With elections looming, much of tomorrow’s state of the nation address (Sona) will be inward-looking to attract voters. But the wider world will be watching for signs that President Cyril Ramaphosa is indeed in command; that he can take a new direction.
Missteps by the department of international relations and cooperation (Dirco) and the ANC will cause international investors to wonder whether the climate has changed for the better. Does the government speak with one voice?
Dirco’s gaffe has sharpened international focus on Sona. The diplomatic equivalent of a sonar boom. Hostile over-reaction to the misleading Sunday Times story, “World powers warn SA on graft”, was an own-goal against the team trying to drum up investment.
It suggests Dirco and the ANC are dominated by anti-Western sentiment, out of tune with Ramaphosa’s sweet-talk. Believe it or not, Dirco offers diplomatic training. Diplomats should be skilled in managing international relations, in dealing with people in a sensitive and tactful way.
South Africa’s response was a textbook case of how diplomats should not behave. Epic fail. Without checking the accuracy of the weekend report, International Relations Minister Lindiwe Sisulu issued a démarche – a formal diplomatic protest.
Local representatives of the US, UK, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland were summoned to explain what was described as a “departure from established diplomatic practice”. Dirco reminded “all diplomatic missions accredited to South Africa to address official correspondence through the appropriate diplomatic channels”. Pompous nonsense.
In fact, Sisulu and Dirco misread the situation. If they had been paying attention, they would have known that the document quoted was not a warning letter to Ramaphosa. Nor was it an official communication with any branch of the South African government. Instead, it was an informal discussion paper, drafted in June 2018, in preparation for an investment conference arranged by Ramaphosa.
It offered supportive advice to help attract investment. Of course, the Sunday Times was naughty to present this eight-month-old memo as something new, but the local reaction was needlessly offensive to countries which are responsible for more than 75% of foreign direct investment in South Africa.
There’s no need to guess which faction in the ANC railed against “interference by the Western imperialist forces”. Such rhetoric is out of kilter with the message carried abroad by Ramaphosa’s special investment envoys.
At the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Ramaphosa himself echoed much of what was in the June 2018 memo. It’s common sense. Yet, his party has gone on the attack, condemning “this dramatic holier-than-thou stance of these former colonisers”, invoking “the history of master-slave relations”.
Let’s be clear. Without significant foreign direct investment, South Africa cannot achieve the growth needed to tackle unemployment, poverty and inequality. We need these folks. SA should not grovel to anyone. But when the country’s ill-informed, knee-jerk response is a hostile scolding, something is wrong.
Can we please be diplomatic.