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I have had a mixed relationship with South Africa House.
During my posting in London for the Rand Daily Mail and SA Associated Newspapers from 1983-87 I was declared persona non grata and was effectively banned from entering my own embassy in a confidential letter from the then ambassador.
He was understandably irritated that I would often contradict his version of the apartheid government’s repressive actions as the anti-apartheid campaign gained momentum in South Africa.
This would often happen on prime time television in news broadcasts and in background interviews on television and radio. As a journalist, I was committed to tell the truth as I knew it at the time from independent sources and I did so consistently and prominently.
It became such a problem for the SA Embassy at that time that they assigned a diplomat to monitor my every utterance in the British media and he would call me each time it was felt that I was not toeing the official line. I never toed the official apartheid line.
I am pleased to say that both the ambassador and the assigned diplomat have for many years been working to promote trade and investment in South Africa and in the region.
In those dark, dying days of the doomed apartheid regime, the embassy was a constant target of anti-apartheid demonstrations which often drew huge crowds while the renegade City of London group held a constant vigil outside South Africa House and, later, on the steps of adjoining St Martin-in-the-Fields Church when the British police drove the protestors from the entrance of SA House.
My term in London ended with a collaboration with then Cape Times editor Anthony Heard which resulted in the first interview with then African National Congress President Oliver Tambo in three decades and which broke the law and led to Heard’s arrest followed by his receipt of the prestigious Golden Pen Award followed by his firing from SA Associated Newspapers.
In an act of freelance espionage, I facilitated the outing of a South African apartheid journalist acting as an agent for the apartheid regime who was attempting to set up the ANC office in London as a centre for conducting arms deals in a bid to have it shut down by the British Government. The extraordinary finale was recorded on the front page of the Observer newspaper and the journalist in question was recalled. (He has since passed away.)
So it was a real closing of the circle to arrive in London in 2004 to help the High Commission of a liberated South Africa, now a member of the Commonwealth and fully integrated in the global community.
South Africa was a country that had negotiated its way out of disaster and adopted a Constitution which was the envy of the world in terms of human rights, restoring and guaranteeing the dignity of all citizens and holding out the promise of a non-racial, non-sexist and democratic South Africa.
On Thursday this week I found myself in the same South Africa House at a reception hosted by His Excellency the High Commissioner of South Africa, Obed Mlaba, to honour my contribution over the past ten years towards managing South Africa’s reputation in the UK and promoting the country as a favoured destination for trade, tourism and investment.
These were the thoughts running through my head as I listened to a string of humbling tributes from the likes of Lord Robin Renwick, former British Ambassador to South Africa and the United States and Vice-Chairman of JP Morgan, Lord Anthony St John, my friend of 35 years, the Rt Honourable Peter Hain, pioneering anti-apartheid campaigner in South Africa and the UK, three-times British Minister and Leader of the House of Commons, Professor Nick Binedell, founder and director for 17 years of the cutting-edge Gordon School of Business Science (GIBS) Viola Ncube, Vice-President of Global Hospitality Services and founder and CEO of the mentoring charity iROCK! and Deputy High Commissioner Bongiwe Qwabe, a highly experienced and respected diplomat who is herself due to return home in June.
And it was humbling to have in the audience, Dame Janet Suzman, who has contributed so much to the building of arts and culture relations between the UK and South Africa, Lord Bob Hughes, who led the anti-apartheid movement so ably with the late Mike Terry during my first term in the UK; Sir Nicholas Stadlen, the retired High Court Judge who has become immersed in the Rivonia story in recent years and done scores of hours of interviews with the surviving Rivonia trialists and legal teams; Sally Sampson, widow of the late Anthony Sampson who was for two decades my mentor and friend as he worked on the authorised biography of the late Nelson Mandela; Sarchen Uys, widow of my other mentor for more than three decades, the late Stanley Uys, an iconic journalist and commentator of South Africa politics for seven decades; Francie Suzman Jowell, daughter of the late Helen Suzman. Francie is editing her famous mother’s history-laden letters to her over the years.
I was fortunate in returning to London 20 years later in 2004 to find many of my contacts from the mid-1980’s were now CEO’s of major companies, Members of Parliaments, Lords and Ladies and at the head of key British institutions and universities.
It has been an honour and privilege to serve South Africa in different ways throughout my life.
The impetus to do so came from reporting on the systematic destruction of vibrant and close-knit community in District Six, Cape Town for my first decade in journalism. It took 13 years to demolish the homes of 60 000 people at the foot of Table Mountain. The massive scar remains to this day.
But my South African journey really began when, at the age of 15, I accompanied my father to the Magistrate’s Court office in Cape Town following the Sharpeville massacre and swore allegiance to the South African flag to become a South African citizen. I felt a deep conflict in saluting a flag which had come to represent everything that was deeply wrong with South Africa.
But this conscious act of becoming a South African and then witnessing the brutal inhumanity of apartheid day after day were the formative experiences in my life and in my work.
I pursued the impulses born in these formative experiences as journalist, foreign correspondent and country reputation manager over five decades.
Having the privilege of meeting and getting to know the late Nelson Mandela as a journalist and friend enabled me to articulate the values that I hold dear. Being able to spend time with such an iconic symbol and master of his own fate has had a major impact on my life.
It has enabled me to understand the full meaning of magnanimity, forgiveness, inclusiveness, the importance of acknowledging our common humanity and following our heart with total commitment and dedication.
These insights and memories will guide me as I begin a new chapter in my life.
South Africa is going through difficult times and there are no quick fixes. What will sustain the country going forward is the resilience of the people, the history that has brought us this far and the power and transcendental quality of the vision which Mandela lived and died for.
That vision looms larger than life to remind us what unites as and what we each need to do to ensure an enduring, robust and people-centred democracy at the southern tip of Africa.
I wish my brilliant successor Pumela Salela, who draws much of her inspiration from similar sources but represents a new generation and a new hope for the future, every success and I will always be available to share ideas.
I also owe a huge debt of gratitude to my colleague and friend Kassiani Lythrangomitis who has dragged me kicking into the digital age and provided a depth of calm wisdom and inter-generational insight that has enabled me to achieve far more in the three years working with her than I was in the first seven years in this role.
I am deeply indebted to all those who attended the tribute at SA House and to the many more who have supported me and my work over the past decade.
And to all the staff at South Africa House past and present who have welcomed me and made me feel at home.
And in particular to Carol Mabuza who facilitated the wonderful tribute which deeply touched me.
30th April 2015.