COP 17: Envoys slam SA 'incompetence'
Johannesburg - Envoys at the global climate conference ended on Sunday in Durban left late-night sessions shaking their heads about their South African hosts, saying in rather undiplomatic speech they had let the process go off the rails.
Pretoria, however, hailed its diplomacy as a rousing success, saying SA showed it could punch above its weight in the global arena.
Such is the disconnect between SA, which sees itself as an emerging power championing African causes, and other nations which question its ability to keep pace with global affairs.
The gap is expected to grow larger as Africa's biggest economy tries to exert more authority on the international stage by pressing for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and having one of its former foreign ministers elected head of the AU.
SA has already found itself this year on the wrong side of the mainstream argument over Libya and Ivory Coast.
Western powers also raised their eyebrows when, to please China, Pretoria blocked a visit by the Dalai Lama to attend the 80th birthday of South African hero and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu.
South Africa's diplomacy in Durban, where two weeks of talks failed to finish on time and many delegates had to leave before proceedings concluded, did little to change minds.
Envoys said the Department of International Relations and Co-operation failed to learn crucial lessons from UN negotiations that have been going on for about 20 years on how to push delegates to wind up discussions and start drawing up deals that will be approved.
Many envoys said a deal was only done in Durban despite SA and not because of it.
"There was no leadership; no idea of how to run this thing. It was chaos," said a diplomat from a leading country who asked not to be named.
"South Africa went into this with the idea if we negotiate all through the night on the final day we would get a deal," another diplomat said.
"They should have learned from previous meetings to start high-level talks on the most contentious issues as soon as the ministers arrive so that we would not be here two days after this process was supposed to end," said the diplomat who asked not to be named.
In what may be seen as a vote against the process, Canada on Monday became the first country to announce it would withdraw from the Kyoto protocol on climate change, dealing a symbolic blow to the already troubled global treaty.
While powers such as China and Japan called the move "regrettable", South African foreign ministry spokesperson Clayson Monyela said there was no reason for the hosts of the Durban talks to respond because it was a UN matter.
Nel Marais, managing director of risk consultancy Thabiti Africa, said a reason South Africa's diplomats have trouble keeping up with changing times is that the bureaucracy has been transplanted into government from the ruling ANC, where posts are often given to reward political stature rather than ability.
For many in the ANC, the liberation struggle to end apartheid leads to continued support for African leaders who helped, such as Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, even though they now face global isolation for suspected human rights abuses. It also shapes the ANC worldview.
Foreign minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, who chaired the Durban talks, said she wanted to hold open discussions where she would keep a neutral position. Several diplomats said she put off too many pressing matters until the last minute and did not do enough to push for agreements.
Anger started to build on Thursday night when she hosted the first major meeting of ministers a day before the planned end of the talks and let discussions drift into a series of speeches from delegations instead of making it a bargaining session.
It boiled over when two late sessions followed on the next two nights. The culmination was a dispute over language on the legal mechanisms to enforce emissions cuts that threatened to scuttle the entire process on Sunday morning.
Mashabane called for a huddle among the main players to iron out their differences on the plenary floor, in full view of media cameras and within earshot of microphones.
It was either a high stakes gamble or a bit of stagecraft, but either way, many did not approve of a diplomatic scrum where envoys had to force their way in to have a say in the outcome.
"Negotiations should be held around the table and not on the table," the Russian delegation told the plenary session.
"Elbowing doesn't comply with the dignity of diplomats and diplomacy."