One month to impress, build bridges and earn that plaque

2012-01-14 10:35

On an ordinary day at the United Nations (UN) headquarters, ambassador Baso Sangqu is a busy man.

As head of the South African mission to the UN, he juggles meetings with lobbying partners on positions South Africa feels strongly about and taking calls from President Jacob Zuma.

This January it is even worse. South Africa is taking over the presidency of the UN Security Council, arguably the most powerful multilateral body in the world.

It is in these chambers of the UN headquarters – which desperately need a lick of paint on their crumbling walls – that South Africa made its biggest mistake last year.

We voted for a resolution allowing the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) to attack Libya and later scrambled to say the West had overstepped its mandate when the bombs started raining down on Tripoli.

This month South Africa will be in charge of the council. The Security Council gives every member a month to be in charge.

But the role is more ceremonial than substantial. For continuity purposes the agenda is already set and there is little room for a new president to make a mark.

The president can place emphasis on certain topics and can debate his chosen theme, but that’s where it ends.

Although the permanent ­members of the council – China, Russia, Britain, France and the USA – make less of a fuss when it is their turn for the presidency, non-permanent members like South Africa push out the boat.

This is where life becomes complicated for Sangqu. This month he will host Zuma, International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane and a handful of ministers who will drop in at 333 East 38th Street in Manhattan, the offices of the South African ­mission.

Sangqu has to tell Zuma who needs to be interviewed, which invitations to face-to-face meetings he should honour and which ones he should ignore.

The ulcer that Sangqu will ­probably develop this month is not unjustified. South Africa wants to use its last presidency and its last year on the Security Council to make a good enough impression to be the African country of choice when new permanent seats are dished out.

But it also wants to show ­African countries it can manage the historically difficult relationship with the West, and will be no walkover once it sticks the South Africa plaque permanently at the top table.

To fight the ghost of ­Libya, South Africa has decided to make the theme of its tenure improving the relationship between the African Union (AU) and the UN.

South African diplomats in New York argue that if the two bodies had a closer bond, the crisis about how to deal with Libya might have been avoided. Western diplomats just shrug and say “maybe”.

Apart from the usual round of speeches, cocktail parties and a quick chat with UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, Zuma this week also lobbied other UN countries to support a resolution which forms the basis for a more formal relationship.

The resolution will specifically ask the UN first to ask the AU’s ­advice before becoming involved in an intrastate conflict in Africa, and to change the focus from “peacekeeping to peacebuilding”.

This distinction may look like pure semantics, but the AU is convinced that in certain situations peace has to be created before it can be kept, as AU commission chairperson Jean Ping said in a ­report released this week.

It will be difficult to judge the success of our presidential tenure and of our last year in the council, mostly because diplomacy is so opaque.

But observers say if South Africa capitalises on the international interest in Sudan following the establishment of South Sudan, and takes significant steps to stabilise the region, it can consider itself a council member which others would like to see more often.

» Rossouw is City Press’ international correspondent

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