Wanted: credible explainers

Not long after Al Qaeda took down the twin towers in New York and with them, colaterally, the rand, the great Peter Bruce, then editor of this newspaper, informed me he could no longer afford a correspondent in Washington. So I went to work for Thabo Mbeki.

It happened like this. The 2002 World Economic Forum was held in New York rather than Davos as a post-9/11 gesture of solidarity. There I bumped into presidential spokesman Bheki Khumalo whom I first met covering an Mbeki visit to Havana. Khumalo, who, unlike Mbeki’s foreign minister at the time, the ex-wife of Jacob Zuma, was splendidly unimpressed by Cuban communism, asked if I would like do some writing for the chief.

It was an intriguing idea. With encouragement from Tony Heard, who had been my editor at the Cape Times and was now in the presidency, I sent a proposal to Joel Netshitenzhe, head of the Government Communications and Information Service. That led to a contract with the about-to-launch International Marketing Council, later renamed Brand SA.

To anyone familiar with my opinion pieces in Business Day and the Sunday Times, my career move must have looked pretty weird. Though I had come to admire Mbeki himself and to believe many of his views were being misrepresented (on AIDS I turned out to be horribly wrong), being then of a Thatcherite bent I had never been particularly kind to the ANC in my scribblings.

But that, I assume, was part of the reason I was hired. The people in the presidency to whom I and my IMC counterpart in London, John Battersby, reported — principally Netshitenzhe and Essop Pahad — seemed to like the idea of having someone with the connections of a veteran hack, and a reputation on the right for bloody-minded truth-telling, explain what Mbeki was really all about.

What inspired me to share this bit of personal history was Tony Leon’s column last week quoting a Washington “insider” on how SA’s Washington embassy has been missing in action as the expropriation without compensation brouhaha has hotted up. I have had few dealings with the mission since parting company with Brand SA at the end of 2014 but in fairness to Ambassador Mninwa Mahlangu and his team, this is hardly the easiest of times to be representing any country here, let alone one as seemingly beset as SA, given what’s in the White House.

Would the Netshitenzhe-Pahad approach, abandoned after Mbeki lost his bid for a third term as ANC president, be cost-effective in current circumstances? For now, the question is moot.  At the present exchange rate, my Brand SA successor, a proud ANC cadre, is into the taxpayer’s wallet for R5 million a year in salary and living allowance alone, according to the contract on file with the US Justice Department.

The challenge is to convince global decision makers and those whose influence them to see through the boisterous political kabuki of EWC and have faith that, as dire as things look now, the centre will hold under Cyril Ramaphosa’s leadership. That will take a good deal more than savvy government communications strategy. It will require facts, independently validated and explained by credible interlocutors and third-party endorsers not on the government’s inflated payroll — in other words by business.

More than ever, SA needs a new corporate-sponsored SA Foundation with plausible representatives in important capitals to explain and advocate for the country from a private sector perspective. The old SA Foundation is tainted in political memory by its having lobbied against sanctions, so pick a different name. But don’t dismiss the concept. SA’s first post-apartheid ambassador to US, Franklin Sonn, certainly didn’t. He pleaded with the Foundation not to close its Washington office when it decided to do so after 1994.

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