Lindiwe Sisulu. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON
Lindiwe Sisulu. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON

Many silly and pointless diplomatic incidents take place around the world, but the latest “investment memo” incident in SA surely takes the cake, at least for this year.

The incident was sparked by the Sunday Times main story on Sunday reporting the allegation that five Western governments had written to President Cyril Ramaphosa, saying that if he didn’t take action against the perpetrators of state capture his investment goals were likely to be thwarted.

The department of international relations  & co-operation (Dirco) immediately got on its high horse, significantly without checking the facts, and issued a démarche — a formal diplomatic registration of anger — against the five countries involved — the US,  the UK, the Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland.

Then on Monday, the ANC got involved and accused these “former colonisers” of a “holier-than-thou stance” and castigated their “threatening and bullying tone”. The Swiss, who have never colonised anything in their nearly thousand-year history,  may be somewhat surprised at this characterisation. What a mess.

The facts are these: there was no “letter” to the president; the countries concerned all agreed on comments in a memo aimed at helping the president’s investment drive, which they all support; and all of this happened eight months ago during the preparations for the investment summit.

Much of what they came up with may not be what the ANC wants to hear, but it is to all sensible people  absolutely obvious:  SA should enhance accountability and the rule of law,  it should be clearer in general about investment policies   and it should address the visa issue.

This was all intended with goodwill and genuine support for Ramaphosa’s initiatives. It would have helped if the Sunday Times had specified when the memo was formulated, but even more so Dirco should have done its own checks before hitting the diplomatic equivalent of the nuclear button. Just to add to the confusion, shortly after the ANC released its destructive statement, Dirco effectively moderated its position.

The department continued to complain that the countries concerned had not followed diplomatic protocol, but noted that the countries had “regretted the misunderstanding”. In fact, the countries denied they had not followed correct protocol because actually they hadn’t sent the president anything.

The whole issue is bound to be a something of a flash in the pan, except the little incident is illustrative of a number of problems. The first is that the ANC’s vacillating policy on any number of issues is a nightmare for SA’s bureaucrats. This is a good example because officials actually just don’t know whether Europe is to be designated friend or foe. As a result, efforts by local European diplomats to contribute are simply ignored by Dirco, because in the face of vacillating ANC policy officials simply freeze.

Second, it’s common knowledge that the National Prosecuting Authority has been decimated by Zuma-ites. But the truth is that many other departments have also been hollowed out, and Dirco is one of them. Dirco’s recent support for the Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro is a case in point. Economic collapse in Venezuela is now extreme; inflation has reached 1,300,000% and 3- million people have fled the country. Maduro won the presidential election  in 2018 through the simple device of not allowing opposition parties to run after he lost the parliamentary vote two years ago.

SA’s official support for Maduro is contrary to the values espoused in SA’s own constitution, and an expression of Zuma-ite foreign policy of blind support for Russia over “the West”. Does Ramaphosa support a virulent, anti-Western policy stance? Probably not, but nobody knows, certainly not SA’s diplomats.

Third, one of the problems with presidential initiatives is that other departments either feel left out or in fact are left out. The fact that Dirco knew precious little about the investment drive and consequently got all mixed up about the issue is a reflection of the fact that in order to get anything done Ramaphosa apparently feels he has to effectively bypass his own government. And unlike the memo debacle, that is not a minor issue.