Newsmaker – Ebrahim Rasool: SA’s salesman

2014-08-17 15:00

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Ebrahim Rasool left the Western Cape for Washington, DC, in 2010, soon after a journalist implicated in a cash-for-stories “brown envelope” scandal claimed he was Rasool’s embedded spin doctor.

Four years later, this is the first thing Rasool brings up when he bumps into South African journalists in the lobby of the five-star Willard Intercontinental in DC during the US-Africa Leaders Summit.

“I cannot be too friendly with journalists. They will accuse me of handing out brown envelopes,” he remarks jokingly to presidential spokesperson Mac Maharaj.

There’s still some sting – the probe into the saga was dropped last year due to a lack of evidence – but the damage to his reputation and the deployment from the province he once ran as premier, were already done.

His vindication was as bitter as it was sweet. There were claims the scandal was fuelled by politics – from opposition parties as much as factions in the ANC.

Some in the governing party had enough faith in him to call for his help with this year’s election campaign in the Western Cape.

But for now, he is on the international stage in a stately embassy on Massachusetts Avenue, alongside other countries’ embassies.

Rasool’s office is on the first floor of the building – which has the feel of a grand, oversized residence with heavy, thick-glassed doors. It has been refurbished so recently you still expect to smell the paint.

During his stay in the US, the South African embassy has become a friend to the American Jewish Committee (one of the largest, most established Jewish and minority rights groups in the country), he says.

The first Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt delegation to visit the US came directly from the airport to his residence. The Free Syrian Army – an armed opposition group in Syria that wants President Bashar al-Assad removed – has also knocked on the embassy’s door for advice.

Rasool has spent four years running a public diplomacy campaign, advocating tolerance and peace in Nelson Mandela’s name and selling Africa and South Africa to the world.

He lists some of his successes: getting the Carlyle Group to open offices in Joburg with a $750?million (R8?billion) fund to invest in Africa; and helping to persuade US Export-Import Bank to expand its $70?million investment in South Africa to $7?billion in the whole of Africa.

Politically and socially, Rasool has also been reaching out to former anti-apartheid activists in the US and the estimated 83?000 South African expats living there.

He says it is “hard work negotiating peace with our expats”. Many bad-mouth South Africa because they left in unhappiness but according to him, they’re given “a mission” to help get them back on side.

For instance, the embassy raised $26?million for the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital. A chunk of that money came from ordinary South Africans living in the US.

Rasool landed in the US shortly after the 2010 Fifa World Cup. At that time, there was a renewed interest in South Africa and in Mandela, more so around his illness, and then his death last year.

“Just before I arrived here, Mandela had been seen at the World Cup, at probably his most frail public moment. So being in the US at that time, I almost needed to speak the lessons of his life and values,” he says.

“And so I think it was quite fortunate that I could be here.”

He says there has been a lot of goodwill towards South Africa and he wants to sustain this through “presenting the life, legacy and values of Mandela, making that the lens through which Americans continue to view South Africa”.

Last year, a statue of Mandela was erected in front of the embassy where the first arrests of US anti-apartheid protesters took place in 1983.

About $1?million was raised for the statue from businesses, institutions and individuals. It soon became one of Washington’s top tourist attractions.

Rasool said the “ultimate honour” was when the US went into 10 days of official mourning after Mandela died in December. A memorial service in the Washington Cathedral was led by cleric Alan Boesak.

Opera singer Jessye Norman performed, and academic and museum director Johnnetta Cole delivered a message from poet Maya Angelou, who was ill at the time.

Brand SA country manager Simon Barber, who sat in on our interview, butts in: “But the best speech was by the ambassador.” (Rasool is known as a good orator and is putting together a book of his speeches.)

Rasool’s tenure as ambassador terminates at the end of the year. He will either go back into government or into business, he says.

He will also continue working with his World for All Foundation, an organisation opposed to Muslim extremism. The name echoes the “home for all” campaign he ran as the Western Cape’s premier almost a decade ago.

He doesn’t regret his term as ambassador coming to an end.

“It is time to go, there is no reluctance on my part. There is no sense of unfinished business.”

According to him, the US-Africa Leaders Summit was the highlight “of [our] work to get Africa respected and to get the US to understand Africa through a different perspective, not the begging bowl, disease-ridden continent it has been”.

Washington has taught him a lot but it hasn’t always been easy.

“When you come to a place like this, you accept the deployment and take a vow of silence on all the things that have gone down in the past, and do not try to defend them.

“And when you embrace being an ambassador in the US, a whole world opens up.

“I have absolutely no regrets, despite the circumstances of my coming here,” he says.

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