Af­ter four years as SA’S am­bas­sador to the US, Ebrahim Ra­sool re­turns to our shores in De­cem­ber

CityPress - - News - By Carien du Plessis

Ebrahim Ra­sool left the Western Cape for Wash­ing­ton, DC, in 2010, soon af­ter a jour­nal­ist im­pli­cated in a cash-for-sto­ries “brown en­ve­lope” scandal claimed he was Ra­sool’s em­bed­ded spin doc­tor. Four years later, this is the first thing Ra­sool brings up when he bumps into South African jour­nal­ists in the lobby of the five-star Wil­lard In­ter­con­ti­nen­tal in DC dur­ing the US-Africa Lead­ers Sum­mit.

“I can­not be too friendly with jour­nal­ists. They will ac­cuse me of hand­ing out brown en­velopes,” he re­marks jok­ingly to pres­i­den­tial spokesper­son Mac Ma­haraj.

There’s still some sting – the probe into the saga was dropped last year due to a lack of ev­i­dence – but the dam­age to his rep­u­ta­tion and the de­ploy­ment from the province he once ran as pre­mier, were al­ready done.

His vin­di­ca­tion was as bit­ter as it was sweet. There were claims the scandal was fu­elled by pol­i­tics – from op­po­si­tion par­ties as much as fac­tions in the ANC.

Some in the gov­ern­ing party had enough faith in him to call for his help with this year’s elec­tion cam­paign in the Western Cape.

But for now, he is on the in­ter­na­tional stage in a stately em­bassy on Mas­sachusetts Av­enue, along­side other coun­tries’ em­bassies.

Ra­sool’s of­fice is on the first floor of the build­ing – which has the feel of a grand, over­sized res­i­dence with heavy, thick-glassed doors. It has been re­fur­bished so re­cently you still ex­pect to smell the paint.

Dur­ing his stay in the US, the South African em­bassy has be­come a friend to the Amer­i­can Jewish Com­mit­tee (one of the largest, most es­tab­lished Jewish and mi­nor­ity rights groups in the coun­try), he says.

The first Mus­lim Broth­er­hood of Egypt del­e­ga­tion to visit the US came di­rectly from the air­port to his res­i­dence. The Free Syr­ian Army – an armed op­po­si­tion group in Syria that wants Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad re­moved – has also knocked on the em­bassy’s door for ad­vice.

Ra­sool has spent four years run­ning a pub­lic diplomacy cam­paign, ad­vo­cat­ing tol­er­ance and peace in Nel­son Man­dela’s name and sell­ing Africa and South Africa to the world.

He lists some of his suc­cesses: get­ting the Car­lyle Group to open of­fices in Joburg with a $750 mil­lion (R8 bil­lion) fund to in­vest in Africa; and help­ing to per­suade US Ex­port-Im­port Bank to ex­pand its $70 mil­lion in­vest­ment in South Africa to $7 bil­lion in the whole of Africa.

Po­lit­i­cally and so­cially, Ra­sool has also been reach­ing out to for­mer anti-apartheid ac­tivists in the US and the es­ti­mated 83 000 South African ex­pats liv­ing there.

He says it is “hard work ne­go­ti­at­ing peace with our ex­pats”. Many bad-mouth South Africa be­cause they left in un­hap­pi­ness but ac­cord­ing to him, they’re given “a mis­sion” to help get them back on side.

For in­stance, the em­bassy raised $26 mil­lion for the Nel­son Man­dela Chil­dren’s Hos­pi­tal. A chunk of that money came from or­di­nary South Africans liv­ing in the US.

Ra­sool landed in the US shortly af­ter the 2010 Fifa World Cup. At that time, there was a re­newed in­ter­est in South Africa and in Man­dela, more so around his ill­ness, and then his death last year. “Just be­fore I ar­rived here, Man­dela had been seen at the World Cup, at prob­a­bly his most frail pub­lic mo­ment. So be­ing in the US at that time, I al­most needed to speak the lessons of his life and val­ues,” he says.

“And so I think it was quite for­tu­nate that I could be here.” He says there has been a lot of good­will to­wards South Africa and he wants to sus­tain this through “pre­sent­ing the life, legacy and val­ues of Man­dela, mak­ing that the lens through which Amer­i­cans con­tinue to view South Africa”.

Last year, a statue of Man­dela was erected in front of the em­bassy where the first ar­rests of US anti-apartheid pro­test­ers took place in 1983.

About $1 mil­lion was raised for the statue from busi­nesses, in­sti­tu­tions and in­di­vid­u­als.

It soon be­came one of Wash­ing­ton’s top tourist attractions.

Ra­sool said the “ul­ti­mate hon­our” was when the US went into 10 days of of­fi­cial mourn­ing af­ter Man­dela died in De­cem­ber. A memo­rial ser­vice in the Wash­ing­ton Cathe­dral was led by cleric Alan Boe­sak.

Opera singer Jessye Nor­man per­formed, and aca­demic and mu­seum direc­tor John­netta Cole de­liv­ered a mes­sage from poet Maya An­gelou, who was ill at the time.

Brand SA coun­try man­ager Si­mon Bar­ber, who sat in on our in­ter­view, butts in: “But the best speech was by the am­bas­sador.” (Ra­sool is known as a good or­a­tor and is putting to­gether a book of his speeches.)

Ra­sool’s ten­ure as am­bas­sador ter­mi­nates at the end of the year. He will ei­ther go back into govern­ment or into busi­ness, he says.

He will also con­tinue work­ing with his World for All Foun­da­tion, an or­gan­i­sa­tion op­posed to Mus­lim ex­trem­ism.

The name echoes the “home for all” cam­paign he ran as the Western Cape’s pre­mier al­most a decade ago.

He doesn’t re­gret his term as am­bas­sador com­ing to an end.

“It is time to go, there is no re­luc­tance on my part. There is no sense of un­fin­ished busi­ness.”

Ac­cord­ing to him, the US-Africa Lead­ers Sum­mit was the high­light “of [our] work to get Africa re­spected and to get the US to un­der­stand Africa through a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive, not the beg­ging bowl, dis­easerid­den con­ti­nent it has been”.

Wash­ing­ton has taught him a lot but it hasn’t al­ways been easy.

“When you come to a place like this, you ac­cept the de­ploy­ment and take a vow of si­lence on all the things that have gone down in the past, and do not try to de­fend them.

“And when you em­brace be­ing an am­bas­sador in the US, a whole world opens up.

“I have ab­so­lutely no re­grets, de­spite the cir­cum­stances of my com­ing here,” he says.


NEW BE­GIN­NINGS Ebrahim Ra­sool has been ad­vo­cat­ing Nel­son Man­dela’s lessons of peace and tol­er­ance in the US. He will con­tinue this work with his World for All Foun­da­tion, an or­gan­i­sa­tion that op­poses Mus­lim ex­trem­ism

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