SA’s new UN ambassador finding his way ‘like Pokémon’

2016-09-25 06:03
hot seat Ambassador Jerry Matjila PHOTO: Carien du Plessis

hot seat Ambassador Jerry Matjila PHOTO: Carien du Plessis

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New York - Ambassador Jerry Matjila jetted into New York City three months ago. There awaited a baptism of fire in the preparations for the UN General Assembly.

Matjila replaced Kingsley Mamabolo as South Africa’s permanent representative to the UN on July 1, and his containers only arrived last week, in the run-up to one of the busiest times on the world body’s annual schedule.

“This place is like a jungle. You really have to find your way around,” he says of the large number of meetings and events during the UN General Assembly week.

“There is a huge amount of networking that you have to do,” he said.

Numerous “groups of friends” have been created to focus on agenda items and issues, but another thing it did was to proliferate to the point where some officials or politicians were in up to 40 meetings this week.

“So you have to find your way like Pokémon. It is like that. You move from this, then you walk to that meeting and it’s literally like that, you literally jump from one meeting to the other.”

Matjila (64), a fitness freak, explained with relish that he stayed sane by running six to eight kilometres a day to cope.

It helps that the ambassador’s apartment is two blocks from Central Park.

New York is “a very interesting place to be, the lifestyle is very good” but because of the preparations for the general assembly he has been unable to explore the city – something he hoped to do soon.

Until recently, Matjila was acting director-general of the department of international relations, a position he had for five years, but he is not a complete stranger to the UN. He served in Geneva in 2010 and 2011.

In 1994 he went to New York for three months while the new residence was being prepared.

On the walls of the mission still hang numerous pictures of former president Nelson Mandela posing with some of his counterparts from other countries as well as with world figures.

It brings to mind a time when South Africa’s foreign policy put human rights first.

There was some outrage at the end of June when South Africa abstained from a vote on a resolution to appoint an independent expert on the protection against violence and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Has South Africa abandoned its Mandela-era human rights approach?

No, said Matjila, but explained that the resolution had an “arrogant approach” while diplomacy was all about “what you say, how you say it, and when you articulate your position”.

This meant South Africa couldn’t vote for the bill at the time. The foreign policy point of departure was still the Bill of Rights and the Freedom Charter, Matjila said.

“We can reassure South Africans we have not veered away from established positions, especially as enshrined in our Constitution,” he said. “There is no shift, and I don’t see any change coming.”

He said South Africa was prepared to stand alone on the continent on constitutional issues. Many African countries have gone as far as to criminalise homosexual behaviour.

Despite controversies like this, South Africa has had significant achievements at the UN, such as its leadership of a health employment report with France’s President François Hollande, which looked at how to stem the flow of health workers from developing to developed countries.

Another was hosting a meeting on anti-microbial resistance, only the third such meeting held at the UN on health (the others were about Ebola and HIV/Aids). South Africa is also playing a crucial role in helping the UN to devise ways to determine poverty so as to measure how the sustainable development goals, introduced by the world body last year, are progressing.

Matjila skilfully evades directly answering a question on whether South Africa was the continent’s champion at the UN, but admitted South Africa had more leeway than other countries because it financed its own budget and was not dependent on aid money for this.

“We work for ourselves but we also carry a lot of other people,” he said.

He added that South Africa had the ability to spend time with big powers to try to develop common ground on issues.

“Might isn’t always right,” he said.

Ever since going into exile in 1976, Matjila has cultivated his diplomatic demeanour by serving the ANC in places like Japan and northeast Asia, Sweden, Finland and Zambia.

After joining the foreign ministry in 1994, he served as South Africa’s high commissioner in India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Nepal, until 1999 when he went home for a stint as deputy director-general.

From 2001 to 2006 he served as ambassador to Belgium, Luxembourg and the European Community, and then again as deputy director-general of the Asia and Middle East branch in the department.

His travels so far have covered 70 countries.

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