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Pandemic defines South African ambassador’s tenure

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The ongoing pandemic has defined Nomaindiya Cathleen Mfeketo’s nearly two years as South Africa’s ambassador to the United States, literally from day one.

The longtime politician—the first black woman to win election as mayor of her native Cape Town—departed for Washington on March 12, 2020. The next day, South Africa went into an extended lockdown as countries worldwide confronted the frightening new contagion.

“I had to rush because if I had stayed one day longer, like everyone else, I would have been stuck in South Africa for months,” Mfeketo said.

And now, the ambassador finds herself defending her own country—along with the rest of the region—in the face of a widespread travel ban against most of Africa spurred by the new omicron variant of COVID-19.

“All our doctors were trying to do is say to the world there’s another variant coming, and to tell everyone what South Africa was experiencing,” she said. “It definitely makes one angry when you’re trying to assist everybody. This really doesn’t make any sense.”

Indeed, instead of praise for its transparency, she said, her nation has been punished with travel bans by the United States, Britain, the European Union, Australia and even some other African states, including Morocco and Nigeria.

“South Africans who have parents here are angry. We’re all sitting and waiting, not sure when the ban will be lifted,” the ambassador said. “Lots of other people are complaining too.”

Omicron far less likely to lead to hospitalization

Mfekelo’s own son, who was supposed to visit her over Christmas and New Year’s Day, was turned back at Johannesburg airport due to the strict US travel rules.

Nomaindiya Cathleen Mfeketo, South Africa’s ambassador in Washington.

Mfekelo spoke to The Washington Diplomat on Dec. 23 via Zoom—she’s not doing any face-to-face interviews for the time being—two days after President Joe Biden announced that he may soon lift the US ban on travel and from South Africa and seven other countries: Botswana, Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe.

The irony is that even though South African scientists were the first to identify the variant, omicron itself was already present in Europe before the travel bans were enacted. Omicron now accounts for 73% of US cases. Yet the prohibitions target some countries that have yet to see a single case of that particular strain.

Furthermore, omicron may turn out to be a blessing in the long run. South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases reports that the omicron variant is 80% less likely to lead to hospitalization than delta, and that for patients who were hospitalized, the risk of severe illness is 30% lower. Case numbers are rapidly plummeting, reported the Washington Post—suggesting there’s a good reason to be optimistic after all.

Acknowledging the rapidly changing situation, Biden told reporters at a White House briefing Dec. 21 that “I’m considering reversing [the travel ban]. I’m going to talk to my team in the next couple days.”

Meanwhile, said Mfeketo, “people in South Africa are not going to hospitals, maybe because it’s summer back home, so omicron is spreading only where it’s cold now. I don’t have the latest numbers, but you don’t find even 100 people with the omicron variant in hospitals.”

She added that 60% of South Africa’s 59 million inhabitants are fully vaccinated, generally with the Moderna or Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Another factor is that over 70% of South Africans have been infected by previous variants, leading to a more robust antibody response.

Peer pressure, fear lead South Africans to get the jab

“When people saw the death rate—even with delta—they started going to get vaccinated,” she said. “Also in South Africa, people are going door-to-door in their communities, asking neighbors if they’ve gotten their shots. Most of those who feel it’s wrong to get a vaccine, when they’re told by people they’re loyal to, or people they care for, they start doing the right thing.”

Mfeketo said that all but two of the 42 staffers at her embassy are vaccinated.

“Definitely, our mission as a whole is dealing with this, but it hasn’t stopped me from doing my ambassador job,” said the diplomat, adding that the embassy’s health attaché, Dr. Gail Andrews, is responsible for all covid-related issues.

Mfeketo, an anti-apartheid activist since the age of 23, served as the deputy speaker of South Africa’s fourth parliament, was the first black woman mayor of Cape Town, and since 2007 has been a member of the national executive committee of the ruling African National Congress.

She was also South Africa’s deputy minister of the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (2014-18) and minister of human settlements (2018-19).

Since her country became a democracy in 1994, said Mfeketo, it has strived to “deepen and broaden its relationship” with the US in trade, investment, tourism, technology, education, environmental and health issues.

“There will always be cordial relations with the United States, because we’re not starting from scratch,” she said. “Over the years, our struggle for liberation was assisted by brave members of the US civil rights movement and anti-apartheid activists. They really supported us in dismantling colonialism. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have the South Africa we have today.”