Dr Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General of South Africa and the former Statistician-General of South Africa. Photo: Thobile Mathonsi
Dr Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General of South Africa and the former Statistician-General of South Africa. Photo: Thobile Mathonsi

Lessons for government in making Mthunzi Mdwaba’s nomination to International Labour Organisation useless

By Pali Lehohla Time of article published Oct 17, 2021

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THE unceremonious and sudden withdrawal of support by the government for Dr Mthunzi Mdwaba’s national campaign to be the next director-general of the International Labour Organisation sends the wrong signal to the world – and I will explain why.

King Xerxes of Persia in the book of Esther sheds light on paradoxes in decision-making.

The king, influenced by his General Haman, issued an order for exterminating Jews. Little did he know that Queen Esther, the niece to Mordecai, was a Jew. Haman hated Mordecai, a matter that King Xerxes did not know about. Once the order was issued, Esther was sad and Xerxes asked why. He said anything you ask, you will get my queen. Esther said: “Stop the killing of the Jews for I am one and in fact Haman has a guillotine ready for Mordecai to be the first to be killed by sunrise tomorrow.”

King Xerxes could not reverse his order for killing the Jews but instead sent an order throughout Persia for the Jews to defend themselves and by daybreak guillotined Haman.

The news went through Persia and while the order for purging the Jews stood, no Persian would touch them. The king had not reneged on his first order, but he had skilfully undermined it and made it unimplementable.

The lack of transparency and the shambolic manner in which the government treated this multilateral posting shows the utter absence of Xerxes-like wisdom in managing paradoxes.

So the government’s action with Mdwaba sends the wrong signals for South Africa’s participation in the UN multilateral system. Worst of all, it hurts Mdwaba’s person as a citizen who trusts or trusted in his government. Business Unity South Africa has pledged its continued support for Mdwaba, though.

But the Mdwaba scenario exacerbates a deeper issue of South Africans’ deployment strategy to international organisations.

In one of the many UN discussions we held in New York, with the late permanent representative of the SA Mission to the UN, Ambassador Bongani Khumalo, may his soul rest in peace, questions were raised on the disproportionately minuscule number of South Africans taking up responsibilities in the global multilateral system, be it at the AU or the UN.

The UN is a multilateral system that allows for a country’s participation in this global civil service framework.

We searched for reasons, ranging from the ridiculous and beyond. Among these were: is it the national Boerewors Curtain constraining us? Is it the newness of democracy and playing a part at home becoming more a priority? Is it the absence of systems that search, identify and encourage people to express interest? Is it remuneration and work benefits? Finally, we gravitated to the latter two.

We also ended up discounting the remuneration argument though, as the occupation of such positions, especially for the developed world, have a similar remuneration to South Africa, if not better, and they have a higher proportion of international civil servants.

We then looked at South African national deployments rather than the volition by an individual. We observed that the contrast to the developing world was glaring. The occupation and progression through these positions were by and large an individual effort in the developing countries.

The point should be that a country should dissolve into global missions once the official is appointed and unite with that of the multilateral institution. This would nullify the method of support or otherwise for recruitment of an individual. However, the method of support does matter. I can offer three reasons for this.

First, occupying such a position delivers pride to the country. Second, own country context and experience forms the basis for mutual empathy to the new host, and that informs and influences alignment and immersion of individuals to such global missions. Third, at the end of tenure, the individual brings back a wealth of experience to the country.

If the recent return of Dr Phumzile Mlambo Ngcuka from UN Women is anything to go by, it captured what esteem South Africans and Africa associated with her contribution to the world and the reciprocal benefits that Africa realised and anticipates.

Perhaps the diagnosis of the postings problem by Ambassador Khumalo and I was totally wrong in light of the government’s undermining Mdwaba’s Mdwba’s nomination to ILO similar to King Xerxes undermining his instructions to purge the Jews. There is certainly more to it than catches the eye, and the nation’s polarisation on this matter is, but one snippet of the evidence.

Dr Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General of South Africa and the former Statistician-General of South Africa. Meet him at www.pie.org.za and @Palilj01.

*The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL or of title sites.

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