79. Versatile, scholarly Pandor Good Fit for Foreign Ministry

Author: Prof. Adekeye Adebajo
Date: 1 July 2019
Publication: Business Day
Image supplied by: TWAS – DSC_3613_N_Pandor, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikipedia

Naledi Pandor was appointed South Africa’s foreign minister in the recent cabinet reshuffle. The 65-year old was “stunned” by the appointment, asking president Cyril Ramaphosa “What happened to higher education?” She candidly conceded that she “will have to learn diplomacy,” which she said “is not my strength.” 

Pandor, has, however been a fast learner in the three cabinet posts she has occupied since 2004: education, science and technology, and home affairs. Calm and reserved, she is widely regarded as competent, and is neither ideological nor factionalised. She thinks on her feet, speaks well, and has an engaging personality: all important attributes of a good diplomat. She is also something of a scholar-diplomat, having earned degrees from the universities of Botswana, London, Stellenbosch, Harvard, and a recent doctorate in Education from the University of Pretoria.

Politics flows through Pandor’s veins, and her political pedigree has inculcated in her a sense of noblesse oblige and a devotion to public service.  She is the grand-daughter of Z.K. Matthews, ANC Cape President, Botswana’s Ambassador to Washington, and the first graduate of Fort Hare. She is also the daughter of ANC stalwart, Joe Matthews, who later joined the IFP. Naledi separated politically from her father over his support for Transkei independence in 1976. She grew up in Durban before studying in Lesotho and Botswana, with these experiences shaping her sense of Pan-African solidarity. She met her future husband, Sharif Joseph Pandor, while studying in Gaborone, and converted to Islam. 

As education minister, Pandor overhauled the failed Outcomes-Based Education System, and reacted promptly to complaints about gender-based violence on university campuses and student funding. The country’s universities, however, remain fundamentally untransformed. As minister of science and technology, she promoted joint research chairs with African universities, and successfully pushed for South Africa to host the Square Kilometre Array Telescope. At Home Affairs, she sought to consolidate the reforms of her predecessor, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

Pandor has sometimes been courageously outspoken on issues of integrity. In 2017, she criticised her party’s failure to implement a decision on lifestyle audits. She was reported to have been part of a group of ANC rebels calling for president Zuma’s ouster in 2016.  

Officials at the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) have welcomed her appointment. She has had multiple briefings, and expressed a wish to engage civil society and foreign policy think-tanks. Her short tenure has, so far, been a baptism of fire. She showed her toughness by slapping down Zindzi Mandela, South Africa’s Ambassador to Denmark, for controversial tweets on the country’s land reform process. 

Pandor has cautioned against vision without concrete action, and stressed the need for foreign policy to be linked to addressing socio-economic challenges at home. She has championed “economic diplomacy” and prioritising the needs of youth across Africa. She has also called for South Africa to defend human rights around the globe, though this view is likely to come up against the realities of world politics and South Africa’s own limitations as a regional power.

 Pandor has already travelled to Beijing for a meeting on the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, giving fluent media interviews. She also attended the Group of 20 summit in Tokyo this past weekend. Her attention is likely to be taken up by Tshwane’s tenure on the United Nations Security Council (2019/2020), which South Africa will chair in October. President Ramaphosa also takes over the chairing of the African Union next year, which will involve setting priorities to manage conflicts and transitions in Libya, Algeria, Sudan, South Sudan, and the Sahel. Closer to home, fragile situations in Lesotho, Eswatini (Swaziland), and the Congo may involve diplomacy within SADC. She will also need urgently to mend the critical strategic relationship with Nigeria, which has been neglected over the past decade.

South Africa’s top diplomatic trouble-shooter – who recently noted that she is “really exhausted” after 14 years in cabinet – may be wary of the “shuttle diplomacy” and air-miles she will have to log in her new job. But, she can perhaps take comfort that the then 65-year old American secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, left the job after four years in 2012, having logged a record 956,733 air-miles in visiting 112 countries over 401 days. 

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is the Director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation.