"Yes Minister" Gone Wrong

2013-10-17 13:19

Whereas the ‘80s British satirical sitcom, of the same name, revealed the inner workings of Whitehall to not always bend to the wishes of the Minister concerned, the same, it seems, cannot be said for the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO).

Admittedly, I do not know whether the decision to establish a DIRCO-run, 24hour radio station (Ubuntu Radio) was taken as a direct result of the Maite Nkoane-Mashabane. But it is safe to assume that, as the Minister, even if the decision was taken by someone else, she is aware of and, by virtue of her office, responsible for it. Such is the cost of a seat at the Cabinet table.

That sense did not prevail and she did not stop this from going ahead makes her equally guilty.

Other than Goebbels-esque governments who existed on the other side of the Iron Curtain, it is inconceivable that a government department would spend taxpayers’ money on promoting itself and its work in such a way. That is not to say it doesn’t happen.

Government departments are notorious for self-promotion (often with little or no distinction between party and state). Recall when the Spear debacle was unfolding and Ferial Haffajee (who, ironically, was in the news of late for standing up to “cultural imperialism”) feebly attempted to explain her decision to take the picture down, it was foremost in many people’s minds that she could not afford to lose government advertising.. Note again that the customer was the government funded by taxpayer’s money but the complainant in that case was the ANC (and the tripartite alliance). A similar thing unfolded when FNB rolled out its “controversial” advertisement.

But this is self-promotion taken to new levels. Monyela, as reported by Carien du Plessis, stated that, inter alia, the reason for the station was so that it couldtell the world what is good about South Africa, report South Africa’s position on affairs, cover our elections and so on.

Notwithstanding my concern that this is yet another government “70% happy news quota” by stealth, it is also an indictment on just how pathetic foreign policy under the Zuma administration has become. The fact that one of the three great Departments of State (the other two being the Treasury and Defence), as the British would say, has been reduced to promoting itself through a permanent mouthpiece shows not only how inept this government’s diplomats are but, additionally, how irrelevant we have become. If we really were as much of a global player as Monyela would like us to believe, our foreign policy would speak for itself.

Compare and contrast foreign policy, as a portfolio and an exercise, under President Mbeki and President Zuma. While the former had his faults, of which there were many, Mbeki was a President that inserted a small nation like ours into the centre of world affairs. Without the benefit of appointees leading the African Union and other key agencies within the UN, we were still able to be seen and heard. Foreign policy, ranging from what the government did on Zimbabwe, Iraq and other hotspots, was in the news all the time. Now our foreign policy is in the news whenever it fails: when our soldiers die while on mission, when we are aligning ourselves with those who want to withdraw from the ICC and when we aid thwarting the law in Zimbabwe.

With our recent record, one wonders whether the ambitions to hold a UN Security Council Permanent Member’s seat would ever come to fruition. Given the current incompetence, I think not.

If this government were really serious about our people’s awareness of our foreign policy, they should start by crafting one that is clear, consistent and dynamic. We should seek to eagerly participate in world affairs and influence them where we can. Fix our missions premises, get their websites up-to-date, create a well-trained diplomatic corps. Equip us to command attention on the world stage; do not artificially engender it to an audience that could not care.

For otherwise, we will continue remaining spectators on the side lines, rather than having a seat at the table; we will be a laughing stock, not only domestically, but abroad too, as we navel gaze and tell ourselves, through Ubuntu Radio, how great we are. When, in fact, there could be nothing further from the truth.

We can be a serious player once again. If only our government could get with the programme – rather than script it.

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