Hlaudi and the Art of Non-Diplomacy

THE LAST WORD | BY ROB ROSE | Business Times | 05 OCTOBER 2014, 11:25

PATRICK Gaspard, the US ambassador to South Africa, is not often provoked into making ill-considered statements.

Dubbed the “best political mind of his generation in New York, and possibly the nation” by Michael Bloomberg’s right-hand man, Kevin Sheekey, Gaspard has rock-solid links to Africa.

Born in Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in 1967 to Haitian parents who had fled the dictatorship of “Papa Doc” Duvalier, his family upped sticks again when he was a three-year-old to escape Mobutu Sese Seko. They settled in Brooklyn.

Now aged 47, Gaspard has worked on every federal election since 1988, from Jesse Jackson’s (unsuccessful) bid for the White House to President Barack Obama’s successful 2008 run.

Until 2011, he was Obama’s White House political director, described by the Huffington Post as Obama’s “glueman”.

Gaspard, in short, speaks fluent diplomat. This was reinforced when he kicked off a speech on Tuesday this week by quoting Winston Churchill’s dictum that “Diplomacy is the art of telling people to go to hell but doing it so nicely that they think they should ask for directions”.

So, when he launched a surprising broadside at SABC chief Hlaudi Motsoeneng, and followed it with a sideswipe at “irresponsible” politicians, this probably was not just an off-the-cuff remark in an unguarded moment.

Gaspard was, after all, speaking to a roomful of Nieman fellows, a contingent of journalists whose ranks include Aubrey Sussens, Nat Nakasa, Allister Sparks and Joe Thloloe — so odds are the word would get out.

When it came to Motsoeneng, who lied about having a matric, and who is effectively now running the SABC, Gaspard rubbished his proposal that journalists be “licensed”.

“How is it that the government, [or] the SABC, can decide when a journalist is acting professionally or not?” he asked.

“I was actually stunned that all of you weren’t outside the SABC headquarters the next morning because I know I certainly would have been,” he said.

In recent weeks, Gaspard hit the headlines for rubbishing the numbskull view of Deputy Defence Minister Kebby Maphatsoe that public protector Thuli Madonsela was a CIA operative, presumably sent to weaken President Jacob Zuma as part of some imperialist, counter-revolutionary plot by the military-public protector complex.

Gaspard said that “irrespective of comments made by some irresponsible people” relations between South Africa and the US remained solid.

The countries have a “trade relationship to the tune of billions of dollars” and there “isn’t any snub or perception” that would splinter Obama’s relationship with South Africa, he said.

But he is a diplomat, of course. Others in the US foreign service know all too well the intangible damage that Maphatsoe’s comments will have caused.

The broader problem is that Maphatsoe’s technicolour stupidity telegraphs a wider worry for the investment climate.

Which is, if a senior official in Jacob Zuma’s cabinet felt emboldened to publicly make the case for a CIA conspiracy, what marshmallow-brained thinking goes on behind closed doors? Who else is lighting up the bounty that customs officials seize at the Swazi border?

For Wall Street fund managers already debating from which of the “fragile five” countries to pull their money, harebrained politics is as good an excuse as any.

After all, the JSE has just rounded off the most torrid quarter in the past three years, shedding 3.2% of its value in the three months to September.

Analyst Drikus Combrinck said “a lot of foreigners are leaving riskier assets and emerging markets like ours”. This is no lie: portfolio inflows to emerging markets fell to $9bn last month, down from a monthly average of $38bn.

South Africa, more than most, needs this cash, as our gaping current account deficit is a hole plugged partly by US funds.

Gaspard might dismiss Maphatsoe’s rant as just “petty personality politics” but, on the margin, it makes a difference.