OPINION: Nkoana-Mashabane's 'funny' faux pas doesn't serve relations

2016-07-05 17:28
Maite Nkoana-Mashabane (Tebogo Letsie, City Press)

Maite Nkoana-Mashabane (Tebogo Letsie, City Press)

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Johannesburg - International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane has a knack for the kind of honesty that disbars diplomacy.

One week before a state visit to France, with a presidential delegation that will include herself, among others, and a group of businessmen, she chose to remind France why South Africa doesn’t like that country.

A journalist from French public radio, RFI, (that country’s equivalent to, say, BBC or SABC) at a press conference in Pretoria on Monday asked the minister how the recent British vote in favour of Brexit would affect South Africa’s trade with France.

It’s fair to presume there could be some shift in the emphasis of trade or investment by SA to or from nearby Britain, whose irreconcilable differences with the European Union have triggered what now seems like an inevitable two-year divorce process.

It was also fair to expect an answer, as at least two ministers (Pravin Gordhan in Finance and Rob Davies in Trade and Industry) and President Jacob Zuma have made public statements on the issue.

Instead, Nkoana-Mashabane chose to start what was a very vague and non-committal response by laughing off the journalist on “a lighter note”.

French adversary

READ: Nkoana-Mashabane’s bizarre interview a 'spectacular mess'

She reminded the journalist that SA sees itself as an adversary of France when it comes to matters African.

“For some reason there is something very special between us and France,” Nkoana-Mashabane started with a self-indulgent smile, and then rewound to 2012/13, when the country was lobbying for South Africa’s Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma in a bruising battle to become AU Commission chairperson.

“When we were campaigning for Mme Dlamini-Zuma we were told that, ‘Aren’t you aware that you are up against France?’

“So we wondered. France is a member of the European Union. We are members of the African Union, so this can’t be true.”

This response was a fair accusation, but because it was unrelated to the question and came out of the blue, it carried a sting.

Only then did Nkoana-Mashabane give the response, clowning around a bit more in a way that either indicated that she didn’t really have an answer, or want to answer, or that Britain’s referendum really was none of her business.

“So Brexit, we don't know about it,” she said. “We saw it on television. We hear that it would impact, when it started, negatively to our trade and investment relations with countries from that part, but we haven't seen real evidence. Maybe it is still coming but one thing first, we are not members there and we can only say ‘Viva democracy’".

Diplomacy 101

READ: We only know Brexit from TV - Nkoana-Mashabane

Perhaps, read with her response to an Al Jazeera interview a few weeks before on the American presidential election, this playing-dumb Brexit response could mean that she was trying to stick to South Africa’s line of not pronouncing publicly about the internal affairs of other countries because she didn’t consider it to be South Africa’s business.

Except in this case, it kind of is.

Her response to Al Jazeera on her favoured presidential candidate and the possible effect it would have on US relations with SA, was thus:

“Maybe my grand-daughter‚ who happened to be named after me‚ will have a favoured candidate of another country. But as for my children‚ they are still concerned about their own country‚" she replied.

It’s somewhat different to what one of her own Cabinet colleagues, Small Business Development Minister and former ambassador Lindiwe Zulu, said at an Independence Day celebration at the US Embassy in Pretoria last week.

Zulu hinted, on a light note but with a serious message, that other countries would like to see a woman president in the US because they could take their lead from this. Diplomacy 101: Zulu knows how to charm a crowd but still make her point.

Back to France. Nkoana-Mashabane started off well, reading an officially-prepared statement saying the state visit from Monday onward would coincide with the centenary of the Battle of Delville Wood, in which South Africans died.

France and SA co-operate in areas such as energy, maritime, agriculture, science and technology, education, arts and culture, and defence. There is “an opportunity to expand in some areas”, she said.


There will also be a ceremonial handing over of the digitised Rivonia Trial recordings, which the French helped produce, and there will be an exchange of views on peace and security and development issues.

She also reminded journalists that France is an important source of foreign direct investment for SA.

Between 2004 and 2015 inward investments from France amounted to over R24.3bn, creating 4 500 jobs. Trade in 2015 amounted to R33.6bn, with imports making up R24.5bn and exports the rest. French tourists also flock to the country, and at 128 438 visitors last year it’s one of South Africa’s biggest tourism markets.

The theme of the state visit is “Working together as equal partners to explore opportunities and address the challenges of the 21st Century”.

From her off-the-cuff remarks, though, mentioned earlier and below, it wasn’t clear that she saw SA and France as equals, much less as partners.

In her response to a question on what effect the possible crumbling of the EU could have on the AU’s regional integration project, she went on to talk about how the Europeans colonised others (in Africa) and were never colonised themselves.

She also implied that Africa was naturally more prone to making integration work, because there is a lot of similarity among the languages on the continent and because the borders between countries weren’t drawn up by the original inhabitants.

Colonisation consequences

It is true that French colonisation has had horrendous consequences on Africa, and French involvement here - for good and for bad - continues to this day.

South Africa doesn’t much like this involvement at all.

The French military intervention in Mali after the coup there in 2012 is an example. It led to South Africa’s trying to fast-track the setting up of an African military response force by putting in place the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises while the finer details of the African Standby Force was being resolved.

South Africa preferred African solutions to African problems rather than French saviours.

There was reportedly also some friction between South African troops and the French in the Central African Republic in 2013, where SA accused the French of supporting the rebels.

While there is nothing wrong to champion viable African solutions in the continent, Nkoana-Mashabane’s comments this week neither served this purpose, nor smoothed the way for SA to engage as an equal partner with the French next week.

Read more on:    maite nkoana-mashabane

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