.
On September 16, the UN was called to vote on a seemingly routine request for Zelensky to address the assembly via video link; understandably, given the war raging in his country.
The resolution, which was overwhelmingly approved with more than 100 votes in favour, noted “concern” that sovereign nation leaders could not participate in person “for reasons beyond their control owing to foreign invasion, aggression, military hostilities” and so on.
Perhaps Pretoria was offended by the resolution calling out the basic facts of Russia’s actions, never mind the more obvious issue that Zelensky has a country to defend and can’t jet off to New York to deliver a speech.
In the event, SA abstained from voting. If a majority had done so, the voice of the victim of one of the most egregious assaults on the principles of the UN Charter would have been stilled.
Fortunately, only 18 other UN members abstained alongside SA, slightly better than the nine who voted against. Zelensky’s UN speech won him more than 15 minutes of global fame.
Pandor’s disappeared into oblivion. Her words completely undercut by hypocrisy, inaction and abstention.
Tony Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications. @TonyLeonSA