Former SA ambassador to the UN defends role in standing up for Robert Mugabe

INTERVIEW – South Africa's ambassador to the United Nations, Dumisani Kumalo, has returned home after the country's tenure as a non-permanent member of the Security Council ended. He spoke to Mandy Rossouw about his 10-year term

Why was South Africa’s tenure at the Security Council mired in controversy?
No, the South African tenure was extremely successful. Our biggest mistake was that we didn’t explain to South African people what it meant to be in the Security Council. So most of these so-called controversies were really people being confused about what the Security Council is about.

What were these issues that were misunderstood?
In our term there were 121 decisions. Of those only three times did we go against everyone — on Zimbabwe, Lebanon and Myanmar. Myanmar was referred to the Human Rights Council and it was their rapporteur who went there and got those monks out.

On Lebanon, we were asked that the Security Council must create a tribunal overriding Parliament. So I said, "What if someone in Orania says ‘I don’t like what the South African Parliament does, I will go to the Security Council’? No, you have to work with the Parliament of Lebanon."

On Zimbabwe we were more into the solution that was to allow the Zimbabweans themselves to solve it. We could’ve issued a nasty statement and called them all names; we were more interested in resolving things.

The ANC supported the hauling of South Africa in front of the Security Council during the apartheid years. What is the difference?
During apartheid years South Africa went into the Security Council because it was a threat to international peace. They were bombing people in Maputo, in Zimbabwe, so there were problems elsewhere. Why did South Africa not go before the Security Council in 1960 at the time of Sharpeville? It is only in the Eighties that they came to the Security Council.

Why were other countries then keen to have Zimbabwe discussed by the Security Council?
The British wanted to discuss it because they were former colonial masters and they supported [Morgan] Tsvangirai. You have to understand the big countries, the permanent countries like the UK and US, have their national interests. They can misuse the council as much as they like, they’re permanent, they’re not going to be leaving in two years’ time. For them it was just "we don’t like Mugabe". I never once said I like Mugabe. On principle this was the right thing: we were saying, let the Zimbabwean people decide.

What were the main achievements of South Africa’s tenure?
One thing we did very well is we consolidated the African agenda. We made sure that we came up with a report on how the UN can help Africa resolve conflict in Africa. And we raised this for a very selfish South African reason. We can only remain [prosperous] as long as our neighbouring countries do well. It is in our interests to support peace elsewhere in Africa.

Why did South Africa take issue with the proposed statement on rape as a war crime?
The US came up with resolutions that said we want to condemn rape only if it is perpetrated by soldiers. I come from a country where people unfortunately get raped by ordinary people. I’m saying it is OK for my sister to be raped in the township but it is wrong if it is done by a soldier? The resolution was changed to include rape in all its manifestations. 

How did the international community react to the recall of former president Thabo Mbeki?
There were people who never understood [his recall]. But they respected that because it is a decision of the people in South Africa. The second question they asked me is: is he safe? Because in other countries when they remove a president they kill him. We’re in Africa. That has made people around the world respect South Africa even more; that you can remove a president and soldiers stay in their barracks, life goes on.

Will South Africa get another opportunity to sit on the Security Council soon?
We could, when it comes back to the Southern African region next year. It is expensive, so other countries will consider the cost.

What will you do now?
I am working in the office of the special envoy to the Great Lakes.