Cable ties: Wikileaks and South Africa

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When Wikileaks released its latest batch of diplomatic documents earlier this month, it brought its holdings up to a total of 2 million records. What Wikileaks calls the ‘Public Library of US Diplomacy’ now consists of the original 250,000 US diplomatic cables – known as ‘Cablegate’ – and the 1,7 million new ‘Kissinger Cables’. REBECCA DAVIS trawled through the archive to see what US diplomats had to say about South Africa and its politicians.

“The collection covers US involvements in, and diplomatic or intelligence reporting on, every country on earth,” Wikileaks reported, upon the addition of the newest set of documents to the existing archive. “It is the single most significant body of geopolitical material ever published.” The statement is couched in the language of hyperbole and self- aggrandisement that we’ve come to expect from Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, but there’s no denying that the archive is vast. How much of it is actually noteworthy information, however, is a different story altogether.

The newly-released Kissinger Cables cover the years from 1973-1976. Cablegate stretches back to 1966, but most of the documents come from 2000 and more recently. In total, there is an enormous amount of documents which involve South Africa in some way: search results throw up well over 42,000. The Kissinger Cables are mainly of interest from a historical perspective, particularly for those who weren’t around in 70s Apartheid South Africa. In early 1973, for instance, a topic that crops up again and again in diplomatic communiques is the thorny matter of the South African Games.

On 14 March 1973, a Pretoria-based diplomat contacts the US State Department with worries induced by a Rand Daily Mail article which claims that the US is sending a basketball team to the South African Games which “will probably include Negroes”. The diplomat requests advice as to how to “characterise this participation with local media. Please reply immediate.”

In response, the diplomat is told to confirm that “several American Athletic teams participating in SA games on private basis at invitation and expense [of] certain SA sporting organisations. Teams not rpt [repeat] not US national teams as such.” The diplomat is also informed that a 10-man basketball team from the University of Western Florida will comprise “7 whites, 3 blacks”.

A cable from the same year is sent from Wellington, New Zealand, to diplomatic colleagues in the US and South Africa. The topic of discussion is the upcoming Springbok tour to New Zealand, which Kiwi foreign affairs secretary Frank Corner has told the diplomat will not take place. “The prime minister’s tactic is to attempt to bring home to rugby-loving New Zealanders an understanding of the internal risks and international repercussions which the tour would cause so that the tour will be cancelled without necessity of being forced to cancel it,” the diplomat cables, with an explanation of why this circumspect approach is necessary: “This is a very hot issue here where rugby is almost a religion, and many cling to belief international sport should be apolitical.”

In September 1975, a cable authored by Kissinger describes a meeting which took place between SA ambassador to the US Roelof Botha and US President Gerald Ford. In the record of the meeting, Botha is at pains to impress upon Ford the “many changes in the relationship between blacks and whites”, while complaining that “the United States has not given South Africa the recognition and credit that America could perhaps give”. With regards to South Africa’s relationship with other African states, Botha claims that “he has found in his own experience at the UN that 12 black ambassadors will receive and deal discreetly with him.”

In preparation for Kissinger’s visit to South Africa in 1976, a cable is sent to brief him on “black leaders in South Africa whom you may wish to see”. The author “strongly” urges Kissinger “that you personally ask Vorster to see top black leadership, regardless of detainment”. As top priority, the diplomat advises Kissinger to see Nelson Mandela: “Most widely respected black South African leader… Prisoner, Robben Island.” Among others on the list are Winnie Mandela, PAC leader Robert Sobukwe and Steve Biko – “very articulate”.

It appears that none of these meetings materialised. In the The Road to Democracy in South Africa: 1970 – 1980, The Road to Democracy Project notes of Kissinger’s visit to South Africa in September 1976 that: “He never bothered, however, to meet a single leader of the liberation movements.”

Cables from the nineties, from the first ‘Cablegate’ dump, reveal US diplomats keeping a close eye on ANC leaders as they prepared for the transition to democracy. A cable from May of 1990 reports Nelson Mandela as being “furious” with top advisor Zwelakhe Sisulu for thwarting a meeting with Margaret Thatcher that Mandela hoped to hold “to express the ANC’s objections to her policy”. Sisulu, the cable records, “had been the most persuasive speaker at the ANC executive meeting which decided the issue of whether to meet Thatcher.”

The diplomat who authored the cable proceeded to criticise Sisulu’s administrative incompetence. “Sisulu has been notoriously unreliable in arranging meetings between Mandela and US officials,” the author wrote. “In an ironic twist, the formerly undependable Winnie has now become one of the most effective channels to Mandela.”

A year later, a cable speculates that the relationship between Thabo Mbeki and Chris Hani has become strained. “If Mbeki and Hani (both 48) still have a close friendship, we would be surprised,” the cable begins. “Hani’s handling of the armed actions working group, which he chaired, left much to be desired – though, granted, he had a very difficult task. Hani failed to show up for some joint working group meetings, even after his disputed indemnity status was resolved. His ANC colleagues were sometimes at a loss to explain his absence to us.”

The cable goes on to contrast the two men’s political styles: “Mbeki takes a dispassionate, reasoned approach to issues… Hani is more a man of the people.” The popularity of the latter, the cable suggests, could lead to an impending power struggle: “Many observers believe that Hani would trounce Mbeki if there were a popular vote among ANC supporters.”

In a meeting with the US ambassador in April 1993, days after the assassination of Hani, another cable records that Mbeki voiced concern “over exaggerated media focus on the ‘anger’ of the ANC rank and file” following Hani’s murder. “Oliver Tambo and he went to Hani’s home following the assassination and did not find the people milling around to be angry,” the cable reports, only “outraged and upset”.

In May 1995, a cable produced to brief the state department on “Thabo Mbeki, The Man Who Would Be President” voiced certain concerns over Mbeki’s style of leadership. “Mbeki has been criticised for missing appointments, and documents lie in his in-basket for weeks,” the author wrote. “He is constitutionally unable to delegate decision making authority, and exhausts himself by becoming excessively involved in the most minute details on a range of issues.” The cable also touched on more personal aspects of Mbeki’s character: “A respected female journalist and longstanding embassy contact confided to us that she avoids one-on-one sessions with Mbeki because he has made sexual advances toward her,” the cable read. “However, such stories are relatively rare, and Mbeki has not gained the reputation of a ‘womaniser’.”

The opposition also comes in for diplomatic scrutiny. “Bio Notes on DA Leader Helen Zille”, written in October 2007, quotes Zille’s chief of staff Paul Boughey as describing Zille as “an impulsive decision maker, which makes it difficult to manage her”. Other sources, the cable records, “bragged about Zille’s workaholic tendencies, all the while using words like ‘obsessive and compulsive’.” The cable also noted that Zille was seen to offer the party “a clean slate” after the leadership of Tony Leon, and quotes a source as saying that South Africans have an image of Leon in their head “shooting children in a township out of a helicopter, even though that never happened”.

Mention of Julius Malema appears increasingly frequently in the cables towards the end of the 2000s. His ascendancy is presented as the catalyst for a December 2008 cable titled “The End of the ANC Intellectual?”, in which the author worries about “the future of the ruling party as a place of ideas”. The cable opines that the days of Sisulu, Tambo, Mandela, Mbeki, Slovo and Hani are over. “The ANC is still the standard-bearer of intellectual thought for liberation movements, but the party has struggled in recent years to maintain many of its traditions.” Under Zuma, the author feared this decline would intensify. “Without a strong intellectual centre, the party probably will struggle and become vulnerable to the phenomenon of the ‘cult of personality’ and access to state patronage,” the author concludes.

It’s best to remember that some of the details included in the cables are essentially gossip and hearsay, and there are some that strain credulity. A cable written in 2009, just prior to the April 22 elections, quotes Unisa professor Dirk Kotze, who spoke to the diplomat who wrote the cable on the matter of the Freedom Front. “Kotze, who is extremely close to FF president Pieter Mulder, said the largely Afrikaner party wants to form an alliance with the ANC,” the author wrote. “He said that Mulder would join the ruling party in a coalition ‘right now if he thought he could get away with it’.”

After the 2009 elections, the “Poloff” (cable abbreviation for Political Officer) met with the ANC’s Chris Nissen to discuss the ANC’s failure to win the Western Cape in the elections. Nissen informed the diplomat that factionalism and in-fighting had riven the Western Cape ANC to such a degree that “Terror Lekota, Marius Fransman and Ibrahim Rasool were all about to jump ship to COPE, until Nissen intervened. In January [2009], Nissen approached each of these men and asked them not to leave the ANC.” This timeframe makes no sense: Lekota had submitted his resignation to the ANC on 23 September of the previous year.

It would take months to plough through the entire archive of South African cables in a systematic way. While many of the documents are interesting only from the vantage point of a historical relic, or a gossipy tidbit, there are others which are likely to still prove their use. The most recent example of the potential utility of these documents has been the discovery of a cable from 2006, titled “South Africa To Provide Military Training In CAR”.

The cable makes reference to South Africa’s commercial interests in the CAR, including a uranium mine, and the cable concludes: “South Africa’s mining interests, while not the dominant factor, no doubt played a role in the SAG [South African Government] decision to become involved in CAR.” This, of course, differs from the account of the Department of Defence as to the motivation behind the deployment of SANDF troops. If the Wikileaks cables provide more of these retrospective insights into South African government workings, even the staunchest Assange detractor must admit that the leaked cables could yet be of service.

Written by: Rebecca Davis

Picture credit: Daily Maverick

  • Rebecca Davis studied at Rhodes University and Oxford University. This article was published on Daily Maverick.



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