Ambassador Mandela's chauvinism makes South Africa look tacky - News24

19 June 2019 - It denotes a country racked by its own small-minded parochialism, increasingly no longer a "serious" country.

Terence Corrigan

A series of racially charged tweets once again has South Africa's Twittersphere in an uproar. It's another familiarly ugly round of confrontation carried out from behind digital handles. But this case is something peculiar, since the comments emanated – by all current evidence – from a senior diplomat currently representing South Africa abroad.

Zindzi Mandela is South Africa's ambassador to Denmark. While this particular posting may not be the most critical in the country's diplomatic universe, it is not an altogether unimportant one.

The ambassador occupies no trivial office.

The outrage (and gleeful support) she received was in reference to her apparent views, rather crudely expressed, on race and land politics. Said one tweet: "Will be back for the Msunery here #OnMyTsnCs. Miss all these trembling white cowards, shem. Botha, Potgieter, Thieving Rapist descendants of Van Riebeck, etc: how are you my babies? We shall gesels more Mr Skont and Ms Unus #OurLand."

Said another: "Whilst I wine and dine here ..wondering how the world of shivering land thieves is doing #OurLand."

It is not unreasonable to term this – as Freedom Front Plus leader Pieter Groenewald did – "racist and divisive". It is, however, unlikely that this will prove career limiting, unless Denmark chooses to make an issue of it, which it probably won't. After all, she was merely expressing sentiments that have become common cause among many in the ruling party. The ambassador's tweets match much of the "land reform" rhetoric, pretty much word for word. "Land thieves", for example. And the assumptions behind it line up very well with President Ramaphosa's invocation of "our people" – the difference is in eloquence and tone, not meaning.

Moreover, the ambassador can lay some claim to that great South African escape hatch – the "personal capacity" defence. As she tweeted: "I am not accountable to any white man or woman for my personal views. No missus or baas here. Get over yourselves #OurLand."

What was on display here was, in effect, quite familiar to South Africa: the politicised civil servant.

And that is precisely the problem. Spilling gaudy invective on public platforms is a feature of the country's politics. Abuse and outright threats are common. And since the civil service has been consciously politicised, it raises no eyebrows when this is done by someone meant to undertake his or her duties "impartially, fairly, equitably and without bias".

Counterproductive though this is, it is not an unusual brand of politics for societies under stress. And it is perhaps misplaced to condemn raising particular issues as "divisive" if indeed this is their inherent nature.

But an ambassador is a grossly inappropriate person to do so. There is probably no office in the entire state system which requires its incumbents to comport themselves with decorum, dignity and impartiality as that of an ambassadorship. For this is someone who carries ultimate responsibility for representing South Africa to the outside world: the country as a whole and the values it embodies.

It is difficult to square Ambassador Mandela's conduct with this. She departed from representing the country, its people and its interests to venting chauvinistic invective against part of the society she was constitutionally obliged to represent. Within the depressing confines of South African politics, this is unremarkable; to a foreign audience, to which South Africa seeks to market and promote itself, it is damaging. More than exposing the dark underside of our politics, it makes South Africa seem, well, tacky. It's a head-shaking moment.

Poor or reckless behaviour by an ambassador reflects not only on his or her own country, but on the relationship with the host. It says something (and nothing positive) about the esteem in which it holds its host country when it tolerates anything less than the best from its diplomats. To do otherwise is profoundly "undiplomatic".

And it's no good to suggest that these are merely her private thoughts. As the personification of South Africa in Denmark, this is not a viable distinction. To say that she is personally at variance with a large part of her core mandate, that she is "representing" something which she personally rejects would be bad enough, conjuring up odours of a particularly cynical careerism. But her Twitter account describes her as the ambassador to Denmark, and lacks even the fig-leaf of a "personal capacity" note. And since the South African embassy in Denmark maintains no Twitter account of its own, anyone seeking such a presence in the Twitterverse would naturally look to her.

But perhaps there is larger story here. South Africa has invested enormous capital of all kinds – not least gargantuan annual financial outlays – in its diplomatic presence abroad. The website of the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) lists 104 embassies and high commissions, 16 consulates, 97 honorary consulates, and 82 other representations abroad.

Yet what is the return on this? The National Development Plan (NDP) was critical of the country's foreign affairs efforts. South Africa was not drawing economic and developmental benefits from this presence. Indeed, it was "overstretched" and has experienced a "relative decline in power and influence in world affairs".

The ambassador's behaviour can only be viewed as the sort of thing that helps this decline along. It denotes a country racked by its own small-minded parochialism, increasingly no longer a "serious" country. And she is by no means alone – South Africa's ambassador to Venezuela promised that the country's military would intervene to protect it against the United States; a foolish, unrealisable statement, for which (probably in view of its own implausibility) he would later apologise.

Perhaps the most meaningful part of this saga is that Dirco has been unable to get in touch with the ambassador since the tweets appeared. This may be a very telling – and very disturbing – detail, representing much of what is wrong with South Africa's diplomacy.

- Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations. Readers are invited to take a stand with the IRR by sending an SMS to 32823 (SMSes cost R1, Ts and Cs apply).