Ask Ebrahim Rasool about growing up in South Africa, and he’ll take you back to 1966. That’s the year his country’s apartheid regime declared Cape Town’s District Six “for whites only” — and began forcibly removing the 60,000 or so colored Muslims, Xhosa-speaking blacks and Indians who had inhabited District Six for generations.
“All those who were not white had to leave,” Rasool recalled painfully. “One day in 1972, when I was 10 years old, I came home to find all our furniture on the pavement, and my father desperately looking for a truck to get it to another home, because our house — together with other houses — was on the verge of being demolished. We ended up going to a suburb in the Cape Flats. I think my parents’ sadness and the loss of community stayed with me throughout my life.”
That sense of injustice fueled Rasool’s rapid rise through the ranks of the then-banned African National Congress (ANC). He spent a year and a half in prison and two years under house arrest for his anti-apartheid activities. In 1994, following the end of minority rule in South Africa, Rasool became minister of health and welfare for Western Cape province, and later the provincial minister of finance and economic development. He was elected premier of Western Cape in 2004 and held that post until 2008.
Since August 2010, Rasool has represented South Africa as ambassador in Washington — a high-profile job that takes on special significance this year, the centennial of the ANC’s founding.
“That’s what makes 2012 special. It’s not only the 100th anniversary of the ANC, but also the year in which South Africa convenes the African Diaspora Summit, and the year in which we celebrate the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela,” said Rasool, who wears a tiny lapel pin on his jacket bearing his hero’s likeness. “For us, it will be a year of intensive reflection on how we relate to the values and principles personified by Nelson Mandela — and that have heralded this renaissance Africa is now going through.”
Rasool, 49, spoke to The Washington Diplomat from the glass Intelsat headquarters building on International Drive. Here, on a small second-floor office decorated with framed portraits of previous ambassadors, South Africa temporarily conducts official business while its mission along Embassy Row undergoes a long-overdue renovation.
“Since 1994, our operations have expanded tremendously. It’s a symbol of South Africa’s diplomatic and strategic relationship with the United States that we are investing so heavily in consolidating our offices and purchasing separate residences for both the ambassador and his deputy,” said Rasool, estimating that his government has spent $30 million on the project over the last two years. “Coming in a U.S. recession, this has been quite a help to the local construction industry.”
Rasool said South Africa’s Foreign Ministry now employs 120 people across the United States, both at the embassy and at consulates in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. A fourth consulate is planned for Miami.
The gregarious ambassador, who speaks English, Afrikaans, German and “a smattering of Xhosa,” explained that the country’s historic residence on Massachusetts Avenue dates back to 1946, when it was commissioned by the apartheid government as a symbol of classic Dutch architecture. In the 1960s, a second structure was built next door to be used as an embassy.
South Africa’s tumultuous political history is reflected in the art displayed on the walls of its official buildings here.
“A lot of the art has survived and risen in value. Our new residences have really allowed us to exhibit this art,” said Rasool. He noted, for example, works by classical painter Jacobus Hendrik Pierneef of the apartheid period “which in a sense really appreciate landscapes as an antidote to the creeping urbanization and modernization that has eroded the nation’s cultural values.”
Also displayed are abstract paintings by Gregoire Boonzaaier, “whose art is really about the negative impact of apartheid on communities.” Boonzaaier, who died in 2005 at the age of 96, is considered one of South Africa’s leading artists.
But the most important piece of art associated with the embassy’s renovation will be a statue honoring Nelson Mandela, now 93. Its size hasn’t yet been decided; Rasool hinted that it’ll be comparable to nearby statues commemorating Winston Churchill and Mahatma Gandhi, though not as tall as the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.
“It will be humble as befitting Mandela, but it will mark the fact that South Africa has produced an icon for the world,” he said. A fundraising event in Washington to generate money for the statue will take place Feb. 11 — which, the ambassador noted, “is also the day 22 years ago when Nelson Mandela was released from prison.”
‘Freedom in our Lifetime’
Looking back at Mandela’s years of struggle reminds Rasool of that infamous prison on Robben Island, just across the harbor from Cape Town, where Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years behind bars. South Africa’s current leader, President Jacob Zuma, was jailed at Robben Island for 10 years.
These days, the island is a major tourist attraction, where former guards now serve as museum guides. One of them is Christo Brand, who guarded Mandela himself before being transferred to Pollsmoor Prison, where Rasool was being held at the time.
“Brand was assigned to look after the political detainees, people who were imprisoned without being charged,” said the future ambassador, who began his political career in 1980, when as an 18-year-old student representative at Livingston High School he led a 12-week school boycott to protest the apartheid system.
“By 1983, I was in the mainstream of the political struggle,” he said, adding that despite the year and a half he spent at Pollsmoor — and the two years under house arrest — he was never formally charged with anything.
“I was quite involved with political organizations including the Call of Islam, which mobilized Muslims against apartheid. I was in the leadership of the United Democratic Front — the internal expression of the ANC because the ANC itself was banned. All of this activism came out of high school, because I had the misfortune to enter high school in 1976, the year of the great Soweto uprising.”
We asked Rasool if he ever imagined that some day he’d be South Africa’s ambassador to the United States.
“The only thing we dared to imagine was staying out of prison and staying alive, because we were dealing with one of the most brutal regimes imaginable,” he responded. “There were no ambitions. There was an aspiration for freedom, but never the assurance that you’d see it. So often, to give ourselves hope, we would invoke the slogan ‘freedom in our lifetime.'”
But hope was nearly impossible to maintain in the face of the complex bureaucracy the South African government created to intentionally separate blacks, whites and other races.
“They created enormous physical buffer zones,” the ambassador said. “If you had to drive from the airport in Cape Town to a hotel in Sea Point or the waterfront, you would typically pass three railway lines. Between the airport and the first railway line, you had these very tough shantytown homes where poor, black working-class people or the unemployed would live. Between that railway line and the next one you’d find tenements. That would be the coloreds — poverty-stricken and hungry — but at least they lived in brick tenements. And crossing that second railway line, you’d then have the colored and Indian middle-classes living in three-bedroom houses like the kind you’d find if you were to drive out to Virginia.
“Crossing that last railway line, you’d be in the equivalent of Beverly Hills, where people had a lifestyle that would even exceed the American dream. That’s where the whites would live, with their sprawling properties and palatial mansions, all behind high security walls and with massive private security in the streets.”
Rasool explained that apartheid was “not a case of simple racial discrimination as in the United States, but a very carefully planned thing in order to create buffers between races. What it effectively did was to replicate the physical separation with the implementation of psychological land mines in people’s heads — creating this sense that black anger does not reach whites, but is passed through all those who were oppressed. So you got tension between coloreds and blacks, rather than between whites and blacks.”
Apartheid as a legal institution dates back to 1949, with passage of the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act. A year later, the Immorality Act of 1950 made sexual relations with a person of a different race a criminal offense. That same year, laws were passed forbidding whites, blacks, Indians and coloreds from living side by side, and in 1953, the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act created separate public facilities for different races, giving rise to “whites-only” signs in schools, universities and hospitals — and even on beaches and park benches.
As the U.S. civil rights movement was just getting under way, South Africa’s white minority government stepped up its repression of non-whites through the 1950s and 1960s. The Black Homelands Citizenship Act of 1970 stripped black people of their South African citizenship, instead making them citizens of one of 10 autonomous territories, known as Bantustans. The objective: to ensure a demographic majority of white people within South Africa by having all 10 homelands achieve full independence, four of which were eventually declared independent by the apartheid regime.
Residents of these irregularly shaped Bantustans were given their own passports, and these “countries” even issued their own stamps and currency. Not a single country besides South Africa ever recognized their existence as full-fledged countries, though Israel did business with all four and even allowed the Bantustans of Ciskei and Bophuthatswana to open commercial offices in Tel Aviv.
Even so, Rasool explained, “after 1980, the government got the sense that apartheid couldn’t last. That was what gave rise to the final phase of the struggle, when the white government tried to give coloreds and Indians certain privileges, but left blacks permanently poverty-stricken.”
The reason: international sanctions and a constant barrage of protests against South Africa that excluded the country from world sporting events, many United Nations agencies and even the British Commonwealth.
Speaking with Rasool, it soon becomes clear that Ronald Reagan actually isn’t one of the ambassador’s favorite presidents.
“Reagan was so focused on defeating the Soviet Union that he compromised everything in the U.S. constitution that should have made the United States the champion of freedom and human rights in South Africa,” he charged. “Fortunately, there were many ordinary Americans who gave South Africans hope that the American people still had essentially a good heart. So we didn’t develop a rabid anti-Americanism. We saw the government doing one thing, but citizens doing another — for example, giving themselves up for arrest by protesting outside our embassy. We also saw universities like Georgetown divesting, and Democrats like Ron Dellums cooperating with Republicans like Richard Lugar to get an anti-apartheid vote through Congress.”
Rasool recalled that a chance meeting with Mandela in 1987 — in the waiting room of a prison hospital — was one of the high points of his life.
“You can just imagine what it meant for a young activist like me to meet the inspiration of my entire struggle in life,” he said. “One morning very early, after he came out of prison, I got a phone call and was summoned to his hotel room in Cape Town. He asked me to accompany him on a trip to Africa as his advisor.”
Rasool eventually traveled with Mandela to 13 countries over a three-week period, flying in the same aircraft, staying in the same hotels and dining at the same table.
On April 27, 1994 — just four years after Mandela’s release from prison, and one year after he won the Nobel Peace Prize — South Africa held its first multiparty election, and the ANC won with 62.6 percent of the vote. On May 10, Mandela was sworn in as South Africa’s president, and the Government of National Unity was established.
A decade later, as premier of Western Cape, Rasool said he used his roots as a nonviolent Islamic militant to prevent extremism from securing a foothold in the province, while also bolstering economic development. In a 2006 meeting with Barack Obama — who was then a senator from Illinois — he stressed the Cape’s model of moderate Muslim stability and the role Islam played in influencing the drafting of South Africa’s progressive constitution.
Moral Compass Gone Awry?
Yet these days, progressive is not a term that’s often used to describe the Zuma administration, or necessarily the ANC in general. Indeed, as inspirational as the party’s struggle and perseverance has been, South Africa’s deep-seated problems haven’t inspired much optimism lately.
To be sure, the ANC has made significant gains extending prosperity to more South Africans, improving access to electricity and clean water, for instance, and keeping economic growth steady despite a worldwide slump. And the government’s post-apartheid reconciliation movement remains one of its most revered legacies.
But Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s dream of a “rainbow nation” has given way to a murky future for many South Africans, millions of whom still eke out a living in dilapidated township slums, where the racial — and wealth — divide is as pronounced as ever. More than a quarter of the population can’t find work, and among young people, the unemployment rate stands at a staggering 70 percent. Crime is rampant, as is HIV/AIDS, while educational opportunities are scarce.
The ANC’s exalted past led to high expectations that it could lift the country’s long-suppressed black majority out of poverty and perpetual disadvantage. The failure to fully do so has been a major chink in the armor of this storied liberation movement, no longer able to rest on its laurels after 17 years of being in charge of the country.
Moreover, many people wonder if the party known for its principled stand on human rights and democracy is losing its moral footing. The ANC has been tainted by charges of endemic corruption, cronyism, internal squabbling and downright ineptitude. Although it still enjoys widespread support, many South Africans’ faith in the ANC has been eroded by a constant string of scandals involving top officials lining their pockets with bribes and contract payoffs. In fact, the Special Investigating Unit of South Africa estimates that some $3.8 billion, a quarter of all government spending, is siphoned off through graft and overpayments.
Zuma has also been criticized for trying to muzzle dissent, with a new bill passed in November that restricts the ability of journalists to report any information deemed to be a government secret.
The legislation makes it a crime — punishable by five to 25 years in jail — to disseminate anything that any state agency regards as classified. Archbishop Tutu told the New York Times that “it was insulting to all South Africans to be asked to stomach legislation that could be used to outlaw whistleblowing and investigative journalism.”
Rasool though defended the contentious law, insisting that his country has one of the world’s freest media establishments, because its constitution allows the media to regulate itself.
“What is at issue in South Africa is not freedom of press,” he told us. “In the U.S. and Britain, official classified documents only see the light of day 30 years later. South Africa wants to do the same, and it’s called an attack on press freedom.”
But it’s not only the press law that has sparked outrage. Rasool himself has drawn criticism from detractors — both in media and government — who say he never should have been sent to Washington in the first place.
In 2010, Stevens Mokgalapa, a member of the opposition Democratic Alliance, demanded Rasool’s immediate recall as ambassador following the ANC’s admission that he had been sacked as Western Cape premier because of alleged corrupt dealings with reporters.
South African media reports at the time suggested that Rasool had paid journalists at the Cape Argus newspaper to write stories that made him look good. Former Argus political reporter Ashley Smith apparently confessed to his role in the scandal in an affidavit, saying he and fellow staffer Joe Aranes were offered money in exchange for writing positive articles about Rasool. He said both men also received government contracts for their firm, Inkwenkwezi Communications.
But Rasool denies the accusations, which were raised as early as 2006. “I have consistently said that if anyone believes I did anything wrong, don’t go to the media. Go to the nearest police station. [Smith] said he never received money from me, even in the affidavit. I know there have been forensic investigations into media payments by the government when I was premier, and none of them have shown illegal payments to anyone, let alone direct payments to journalists,” he told The Diplomat. “So I’ve decided that, six years later, I’m not going to respond to any continued allegations in the absence of anyone making a substantial case about it.”
Rasool said his priorities as ambassador now are to help South Africa overcome its enormous economic and social challenges. Those challenges were thrust onto the front pages of the world’s newspapers Jan. 10, when one woman was trampled to death and several dozen injured after a stampede at a public university in Johannesburg. Those in the crowd had formed a line nearly a mile long, waiting for a chance to apply for one of the university’s few openings in a country where a college degree offers the possibility of a decent job.
The stampede, which took place only two days after the ANC’s 100th lavish birthday bash, was yet another reminder that South Africa — even though it boasts the most developed economy in Africa — still has a long way to go before it can join the ranks of first-world countries.
For one thing, nearly 9 million of its 50 million people scrape by on less than $1.25 a day. And although the country has an annual per-capita GDP of more than $10,000, this varies dramatically from one province to the next. Tiny Gauteng, which encompasses both Johannesburg and Tshwane (Pretoria), is about half the size of Maryland, accounting for only 1.4 percent of South Africa’s land area. But it’s home to 20 percent of its population and contributes 33 percent of the country’s GDP (and 10 percent of the African continent’s total GDP as well). Northern Cape, on the other hand, takes up 30.5 percent of the country’s land area but is home to barely 1 million people and contributes only 2.4 percent of total GDP.
Other social problems abound, from crime to AIDS.
Johannesburg is considered one of the world’s most dangerous cities, and the country consistently ranks near the top when it comes to rape, murder, assault and robbery. That’s why the rich live in posh, highly secure gated communities, far from the townships where most crime occurs.
And as of 2009, an estimated 5.6 million people were living with HIV and AIDS in South Africa, more than in any other country in the world. Nearly one in three women ages 25 to 29 and one in four men ages 30 to 34 are infected — yet in 2000, former President Thabo Mbeki attributed AIDS not to a virus but to poverty. Experts say Mbeki’s policy of AIDS denial led to the early deaths of more than 330,000 South Africans. Zuma too has been disparaged as “the shower man” for once saying that he took a shower after having unprotected sex with an HIV-positive woman to prevent infection.
“South Africa seems determined these days to earn its new identity as a regional superpower — the ‘S’ recently invited to join the booming BRIC economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China. [But] by sheer numbers alone, South Africa doesn’t deserve to belong to the BRIC countries,” says Eve Fairbanks, writing in the January/February 2012 issues of Foreign Policy. “Its GDP and rate of economic growth rank below other emerging economies like Indonesia and Argentina. It has fewer people than Thailand and Iran, fewer exports than Malaysia and Turkey, and one of the world’s highest unemployment rates.”
Fairbanks added: “South Africa’s reluctance to stand firm on moral issues stems not only from a desire to curry favor with wealthy pariahs, but also from a deeper tension over what kind of country it wants to be. South Africa may be a vacillating teenager now, but sooner or later it will have to decide what it wants to be when it grows up.”
This explains why South Africa has embraced China and its lure of investment — and why the Zuma government refused to grant the Dalai Lama a visa to attend Tutu’s recent 80th birthday party in Cape Town. That led the beloved archbishop to tell stunned South African journalists that the ANC — which he said disregards the right of the people of Tibet for self-determination — was worse than the white minority regime, and that he would one day pray for its downfall, too.
Pressed on the issue, Rasool said quite openly that “China is a major source of capital” and that his government does not want to offend Beijing. On the other hand, the ambassador noted that when he was premier of Western Cape province, he personally hosted the Dalai Lama on two occasions and showed him around.
“The mistake may have been for him to have withdrawn his visa application without letting the pressure continue,” speculated Rasool. “There was a very big debate taking place, and I think he dissipated all that pressure by withdrawing.”
But the bigger debate is about morality versus interests.
“The Chinese are moving in because of a vacuum created by the United States,” he said. “I always tell U.S. investors who raise the China issue with me about that song, which says, ‘If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.’ South Africa has to weigh a lot of considerations. We’d love to have the U.S. unemployment rate of 9 percent. Instead, we’ve got a 30 percent unemployment rate. We’d love to have educated, skilled workers. What we have instead is a vast number of unemployable people because apartheid did not give them the skills. We don’t have the luxury of choosing one morality over the other.”
At the end of the day, he added, all countries have interests.
“For example, U.S. interests in the Middle East have caused it to turn a blind eye to the oppression of women, or the absence of freedom of religion. Do we approach our interests from a principled basis or from a utilitarian basis? I think South Africa would argue that how we would have resolved the conflict in Libya would have been very consistent with the way Nelson Mandela resolved the conflict with apartheid. We did not take our country to the brink of destruction, civil war or bloody revolution. We averted this by reaching out to our opponents, negotiating with them and finding a compromise. That is something we did for our own conflict, and it’s the hallmark of how we see ourselves resolving conflicts elsewhere.”
To that end, Rasool defended Zuma’s May 2011 visit to Tripoli against accusations that South Africa was coddling the Libyan dictator — even though South Africa loudly criticized the NATO bombing campaign against Qaddafi and refused to release $1.5 billion in assets to the rebels fighting to oust him.
“President Zuma did not go to Libya to offer his support to Qaddafi but to negotiate an exit for Qaddafi that would not have resulted in bloodshed, bombing, destruction and his wanton killing,” the ambassador said. “In much the same way, South Africa intervened in Sudan when the West essentially wanted Omar al-Bashir’s head. Two years later, the state of South Sudan was formed. We averted an enormous amount of bloodshed.”
Yet when it comes to neighboring Zimbabwe, South Africa’s record is less than stellar. It has been a steadfast supporter of President Robert Mugabe despite the 87-year-old strongman’s past human rights abuses and wholesale destruction of the Zimbabwean economy. Once again, Rasool defends South Africa’s foreign policy.
“The United States and Europe have a default position of regime change. But in South Africa, we first created a government of national unity, where foes worked together, and then developed a common program to reform the economy. That recipe worked for us, and it’s beginning to yield enormous results in Sudan,” he argues.
“The timelines are different in Zimbabwe,” he continued. “But the fact is, had we simply had a regime change there, the opposition MDC [Movement for Democratic Change] would never have had the support of the army. They would have faced a coup within a year. What South Africa negotiated was a government of unity that divided the government of Zimbabwe fairly equally, creating the basis for the revival of the Zimbabwean economy. And we are now in a situation where Mugabe wants elections but the MDC is saying no.”
2012 Centennial Celebrations
Despite differing approaches to hotspots such as Sudan and Zimbabwe, Rasool says that these days, relations between Washington and Pretoria (renamed Tshwane) are quite close.
“We’ve upgraded our relationship and we have strategic dialogue on an annual basis,” the ambassador said. He admitted that the fact President Obama is black “helps a lot.”
“We have moved out of a very unilateral period under George W. Bush into a far more consultative multilateral period now under Obama. For example, we would have had issues with the war on terror under Bush, but we voted for U.N. Resolution 1973 — which tightened sanctions against Qaddafi — because President Obama did it through the Security Council rather than take unilateral U.S. decisions. So it’s not simply the fact that you have a black president. There’s a different way of doing things now. Maybe the U.S. has a reduced appetite and reduced resources for unilateral foreign adventures, and needs more partners in the way in which if often polices the world.”
Yet a big part of Rasool’s job is maintaining bilateral ties in a way that supersedes who occupies the White House. To that end, he says his top priority as ambassador is preserving the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). The act, signed into law in May 2000, eliminates U.S. duties and tariffs on thousands of export items ranging from fabrics to footwear.
“AGOA comes up for review in 2015, but we need to have assurance in 2012 that it will continue,” said Rasool. “One of our major tasks this year is to persuade Congress and the Obama administration to keep it in place, because it benefits not only Africa but the United States as well.”
Thanks to AGOA, he said, South Africa exports nearly $8 billion worth of goods to the United States annually — from wine and orange juice to nuclear isotopes and Mercedes-Benz C-class cars. The Export-Import Bank of the United States, for example, recently approved a $6 billion loan for South African power utility Eskom to build a power plant. Last February, the Ex-Im Bank also guaranteed a $100 million loan to South African rail network Transnet so that it could buy locomotives from General Electric. That deal is keeping 600 people working at a GE factory in Erie, Pennsylvania.
“AGOA started off as a U.S. benefit to Africa, but in a very strange way, it could be the salvation of the U.S. economy,” said Rasool. “Our small farmers export their products to the United States; they graduate into commercial farmers. That’s why John Deere has opened a plant just north of the airport in Johannesburg to supply them with equipment. In much the same way, entrepreneurs are able to sell goods to the U.S. duty-free thanks to AGOA. Their family businesses have become commercial businesses, and now they need computers to keep their businesses globally connected. So IBM and Dell have had major surges in the South African market.”
To that end, Rasool said he’ll soon host a visiting delegation from the Eastern Cape provincial government hoping to find U.S. investors to set up shop at the new deepwater Port of Coega (also known as Ngqura) in Port Elizabeth.
“We’ll be reaching out to the automotive industry to set up plants to serve the growing African middle class,” he added. “We’re very happy that Ford has also decided to make all its pickup trucks for the African continent there.”
Business will certainly be on the agenda this year as the South African Embassy celebrates the ANC’s 100th anniversary in a yearlong campaign being dubbed South Africa 2012. But so will history, philosophy, culture and jazz, with a slew of events throughout the United States honoring the ANC centennial, as well as America’s support of the liberation struggle. Among the lineup of events: a festival of ideas in Washington, D.C., a film festival in Los Angeles, an arts and culture festival in New York, and a jazz festival in Chicago.
“One of the highlights of our celebration will be a teaming up with the James Madison Center in Virginia, and a festival of ideas,” Rasool said. “If James Madison, arguably the architect of the U.S. constitution, and Nelson Mandela could have a conversation today, how would they alter the 225-year-old U.S. constitution and the 16-year-old South African constitution?”
In the midst of such lofty ideas, statue dedications and partying, the star of the show, Mandela himself, may not be anywhere in sight.
“He’s as frail as a 93-year-old can be. He’s not traveling anymore,” said Rasool. “It’s not even certain whether he’ll attend the ANC celebrations. Tuberculosis has affected his lungs badly, and his eyes suffer from having worked in the lime quarries. But he remains remarkably strong, and has a wonderful spirit. For us, it’s a wonderful opportunity to memorialize Mr. Mandela in a country that has shown him nothing but love and respect.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.