Diplomacy isn’t former activist Patrick Gaspard’s default setting, but the new US ambassador to South Africa has learnt fast.
In a somewhat self-deprecating way, he turns a question on South Africa’s economic-policy uncertainty on to his own government, which ended its more than two-week-long government shutdown on Thursday.
During his first media interview as accredited ambassador this week, at his plush official abode in Pretoria’s leafy Waterkloof suburb, the one-time trade unionist told City Press the economic prosperity of nations was interlinked.
“All of our governments need to make sure that we are operating in a way that continues to project confidence to the markets, confidence to investors in a sense that there is going to be stability, transparency and an invitation to the most disadvantaged in society to be partners in future equity,” he said.
“I’m excited that we get to work on this together in partnership between the US and South Africa.”
Last year, Gaspard’s triumphant tweet after the US Supreme Court upheld Obamacare – President Barack Obama’s contentious healthcare plan – in a landmark decision got him into some trouble.
“It’s constitutional, Bitches,” Gaspard tweeted. He later apologised for his excitement getting the better of him.
The US government shutdown, which ended on the same day that Gaspard presented his credentials to President Jacob Zuma, was ironically caused by a deadlock on the Obamacare funding.
When asked how he feels about returning to Africa, no cool diplomacy can mask the ambassador’s excitement. Gaspard was born in 1967 in the then Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) to Haitian parents.
In the five weeks that he, his wife, Raina Washington, and their two children, aged 13 and 16, have been in South Africa, they have already travelled to Cape Town and Durban.
South Africa has always featured in his work as a human rights and Haitian-solidarity activist.
In 1992, Gaspard, then a special assistant to New York City Mayor David Dinkins, came to South Africa after Nelson Mandela’s visit to New York. He was the lead organiser of the trip.
Here, he interacted with many struggle leaders.
“To be able to come back here to South Africa as US ambassador, representing all that America has to offer the world at this challenging moment, and being able to come here, and seeing what has transpired in the two decades hence, and all the progress that’s been made … You ask me if I’m pleased with the move: I can’t begin to find the language to begin to explain how exhilarating it is to serve in this fashion.”
Gaspard’s wife, a teacher and daughter of an anti-apartheid activist mother, is equally excited about the move.
If Obama had an easy time selling this job to Gaspard, the presidential campaign was a different matter.
Gaspard turned down Obama twice. “The third time he invited me to his office, I foolishly thought I was going to have a conversation on healthcare campaigns that I was engaged in at the time.”
He preferred to spend time with his children and run his campaign “to make sure that the poor children in our country have access to healthcare”.
But Obama laughed at him, “this sort of arrogant, confident laugh of his and he says, ‘Well, I promise you if you come and work on my campaign, we’ll get healthcare done and I’ll sign it into law much faster than you and your little friends can get it done’.”
As the national political director of Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, Gaspard said he was so excited when Obama was elected president that he couldn’t breathe.
The road from there – as associate personnel director of president-elect Obama’s transition team; director of the White House office of political affairs from 2009 to 2011; and now ambassador to South Africa – means he still hasn’t regained his breath.
Gaspard is an elections junkie – he compares the night before election day in the US as “almost like Christmas Eve” – and says he is looking forward to “observing your democratic process up and close” when South Africans go to the polls next year.