Newsmaker: US ambassador bids SA farewell

2016-12-18 06:04
U.S Ambassador to South Africa Patrick Gaspard. Picture: Tebogo Letsie

U.S Ambassador to South Africa Patrick Gaspard. Picture: Tebogo Letsie

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Hill House in Pretoria’s leafy Waterkloof is depressingly empty of the Gaspards. The outgoing US ambassador has a taste for good art and music, but no sign of these remain. Only a few forlorn pieces of official furniture still stand.

Even their beloved adopted pet goat, Buzi, has moved on to a nearby farm where he now roams free.

It’s two days before Reconciliation Day, which marks Patrick Gaspard’s final departure from diplomacy (for now, at least) and from a country he’s clearly passionate about.

The stay in South Africa “has exceeded my expectations”, he says.

Sitting by a small table next to the window of the lounge that many nights were abuzz with receptions, Gaspard reminisces about the “very, very hard work” and the “great times” that constituted his mission here.

SOUTH AFRICA IS STRONG

“I have been in South Africa in the most momentous period since 1994,” he said.

“Your institutions have been challenged, your political system has been turned over every which way, and yet, here we are at a point where the entire nation celebrated the affirmation of your values and your fundamental principles that your Constitutional Court ruled on.”

Without spelling it out, Gaspard referred to the ruling earlier this year compelling President Jacob Zuma to pay back some of the money spent on upgrades to his Nkandla home, following the Public Protector’s report.

“It was also in a moment when some serious questions were being asked about the sustainability of the education system because of the provocative nature of demonstrations from young people.

“On top of all of that, we’ve seen a renewed civil society act in a way that not only revolves around politics, but around real issues.”

Gaspard, who was a trade unionist, healthcare activist and political campaign guru before he arrived in Pretoria, is an activist by heart. He has the irrepressible optimism of a fighter of difficult causes.

Both his arrival and departure were marked by less glorious moments in US history. The US government shutdown over President Barack Obama’s contentious healthcare plan ended the same day Gaspard received his diplomatic credentials from Zuma in Pretoria.

Now, there’s president-elect Donald Trump.

Gaspard is seasoned enough not to have wept like many of his embassy staff at a function on results night last month.

RELATIONS UNDER TRUMP

Although he subtly campaigned against Trump at this year’s July 4 function at Hill House, saying “we will never allow the politics of performance to trump the politics of principle”, he tries to remain positive about what the next four years hold for his country – and its relations with South Africa.

“It’s always difficult to make predictions about what any president elect will do, but in this instance, it’s harder than usual,” he said.

The US election campaign was personality-focused and “did not elevate with real specificity the issues
that need to have been litigated in any election contest”.

He was proud, though, that 120 million Americans voted and abided by a result that saw the winner of the popular vote by 2.7 million ballots, Hillary Clinton, lose the presidential race.

“President-elect Trump has already made a number of key critical selections and in many instances you can begin to make some projections on what the philosophies of those particular Cabinet secretaries will be,” he said. The rest will be known after January 20, when Trump is sworn in and a new ambassador here is appointed – a process that could take about nine months.

AGOA AND YALI TO CONTINUE

Africa was, however, “not a subject that enjoyed a deep dive in this campaign, so there are more questions than answers”.

Gaspard, however, said the US had “an incredible core leadership in our foreign service in the state department and that continues from presidency to presidency” and the “material and intellectual” investments the US has already made here would continue.

For one, the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) – recently renewed “for an unprecedented 10 years” – which will remain in place despite Trump’s promises to scrap international trade agreements.

There were protracted negotiations about US chicken imports. “I never thought I would spend so much time in South Africa focussed obsessively on poultry,” he says.

The diplomatic challenge now is negotiating the post-Agoa scene.

“$2 billion [R28 billion] of South African goods enter the US duty-free. While Agoa is good, it is still a one-way trade preference. We need to evolve our economic relationship into a bilateral relationship,” he said.

The 600 US businesses invested in South Africa – with a turnover that equals 10% of this country’s gross domestic product – would not go away either “and that is going to force policymakers to lean in”.

Gaspard also hoped the popular Young African Leaders Initiative (Yali), launched by Obama in 2010, would continue.

The 1 000 applications from three years ago have increased threefold, and applications have already been done for the 2017 programme.

There was support among both Republicans and Democrats for Yali, the same programme ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe has accused of trying to effect “regime change” in South Africa.

Gaspard’s response to the claims aimed to sting as much as it betrayed his own hurt. “I’m so disappointed as I always imagined that if I organised a coup it would look like Mardi Gras – food, music, dance,” he tweeted at the time.

Ditto with claims by deputy defence minister Kebby Maphatsoe that former public protector Thuli Madonsela was a US spy.

“While I made light of some of it, it is a very serious charge that should never have been made,” Gaspard said. “It’s an insult to US embassy staff who worked hard ‘to make good on the vision of Nelson Mandela’, including building a school in Limpopo at a time when about 20 others were being burnt down in service-delivery protests,” he said.

DIPLOMATIC HICCUPS

Gaspard’s affinity for South African politics has caused a diplomatic blip of its own.

For a while there were rumblings in the British High Commissioner’s residence nearby about his too-enthusiastic embrace of the colonial narrative minister Lindiwe Sisulu brought up in her speech at the July 4 celebrations at Hill House last year.

This bridge was mended when, about two weeks ago, he said relations with Dame Judith MacGregor, British High Commissioner to South Africa, were now so good that he disagreed with the saying “good fences make for good neighbours”.

LIFE AFTER SOUTH AFRICA

From next year Gaspard will be able to combine his “sense of mission” and desire to advance Obama’s vision as vice-president of philanthropist George Soros’ Open Society Foundation.

“It will allow me to continue to work on issues of transparency and good governance in sub-Saharan Africa and across the globe, issues of equal justice for all in the US, and what happens to the collective workers’ voice in this digital economy that we find ourselves in,” he said.

The “dislocations” and “polarisation” exacerbated by new media such as Twitter and Facebook are especially interesting to him.

His wife, Raina, a teacher, and his two children aged 16 and 19, already left four months ago to start the new school year in the US.

The plan is to live in Washington, DC, for now until his daughter graduates from college, and then perhaps to move back to Brooklyn, New York, “the centre of my universe”.

South Africa has taught his children a lot about reconciliation and resilience. “All of us will miss South Africa every single day. This is a great country,” he said.

South Africa will miss him too – including that goat.

Read more on:    patrick gaspard

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