A vacuum of leadership

(180924) -- UNITED NATIONS, Sept. 24, 2018 (Xinhua) -- Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (L, Front) addresses the Nelson Mandela Peace Summit held during the ongoing UN General Assembly's annual top-level meeting at the UN headquarters in New York, on Sept. 24, 2018. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Monday that Nelson Mandela embodied the highest values of the world body, in remembrance of the late South African leader who was a hallmark in the fight against apartheid. (Xinhua/Li Muzi)

The rainy summer’s evening came as a relief to the soaring temperatures we had been experiencing in the bustling Beijing. A group of Africans from South Africa, in the main, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Nigeria and even the United States had gathered in a small apartment with umngqusho on the menu. 

We met at 9pm, the only time the majority of us students and teachers of English could agree to meet, but we had to meet. On the agenda was the violence in South Africa, what we understood was happening, what we could do in our own small ways and so we named ourselves #Let’sDoSomething. 

The conversations were rich and at times deeply personal. The experiences of especially Black families, of Black mothers and girls with their harrowing familiarity with a violent family and a violent society. Absent fathers and how often Black people, African, Coloureds and Indians, were generally taught to communicate through violence. We reminded ourselves how our communities had to be violent in order to be heard by the state. How our boys had to through tantrums and be destructive to grab the little attention their guardians could afford to give.

Yet as deeply embarrassing and as shamefully painful this exercise was we had to be honest with ourselves, especially as men, and our own roles in perpetuating violence. Even to the level of recognising how we had just shut up, not comfortably quieten, the two toddler girls present at our gathering. It starts there.

When the violence in Gauteng broke out together with the subsequent outcry against gender based violence and violence against children, one of the major criticisms was that we had a leadership vacuum. President Ramaphosa was nowhere to be seen. Quickly attempts were made to ensure that this criticism was addressed. He addressed the thousands of women who had marched to parliament and addressed the nation in a recorded message. 

Yet one fears that the same mistake, the absence of leadership, is now being made on the international stage with the president’s decision not to attend this year’s opening of the United Nations General Assembly 74th Session. The Presidency has cited pressuring domestic issues as the reason why he has chosen the minister of international relations and cooperation to head this year’s delegation. 

In a globalised world, the first lesson of any foreign policy is that it cannot been seen in isolation from its foreign policy. Domestic imperatives inform foreign policy just as what is happening internationally must be inculcated into domestic policy. 

We are told that this year’s UNGA session will deal with 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, including promoting security, combating poverty, hunger and advancing quality education. One would have thought that these issues would be directly linked to our domestic imperatives and hence the president’s presence needed to be felt in the international community because domestic issues are international issues.

Even more so, we must re-examine the understanding we have of these foreign visits. The opening of UNGA is the only annual opportunity where a vast number of heads-of-state are gathered under one roof. Does this mean that President Ramaphosa cannot meet with a number of them, on a bi-lateral level, to follow up on investment promises and deals that they and their countries have made to South Africa or we in their country? This is what other heads-of-state do and they make sure that they return to their countries with reports on tangible outputs on deals struck.   

As with every South African, we must have the courage to be honest, admit our failures and engage our fellow Africans as well as our friends around the world. This would have been an opportunity for President Ramaphosa to go on the international charm offence and assure international partners that we are dealing with this grave situation in our country, as he has just done in Zimbabwe. To simply send a minister could be interpreted as him ducking embarrassment. 

As South Africans abroad and those of us studying international relations, acting as unofficial ambassadors for our country, we can ill-afford a vacuum of leadership from our number one diplomat in the international arena. Unless of course, there is something to hide and for which he cannot account. 

Wesley Seale is a PhD international relations student in Beijing.