There’s a price to be paid for avoiding the fit-for-purpose principle when making important appointments such as South Africa’s top representative in London.
Formally known High Commissioner to the Court of St James, the position is described in Tony Leon’s book The Accidental Ambassador as, “surely the shiniest bauble in the diplomatic realm”.
Effective ambassadors appointed on merit work hard at improving relations, including trade and commercial ties.
Those appointed because they are deemed ANC royalty don’t always bother with performance standards. Oliver Tambo’s daughter Thembi, our high commissioner in London, should have known well in advance that South Africa was going to be red-listed for travellers to the UK.
The listing means tourists returning to the UK from South Africa have to quarantine for 10 days at their own expense.
The added cost makes travel to and from South Africa unattractive to the UK market. In 2019, before lockdown, 430 000 Britons visited here. It’s our biggest source of tourist income.
The continued absence of UK tourists is hammering our leisure sector, where more than 470 000 jobs have been lost during the pandemic.
Tambo should have been trying strenuously to get us off the red list, especially as Kenya, Pakistan and Turkey were removed.
Inertia at the Court of St James may derive from Tambo’s boss, International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor. Although once chided by Julius Malema as being a “spoilt minister” who speaks with a “fake American accent”, Pandor can be charming. Perfect for diplomacy when not much is happening.
But with the UK red list she was slow off the mark. Quizzed by the Sunday Times, Pandor disclosed there had been no serious diplomatic initiative to engage with UK scientists and advisors.
She had expected UK authorities to glean information from “very transparent reports that SA provides”.
When asked: “Shouldn’t you have made sure they had all the facts?”, Pandor replied: “If they’d asked for information obviously we would have made sure that they did have the facts.”
It is tempting to suggest Tambo and Pandor sat on their backsides while this crisis erupted. Unlike representatives from other red-listed countries who beavered away on multiple fronts.
Former UK Labour MP Lord Peter Hain made more noise, and more sense, than our lot. Since the weekend, the tempo has increased.
Our health department has had discussions with UK officials about the red list. Perhaps they have sorted out misunderstandings about the relative presence of beta and delta Covid variants, one stumbling block.
Yet our team will have difficulty persuading UK authorities that the South African rate of vaccinations is acceptable.
It’s not other countries’ fault that we are laggards. There may also be misgivings about the July riots in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.
South African tourism remains a hard sell in a competitive environment. There should be performance targets for those who are paid to represent us abroad.
If they can’t do their jobs properly they should be replaced by people more competent.
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