One of Queen Elizabeth II’s favourite aphorisms was, apparently, “I have to be seen to be believed”.
Yesterday, after the pomp, circumstances and flummery of her state funeral at Westminster, and later, her final committal at Windsor, her grandson Prince William, the Prince of Wales, tweeted “5.1 billon people watched the queen’s funeral, 63% of the world’s population.”
In her death, as in her long, minutely observed and dutiful life, the queen proved the power of her presence, even in her absence, and our fascination with her embodiment of thousands of years of royal ritual, history and arcana.
In March 1995, during her address to the South African parliament after an absence of 48 years since her last visit here, the normally restless chamber was spellbound. From closet royalists to hard-bitten revolutionaries, MPs were captivated not by her entirely forgettable remarks, but by her quite unforgettable presence.
At a reception for the queen and Duke of Edinburgh Prince Philip, an ANC cabinet minister’s wife, noting her sensible but hardly fashionable blue outfit, said to me: “She reminds me of my aunt from Port Elizabeth, dressed by John Orr’s”. However, shaking hands and conversing with royalty proved a point of unity for parliamentarians of every hue and ideology. Thus, the enduring power and mystique of the crown, even in a country where its effects, whether on Republican Afrikaners or anti-colonial Africans, were historically a matter of deep division.
Of course, 1995, at the height of Nelson Mandela’s presidency and the year of the Rainbow Nation winning the Rugby World Cup, looks, from the current vantage point of the age of darkness into which we have plunged courtesy of stage 6 blackouts, as a time of light and hope, and endless optimism.
On Friday, headlining our steep fall in the attention and affection of the world some 27 years after the country was sprinkled with a bit of queenly magic dust, President Cyril Ramaphosa arrived in Washington DC for a “working visit” with US president Joe Biden.
The two most influential newspapers of record in the US, which also embody, respectively, progressive and conservative opinion, are the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. A third, the Financial Times, though more difficult to ideologically pigeonhole, has global reach and sits on the desk of every investor and most political influencers.
These newspapers and forums are the telling ones, often too long overlooked by our sometimes deeply parochial commentator class.
Thus, when I searched all three on Saturday for insight into the first bilateral meeting in Washington between the two presidents, I was surprised to read not a single word about this encounter, nor even the briefest reference to its occurrence. Back in the day, the mere arrival of an ambulance outside Mandela’s presidential office at Tuynhuys could generate global headlines.
It would sadly appear — by contrast to the late queen and the late Mandela — CR is neither seen nor, after a cascade of promises to fix load-shedding, believed.
I sent out a semi-serious Tweet after my vain search for some international interest in the Biden-Ramaphosa powwow.
I noted: “It’s quite striking how major US publications … this morning have zero coverage of @CyrilRamaphosa meeting with @JoeBiden.” Then asked why: “Eclipsed by other events? A sign of our global slippage? Lack of newsworthiness.”
Of the many retweets and answers, the most liked was “all of the above”.
However, there were three specific responses, two of which travelled to the same point and a third which added a note of mystery.
Veteran Washington-based journalist Simon Barber, who for many years published a notable column in Business Day here and who previously had a close working relationship with the SA Embassy in DC, offered an insightful, if depressing, reply.
“To get into the papers [here] you have to make news. There is nothing intrinsically interesting to a US audience about a Biden-CR meeting. This is not a reflection on either guy. Their public statements were less than startling and they didn’t take questions.”
(Since the last time Ramaphosa featured in the New York Times it was in relation to the Pahla Pahla scandal and his previous appearance in the Financial Times referenced the blackouts, this might have been wiser than it appeared.)
Barber then noted: “Had CR come out and condemned Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and called on the Russians to leave the nuclear reactor (instead of abstaining on the IAEA resolution), it would have been front page.”
Of course, it was on the eve of Ramaphosa’s visit that SA again disgraced itself at the UN in respect of Ukraine and completely undermined its alleged commitment to promoting dialogue to end the war with Russia. When the votes were cast in the UN to allow the besieged president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, to address the General Assembly this week from a virtual platform, SA abstained. Even Russia’s hitherto ally India voted affirmatively, with 100 other countries.
Barber described our embassy in Washington DC as “invisible”. “I see no one countering the narrative that SA is a nice place for a holiday, but otherwise a sinkhole of corruption that can’t keep the lights on.”
On a similar theme on Ramaphosa’s media invisibility on the world stage, the Financial Times’ Johannesburg bureau chief Joseph Cotterill suggested on Twitter: “It’s not a lack of interest, it is a lack of access. I’m sure the NYT and WSJ would be interested (like the FT is!) in SA’s views on COP27 (such as the $8.5bn deal), Russia sanctions, and much more. But generally we find a closed door.”
In fact, the door is probably slammed shut by Ramaphosa’s media minders because of our general incoherence on international crises and the president’s continuing failure to execute his long list of reformist promises. Back at the beginning of his presidency, when Ramaphosa did garner international interest and sought the attention of media houses which matter in the world, he offered many hostages to fortune.
One which has not aged well was his interview with the Wall Street Journal in September 2018 during UN General Assembly week. He said: “We were too slow with some reforms, but now the reforms are coming fast and furious.”
The absence of any basic reforms actually implemented since has meant Ramaphosa not only avoids the Journal these days, but was forced to absent himself from the UN this week, four years later, due to the electricity crisis which he has conspicuously failed to resolve or mitigate.
More mysteriously on the response to the absence of Ramaphosa from the world media cycle after his meeting with Biden was the comment of veteran broadcaster Redi Tlhabi. She responded to my Twitter enquiry with this thought: “Meeting highly strategic for RSA (for reasons I cannot get into). But US doesn’t need the same from us … ”
However, she did suggest, as subsequent reports confirm, that Ramaphosa was keen to head off an aid cut-off (possibly affecting Agoa) which could be implemented against us if the Malign Russian Activities in Africa Act, which passed overwhelmingly in the House of Representatives (419-9), is enacted by the US Senate and then assented to by the president.
Curious, if this was a feature on Ramaphosa’s agenda, why he didn’t engage in intense bilateral meetings with key US senators. Instead, he contented himself with congenial get-togethers with like-minded members of Congress’ black caucus and “anti-apartheid veterans”. “Voting for a better yesterday” appears be Ramaphosa’s appeal locally and internationally. But it won’t move the dial one millimetre in influencing congressional outcomes.
As for our “invisible” embassy in Washington DC, which should be front and centre of projecting the case SA wants to present in the power capital of the western world?
Its website, if you can glorify the hodgepodge of random notices scattered on its home page, are anachronistic and amateurish, a depressing reminder of unprofessionalism, incompetence and inattentiveness.
It is still advertising the funeral service of Archbishop Desmond Tutu (January), Mandela Day (August) and Covid-19 advisories (even though the US president, no less, declared the plague at an end). Of Ramaphosa’s visit last week, its agenda and outcomes, and even some friendly pics? Zero.
SA’s top diplomat in the US, who presides over this invisible embassy might be a familiar figure to Capetonians at least, even if she is utterly unknown to her country and city of posting in Washington DC. Nomaindiya Mfeketo, who served as mayor of Cape Town from 2002 to 2006.
On the minus side, she purged the city of 96 senior and competent officials, mired her office in multiple scandals ranging from nepotistic appointments to land deals which went to favoured comrades at below market prices and shrouded her doings in a swathe of secrecy. Her finest moment in office was the appointment of a close associate, “Blackman” Ngoro (now deceased), as her “media adviser”. He advised the majority electorate that “coloureds are beggars, homeless and drunk on cheap wine. Coloureds have not yet realised that the time to be cheerleaders for the white race is long past and gone”.
On the plus side, Mfeketo’s road to ruin for the city was averted in 2006 when voters avoided the fate of Durban today (untreated sewage, destroyed infrastructure, corrupt public servants and so on) becoming the future for Cape Town then by throwing her out. The election of Helen Zille as mayor in 2006 reversed the rot and destruction of the Mfeketo years. And her regime and the reminders from those saw the ANC reduced in the city to a rump minority, obtaining just 18.46% of the votes in 2019.
But being a “comrade” and the magic of “deployment” meant that far from falling on her sword in disgrace, Mfeketo “fell upward” — her reward for her impressive attempt to run the Mother City into the ground and insult most of its voters were ample. She went on to serve in various senior posts in parliament and became a national minister, duly appointed by Ramaphosa in 2018, before he decided that with her impressive track record and at the age of 70 she should head one of the most important SA embassies in the world.
Still, in all the gloom and darkness, the “zero coverage” of Ramaphosa’s Biden meeting might be cheap at the price compared with the ruination of an entire city.
Tony Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications. @TonyLeonSA