Without a global government, states remain the primary actors in the international system. Each navigates its way through this complex web of friends and foes, pursuing national interests. The primary institution involved is a country’s foreign affairs bureaucracy, known since May 2009 as the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) in South Africa. But are South African taxpayers getting value for money from this department – increased trade, tourism and status – or are we funding a bloated, wasteful and overly-ideological behemoth?
DIRCO has a long pedigree. As a Dominion within the British Empire, the Union of South Africa (established in 1910), set up a Department of External Affairs in 1927, to pursue international engagements autonomously from Great Britain. Isolated in the apartheid years after 1948, South Africa’s international relations withered. Much energy and money was invested in fighting sanctions, and overcoming the isolation that the African National Congress (ANC) and the Anti-Apartheid Movement had engineered. After the transition to democracy in 1994, South Africa re-entered the international community as a full and active member.
Today, South Africa has 125 foreign missions in 108 countries, reputed to be the second highest number after the United States. Pretoria houses the second most international embassies – 135 – after Washington, DC. Can a middle income country with a struggling, sluggish economy and declining international prestige really afford this?
The 2011 National Development Plan noted; “As a middle-income country, South Africa is overstretching itself diplomatically. With more than 150 embassies, consulates and offices around the world and an apparent drive under way to open more embassies, the question of whether South Africa can actually afford more international representation – and whether existing operations are cost-effective – has been raised. It is not necessary to have representation in every country in the world … Furthermore, democratic South Africa has enjoyed significant permutations of power and influence in international relations that have not always been associated with diplomatic or consular representation. The country has, however, experienced a relative decline in power and influence in world affairs.”
Foreign policy doesn’t come cheap. DIRCO’s budget for 2020/21 was R6.31 billion. For 2021/22 it was cut from R7.04 billion to R6.45 billion, due to austerity measures. Almost 46% is spent on personnel costs, including generous allowances for those stationed abroad. A 2013 report found that South Africa’s cost-of-living allowances “are 60% higher than those paid to US staff and 40–50% higher than those for UN staff, who also pay their own accommodation, unlike South African staff.” These allowances, on top of salaries, apparently range from R600,000 to R1.3 million annually.
Not much had changed by 2020, when a parliamentary question revealed that DIRCO spends an average of R28 million per year per foreign mission. The one in Luanda costs R65 million, and Geneva sets us back R102 million. Year after year, DIRCO busts its budgets on salary costs.
South Africa pays annual membership dues to 26 multilateral bodies – R437.9 million to the African Union alone in 2019/20. The country is projected to pay R756.6 million in membership fees to international organisations in 2022/23, and an estimated R199.1 million to the UN alone in 2023/24. In 2020, even Parliament’s International Relations and Cooperation Committee expressed concerns over duplicated efforts, value for money and the poorly articulated rationale for belonging to so many clubs.
DIRCO rents over 1,000 properties abroad, in addition to 127 state-owned properties. It projected spending R1.2 billion in building renovations and upgrades over the medium term.
DIRCO for a long time did not achieve clean audits (although this has improved under Minister Naledi Pandor). In 2015/16, the Auditor General (AG) wrote, “DIRCO did not take effective steps to prevent unauthorised, irregular and fruitless and wasteful expenditure … reporting an irregular expenditure of R338.8 million which is an increase of R236.4 million compared to the prior year. Only 33% of the amount was identified by the auditee.”
In a later AG report, the top five non-compliance areas by DIRCO were: procurement of goods and services without inviting competitive bids; contracts awarded to bidders based on evaluation/ adjudication criteria that differed from those stipulated in the original invitation for quotations (a repeat finding); quality of financial statements (a repeat finding), prevention of unauthorised, irregular and fruitless and wasteful expenditure (a repeat finding); and monies not in use not invested.
In 2020, the chairperson of the parliamentary committee said, “The importance of good financial reporting in any department cannot be overemphasised, there is a need to recruit relevant skills that will ensure DIRCO’s spending is adequately accounted for at home and abroad, but also that the audit outcome improves … No cent of this department should go unaccounted for. That will set a bad precedence [sic].”
The COVID-19 pandemic has finally forced belt-tightening. In May 2021, DIRCO announced the impending closure of ten missions within a year: Bucharest (Romania), Helsinki (Finland), Holy See (the Vatican), Lima (Peru), Minsk (Belarus), Muscat (Oman), Port of Spain (Trinidad and Tobago), Suva (Fiji), plus consulates in Chicago (USA) and Milan (Italy).
Despite pressure from the anti-Israel lobby, South Africa’s embassy in Tel Aviv is not on the chopping block – yet. South Africa recalled its ambassador from Israel in May 2018 due to violence on the Gaza border, but has stopped short of downgrading the embassy to a “liaison office”’, as demanded by the ANC, and repeatedly confirmed as the intention by seniors in the government.
DIRCO still maintains plans for South African missions in every African country – 45 exist now – a policy more ideological than financially logical or even viable. South African firms thrive internationally despite DIRCO’s policies, rather than because of them.
Corruption is never far away. In 2016, South Africa paid R118 million for a non-existent piece of land in the “New York Pilot Project.” But it took until February 2021 to suspend DIRCO’s Director General Kgabo Mahoai and Chief Financial Officer Caiphus Ramashau. Opposition parties wanted more heads to roll. An Economic Freedom Fighters Member of Parliament said, “This New York project is an embarrassment to the nation whichever way you look at it. There ought to be political causalities for this. It’s not probable that only officials were involved here. Who must ultimately take political responsibility for this embarrassment? When will we see resignations?”
Ambassadors are either career diplomats or political appointees. The latter are either there as a reward or a punishment; leadership may want to shift them from the local political scene. Some 70% of South Africa’s heads of mission are political appointments. This is not unique to South Africa, but the extent of such preferment is abnormal and reckless. Such appointees are not trained to run an embassy, and will not typically have developed the skills to do so. With career paths in South Africa’s political scene, they may have neither the aptitude nor the inclination to make a success of a foreign posting. In at least some instances, those so posted have been the subject of scandals in South Africa, the gift of a prestigious job abroad a means of dignified temporary exile.
At times the conduct of our representatives has left something to be desired. It was alleged that a South African diplomat in Vienna had caused €40,000 worth of damages in two years to a rented luxury apartment. South Africa’s Consul-General in Los Angeles, Thandile Sunduza, has insisted that the R238,253 per month allocated for her personal residence is inadequate, and reportedly turned down over 30 properties, coveting a home on LA’s swanky Rodeo Drive. In 2016 Sibisiso Ndebele was recalled as High Commissioner in Australia due to allegations of R10 million in kickbacks from tenders while a minister. With charges withdrawn in 2018, he’s now High Commissioner in India. In 2016, South Africa’s High Commissioner to Singapore, Hazel Francis Ngubeni, had hidden her two year conviction for cocaine smuggling in New York when she was a flight attendant (something rich in irony given Singapore’s approach to narcotics trafficking). She lost her security clearance and was fired. South Africa’s Deputy Ambassador to Sudan, Zabantu Ngcobo, and her partner were being investigated for allegedly hiring hitmen to kill an intelligence officer who was sending home unflattering reports.
Speaking to Newsi, former Democratic Alliance leader and Ambassador to Argentina Tony Leon said, “DIRCO should take an axe, if not a shovel, to many of the missions overseas. Many are cost centres not achieving any purpose at all, except as a way of funding diplomats abroad. There is an enormous amount of wasted expenditure at DIRCO. Many of the missions we have are unnecessary to our national interest and certainly to our economic interest … DIRCO itself, with its head office in a gargantuan, expensive building, should also be looked at … I can imagine that a great deal can be saved without South Africa’s diplomatic purpose being affected in any material sense.”
One thing is for certain though – South Africa sure supports its struggle-era allies through thick and thin. DIRCO spends much time championing the cause of the Cubans, Iranians, Palestinians, Sahrawi, Venezuelans and Zimbabweans. Elements of the ANC still see the world through the ideological lens of the Cold War. The world has moved on in the last 30 years.
And finally, do we really need the expense of two deputy ministers? They are Alvin Botes and Candith Mashego Dlamini, if you were wondering.