Reflections of a departing diplomat

Farewell Remarks of HE Tony Leon, South African Ambassador to Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay

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Oudtshoorn. 9 September 2012. 12h15. Former Leader of the Democratic Alliance and current South African Ambassador to Argentina, Tony Leon, is to vacate his post and return to South Africa at the end of September. What follows below is his farewell speech, delivered to the Argentine Institute for International Relations. In it, he reflects on his term and some of lessons about diplomacy he has learnt during his time in South Africa’s diplomatic core. An interesting insight into the thinking of an Ambassador.

Address to Consejo Argetnino para las Relaciones Internacionales (Argentine Institute for International Relations), 07 September 2012, Buenos Aires. (Note: this is an edited extract. Ambassador Leon returns to SA on 30 September 2012.)

Almost three years ago to this day in Cape Town, I attended my ‘exit interview’ – over a cup of tea – with the man who had just appointed me his Ambassador to three countries in the southern tip of South America, President Jacob Zuma. Like many future rituals which awaited me in my new line of work, this occasion was more an event of symbolism than substance.

One presidential ‘instruction’ did, however, provide the template for my new job in the land of Maradona, Evita and the Pampas. Pres Zuma advised me, “It is very important that people other than members of the governing party present South Africa’s face to the world.” My non-ANC credentials could hardly be bettered and, so advised, and with poor Spanish, I set about my work in this fascinating country.

Looking back now over three engaged years of pushing the envelope for South Africa in South America, I note that I have played host here to seven South African cabinet ministers (among them Lidiwe Sisulu, Pravin Gordhan, Tokyo Sexwale, Rob Davies, Jeff Radebe and Naledi Pandor) and a slew of deputies and other paladins of Pretoria. Diplomatically we have inked some significant agreements here, ranging from defence co-operation to nanotechnology and sport. Perhaps we also proved that the fiercest rivals at home can partner abroad to project South Africa and advance its interests in the wider world. In my opposition political career I always said that there should be an iron wall between party and the state; hopefully abroad I have managed to walk this talk.

My ambassadorship here commenced in the most ideal and golden of circumstances, just before South Africa’s hosting of the greatest global sporting event, bar the Olympics, the 2010 FIFA World Cup. If ever there was a wonderful example of my country’s ‘soft power’ in the planet, then this festival of football demonstrated our rainbow nation in its brightest and best. It also produced some impressive hard numbers, including the staggering 122% rise of Argentine tourists to South Africa in just one year. My mission here, however, ends on a much starker and more somber note. The recent deaths of over 44 people, mostly striking miners, at Lonmin in Marikana, is an urgent reminder that we need to rediscover , as we did back in 1994, the leadership and sense of common purpose to lead us out of the pit of division and conflict .

You can trace a connection, actually, between our immediate soul -searching back home and most of the challenges which confront the world today. Warren Buffett, the famed US investor, noted: “Only when the tide goes out do we see who has been swimming naked.” Many of the institutions which we built to maintain our countries, the world and improve its condition do just fine when growth is up and conflict is down. But they sometimes fail and falter when they are stress-tested by adverse currents and rough tides. The paralysis of the United Nations Security Council over Syria, the inability of the Eurozone to arrest the fear of debt default in its southern flank (perhaps offset by this week’s move by the ECB) and the difficulty of the G 20 in decisively turning around the global financial crisis are three instructive examples .This is not to say that there is either an unwillingness to act or a conspiracy behind their agendas. Rather it suggests that, objectively, some of the challenges we face are simply too big for the institutions designed to contain them. There is much talk, as well, of the decline of the world’s hyper-power, the USA, and whether this condition is temporary or terminal. Another endless debate concerns whether China’s rise is assured and what this means to the Pacific and beyond. The developing world is also “enjoying” a better financial crisis than the historically developed economies. But however fundamentally these shifts in the tectonic plates of international economics and diplomacy reset the future world order, right now we are somewhat suspended in a leaderless world. The political consultant Ian Bremmer described this new order as the unstable “G. Zero World.”

But if this is a snapshot of some of the fault lines and fractures emerging in the second decade of the 21st century, where does that essentially 18th century construction, the foreign embassy, fit into the picture? How, with people across the world battered by ‘the great recession’ and governments confronted by widening deficits and shrinking budgets, do we justify the expenses, even perhaps the anachronism, of a diplomatic mission?

South Africa, a middle-ranking power, boasts of no fewer than 124 legations in 107 countries abroad, each of them expensive to maintain with an annual running cost, per mission on average in the R10-R15m range. Each South African embassy abroad is charged with our hugely ambitious and expansive goal of “creating a better South Africa and contributing to a better and safer Africa in a better world.” As I prepare to return home at month-end and finish my mission as a self-described “accidental ambassador”, perhaps I can conclude my time here, and these remarks, with the five objectives I attempted to implement in my three years here as South Africa’s head of mission:

1. An embassy should be a profit not a cost centre: Around 95% of our operating budget is ring-fenced by fixed costs, from salaries and rentals to administrative charges. Without the generous sponsorships we managed to secure for everything from business and investment seminars to art and movie exhibitions, little would have been seen or heard of South Africa in this corner of the world. But it is not just about vigorous fundraising and projecting your country through public diplomacy, important as those instruments are in the embassy toolkit. More than that, if an embassy, and its ambassador, is not watching the numbers, from trade statistics to tourism arrivals to FDI-flows and, crucially, making them grow then he might indeed fit the acid description penned by another “accidental ambassador’’. John Kenneth Galbraith (the famed economist and US envoy to India in the 1960’s) said that many ambassadors were “a spectacular example of what economists call disguised unemployment. “An embassy needs to be much more than a glorified combination of post office (for the relaying of messages) and a travel agency (for visiting politicians).

2. An embassy should at all times be the first port of call, and the last line of defence, for its distressed citizens abroad and, crucially, its resident investors and trading companies. Larger multinational corporations have less need of embassy assistance (although with rising protectionism here we have often successfully managed interventions on their behalf). But smaller and medium size enterprises back home certainly do.

3. Realize that the maintenance of government-to-government ties and relations are important, but they do not begin to define the outreach necessary for one country, and its foreign representatives, to penetrate and understand another society. I am very proud that in addition to the strong bilateral ties we have maintained here, we have deepened in Argentina, a country with 23 provinces, which approximates the physical land mass of India, ties between them and several of our nine provinces back home. As a federalist, I suppose I am biased-but relations need to be horizontal as well as vertical. They also need to spread way beyond the official realm. Forging links here with some of the key NGOs in a vibrant civil society, and linking them across the South Atlantic to organisations back home, has been one of the most important and enduring pillars of our work.

4. Report back home with informed candour, despite the hazard of Julian Asssange and Wikileaks. The best tip I received in this regard from minister Maite Nkoana- Mashabane was “don’t tell me things I can see on CNN”. A local network and no-holds barred reporting style renders cables useful and substantive, not routine and redundant. But perhaps the most important lesson I have learnt from representing one country in another and vice versa is to “avoid the perils of analogy”. South Africa and Argentina have certain elements in common and these can provide a useful lens for engagement: similar sized economies, resource riches, joint membership of the G 20, good rugby and a path from authoritarianism to democracy which occurred somewhat before (in Argentina’s case) and just after, in South Africa, the end of the Cold War. But there are crucial differences as well, and to squeeze the paradigm of one country into the template of another can be an exercise in misleading and lazy analysis.

5. Be a credible voice in advancing your country’s best practices and most admired institutions, not an uncritical praise -singer of its worst lapses or excesses. I suppose as former opposition leader, I was not expected over here and across the ocean, to become a supporter of the things I had resolutely opposed back home. Indeed I never received such an instruction, although in this regard and in good conscience being envoy in Buenos Aires was a much easier fit than, say, being ambassador to Harare or Tel Aviv. But South Africa, at its best, has a compelling story to tell and offers an exemplary lesson to the world in constitutional construction and nation building. We got the big existential questions right back in the 1990’s and indeed we have done some crucial, perhaps historically smaller, things wrong since then. But the key thing is that we need to renew our national purpose, not looking back with nostalgic sentiment, but by approaching the future with renewed determination.

That’s it- Goodbye. Adios. Hasta luego!

Published on Inside Politics.

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