South Africa’s 'stop gap' ambassador

Sisa Ngombane continues stint in Israel amid political jostling at home.

 (photo credit: FOREIGN MINISTRY)
(photo credit: FOREIGN MINISTRY)
South African Ambassador Sisa Ngombane was scheduled to complete his term in Israel at the end of this year. He even announced at this year’s Freedom Day reception in April that this would be the last one that he was hosting – but then Pretoria decided to extend his stay for another year.
In the interim, with the start of campaigns for the 2019 elections and the knowledge that there will be some manner of change after the elections, it was decided to leave the ambassador to Israel in place, and after the elections to appoint an ambassador whose views were aligned with those of the new government.
With a slight chuckle, Ngombane calls himself a “stop-gap” ambassador. For much of the time, since taking up his posting to Israel in 2012, he has been between a rock and a hard place. There are voices from within the ruling party of the African National Congress that are urging his recall, and in Israel, there are frequent summons to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs where he is asked to explain the most recent BDS activities emanating from pro-Palestinian South Africa. In a sense, he’s a diplomatic tennis ball being hit from both sides of the South Africa-Israel court.
At the same time, he’s more obliging than some of his colleagues from other countries and has not developed a defensive stance.
Seen at a recent cocktail reception in Herzliya, he was asked whether he was going to be at another event in Jerusalem the following day. He answered in the affirmative, and was then asked whether he could spare a half hour for an interview at the conclusion of the event. He gave his assent. He was then asked whether he could email a suitable photograph to be used with the interview, and sure enough the photograph was in Jerusalem before he arrived at the hotel where the event was being held.
Curiously, the photo that he chose was of the day he presented his credentials to President Shimon Peres.
When asked why, he said it was because Peres was a very special man, just as Ngombane’s hero Nelson Mandela had been a very special man.
In fact, Peres and Mandela met several times both in Israel and South Africa.
We sit in a corner, away from the crowd, and although it’s difficult to talk about South Africa beyond its current political context and its apartheid history, what interests this interviewer beyond the overall evils of apartheid is how it affected this soft-spoken, well-mannered man in the years that he was growing up.
South African apartheid and the apartheid of the American South were not the same.
In South Africa, blacks were not allowed to walk on the same pavement as whites. They had to walk around cars to get to wherever they were going. If they happened to step onto the pavement, they would be beaten up.
The all-black neighborhoods were squalid because no one earned enough money for major improvements.
The only whites in the school that Ngombane attended were the teachers. They spoke in an accent different from that of their students and Ngombane recalls that it took him a long time to adjust and to understand what they were trying to impart.
On the whole, the years in high school, were pleasant.
“We were insulated,” he says. “It was a good life.”
When he finished high school in 1975, he had to go to Pretoria to get his high school certificate because certificates were not distributed in village areas. Again, it was a matter of playing hide and seek with himself between cars to avoid stepping on the pavement and he also had to navigate the back streets to avoid being noticed.
After high school, he learned that there was a world that extended way beyond his environment. Together with other young men, he began to listen to illicit radio broadcasts. The ANC was broadcasting via short wave from Madagascar. It was actually around that time that he heard about Mandela. “We were not permitted to talk about him aloud.”
The high school certificate enabled his enrollment at Fort Hare University, which for more than 40 years was the main institution for higher education for black Africans seeking western-style studies. Among its students were Mandela, Govan Mbeki, Oliver Tambo, Joshua Nkomo and Robert Mugabe, who all went on to leadership roles in politics.
Ngombane studied geology and geography, but did not complete the course. He was busy politically, as were most of the other students, many of whom were arrested and severely beaten.
In high school, Ngombane had been superficially involved with politics, but once he was in the university environment, politics were almost contagious. People joined the ANC to be part of Mandela’s army, swearing that they would remain loyal to him and to his principles until his release from prison. Mandela had been arrested in 1962 and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Initially he was incarcerated on Robben Island for 18 years, then transferred to Polismoor Prison and then to Victor Verster Prison.
During the 27 years in which he was imprisoned, the only visitors permitted to Mandela were members of his immediate family, and a few white sympathizers who happened to be Jewish, among them parliamentarian Helen Suzman and journalist Benjamin Pogrund, who now lives in Jerusalem Bowing to domestic and international pressure and fearing the possibility of a civil war, President F. W. de Clerk had Mandela released in February 1990.
Ngombane was in Zambia at the time. Having risen through the ranks of the ANC, he was the party’s deputy chief representative in Zambia.
He then went on to represent the ANC in Belgium and when voting in South Africa’s first democratic elections, he did so at the South African Embassy in Brussels.
The tension in South Africa had been building up ever since Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) gained independence from Britain in 1980.
“Zimbabwe had negotiated and was free, and we saw that it was possible,” Ngombane reminisces. Zimbabwe Prime Minister Robert Mugabe regularly broadcast to other parts of Africa giving people in those states hope for the future.
Ngombane left South Africa in the year of Zimbabwe’s independence and went to Lesotho. “It was like another country.”
His underlying message is that just because most indigenous Africans are some shade of black, it doesn’t mean that they’re all the same. They are definitely not homogenous.
From Lesotho he went to Mozambique to continue his university studies, and where after reading Marx and Engels, and understanding the position of the worker in society, he became a Communist.
Two years later, he returned home briefly, and from there proceeded to Angola for military training.
He spent nine months with the guerrilla forces until such time as Mandela was released from prison.
Looking back to his guerrilla days, he says that he wasn’t a radical. He understood that there was no way to tell the white population to go back to where they came from, because some were already multi-generational Africans, but nonetheless, when white people mistreated, abused and humiliated black people, “we had to use force against them. They had to know that they couldn’t do these things to us with impunity. We could hit back” He clarifies that everything in which the guerrilla forces to which he was attached, was controlled. “We wouldn’t go on a rampage, but if the police killed a student, we would retaliate by smashing a power station.”
It was difficult in an era of white hostility and racism to refrain from mirroring such sentiments, “but we grew up trying not to hate for the sake of hating. You had to make your own high moral ground.”
Once his world changed and he no longer had to fight for freedom and equality, Ngombane joined the Foreign Office in 1994, and in order to round off his education, embarked on several courses, including one on politics at the Open University of the UK.
In his younger years, Ngombane could not even begin to dream of being a diplomat in South Africa, much less being sent abroad as a South African ambassador.
His first posting as an ambassador was to Cote d’Ivoire.
(Ivory Coast). Next was the Democratic Republic of Congo, and then he was sent somewhat further afield to Kula Lumpur in Malaysia.
After that he came back to Pretoria to serve for two as Deputy Director General for Asia and the Middle East, before being sent to Israel in 2013.
Despite his active ANC background, Ngombane has been subjected to criticism from home and at home, especially when countering stories of Palestinian suffering with examples of Palestinian terrorism, such as the June 2014 kidnapping and murder of three yeshiva boys.
Among those demanding his recall is Nelson Mandela’s grandson Mandla Mandela, who is a Member of Parliament and who advocates breaking all ties with Israel.
Ngombane is unfazed by this and takes it in stride, explaining, “There are different centers of influence in the ANC always fighting and pulling in different directions.” As far as attitudes to Israel are concerned, there is an anti-Israel lobby whenever there is a flare-up of violence, such as in the war in Gaza in 2014, which many in South Africa perceive as retaliation for the kidnapping.
He attributes some of the anti-Israel bias to a desire for publicity.
“People want headlines, and in the headlines the detail is lost, and it doesn’t matter if facts are correct or not.” People lack a complete understanding of issues, he says, adding that just because political figures in South Africa are against the policies of the present Israel government “does not mean that we must cancel relations.
It’s important to maintain relations.” He stresses this importance from “a well-informed long-term view. We have an obligation to maintain relations,” he declares.
He consoles himself that the extremist views expressed by some ANC members are not government policy and are not shared by the Foreign Ministry, but he admits that being a South African ambassador in Israel can be “a complex problem,” because there are people at home who are not convinced that relations between the two countries are necessary and treat the ambassador as the problem.
It’s not always easy to relate to the current situation and come out strong, he admits.
Meanwhile he’s the stop-gap until after the 2019 general elections, which will be the sixth under universal suffrage. The South African Constitution limits a president to two five-year terms, which means that Jacob Zuma is ineligible to run again. As no one knows at this stage who his successor will be or the nature of the policies that the new president will introduce, Pretotria considers it in everyone’s best interests to leave Ngombane at his post meanwhile.
The Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference is taking place on December 6 at the Waldorf Astoria in Jerusalem.