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Johannesburg - Former deputy president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka will lose all her privileges from the South African government after taking up a position as a senior UN staff member.
Mlambo-Ngcuka was recently appointed the new executive director of the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN-Women).
Insiders close to her initially claimed that the move to strip her of all privileges was a result of the 2005 fallout when she replaced Jacob Zuma as deputy president after the latter was fired by then-president Thabo Mbeki.
Mlambo-Ngcuka’s husband, Bulelani Ngcuka, who was prosecutions chief at the time, investigated Zuma for alleged corruption related to the arms deal.
However, even though factional politics could have played a role behind the scenes, she is an employee of the UN, whose staff members have the status of “international civil servants”.
The rules of the UN state that the responsibilities of its staff are not “national but exclusively international” and that staff may not accept any “honour, decoration, favour, gift or remuneration from any government”.
This effectively disqualifies Mlambo-Ngcuka from receiving security, staff and free local SAA flights which other former deputy presidents enjoy for life.
But her appointment also caused ructions in the government and in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region, even though Zuma publicly supported her.
The government had apparently agreed that it would lobby for former South African ambassador to the US, Sheila Sisulu, who is currently UN World Food Programme deputy executive director for hunger solutions, to lead UN-Women.
If Sisulu was not successful, South Africa agreed to join the SADC in supporting Mozambican Environmental Affairs Minister Alcinda António de Abreu for the position.
However, these plans were thwarted when UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon told South Africa that he was considering appointing Mlambo-Ngcuka after the recommendation from “someone powerful in South Africa”.
That “powerful person” was assumed to be Mbeki, or venerated UN High Commissioner on Human Rights Navi Pillay.
Pillay and Mbeki, through his spokesman Mukoni Ratshitanga, this week however denied they had been involved in prompting her appointment.
Mlambo-Ngcuka said yesterday Mbeki only heard about her new job when she told him about it. UN assistant spokesman Farhan Haq said the world body didn’t comment on how the appointment process was carried out.
“Different governments can recommend different candidates, but we believe the best qualified candidate was (appointed),” said Haq.
A senior government official said the revelation from Ban led to strained relations with regional bodies, with some believing South Africa had been dishonest in its agreements on Sisulu and António de Abreu’s respective candidacies.
He said South Africa was then forced to explain the internal politic: namely that Mlambo-Ngcuka was not its preferred candidate.
Mlambo-Ngcuka said yesterday she was headhunted for the position and was unaware of any organisations or countries nominating her.
But a government employee said: “Phumzile thought she was being clever, but it backfired badly. She is regretting it.”
He was referring to the loss of privileges.
Yesterday Mlambo-Ngcuka denied knowledge of this, saying the only discussions she’d had with the government were around how they could collaborate so that she could do her job well.
But the same senior government official said this week that when Mlambo-Ngcuka realised the position of UN-Women head had been downgraded from the rank of under-secretary-general to that of an executive director, she went to see South Africa’s International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane to negotiate the government augmenting her UN salary.
Yesterday, however, Mlambo-Ngcuka denied having done this, saying the question over her privileges had never arisen.
“There was never any discussion over privileges,” she said.
International Relations spokesman Clayson Monyela reiterated the UN rules for employees.
Presidency spokesman Mac Maharaj also said the loss of privileges was only due to the UN’s rules governing their staff, but that ordinarily the government was “always willing to discuss and help solve problems” when its employees “got into these difficult” situations.
He understood Mlambo-Ngcuka’s position was at the level of a South African government chief director, he said.
The senior government official also alleged the former deputy president might not get her privileges back when her term with the UN ended, because the privileges could not be “interrupted”.
The Sunday Independent was unable to verify this, with another senior civil servant anonymously warning that Mlambo-Ngcuka could sue “because she did not resign”.
A close confidant of Mlambo-Ngcuka, who could not be named, this week said: “Logic would say, considering the history that… this person is probably not one of ours, irrespective of pedigree.”
Mlambo-Ngcuka resigned as a protest against the removal of Mbeki in 2008 and she later joined Cope, a splinter group from the ANC.
At Mlambo-Ngcuka’s congratulatory dinner last week, close friend and former South African ambassador to Italy Thenjiwe Mtintso made light of the former deputy president’s humble new life.
“Who goes from deputy minister to minister to deputy president, but will now go chasing the underground and cleaning her own bedroom? Who does that?” she joked, probably unaware of the actual reality awaiting her friend.
She attributed Mlambo-Ngcuka’s choice to “downgrade” to her “love for humanity”, adding: “She never wants to be out-done.”
Last week Mbeki warned that if Mlambo-Ngcuka was not given sufficient funding for her new mandate she would be set up for failure.
Speaking at her congratulatory dinner, he said the tasks she faced were “formidable”, enjoining those present to pledge financial support for UN-Women.
“In reality, (her assignment is) quite frightening. If you look at (her mandate) you get scared,” he said.
UN-Women faces massive financial challenges. Formed three years ago after the amalgamation of four UN agencies, UN-Women currently receives far less than other UN agencies.
For example, in 2010 UN-Women’s operating budget was $500 million (R5 billion), but the UN contributed only $230m towards this.
And the budgets for the UN Children’s Fund (Unicef), which had an operating budget of $3.7bn in 2010 and the UN Development Programme, which had a budget of $4.83bn in the same year, by far exceed the humble circumstances under which UN-Women must function.
“She (Mlambo-Ngcuka) won’t be able to get very far without the co-operation of the women’s movement.
“If she doesn’t involve the women’s movement she will face some resistance. There are vested interests in how UN-Women operates,” said a local women’s rights activist.- The Sunday Independent