ANC veteran Welile Nhlapo remembers Aziz Pahad: South Africa's diplomatic luminary and anti-apartheid activist

ANC veteran Ambassador Welile Nhlapo paid tribute to former Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Aziz Pahad, who died this week. Picture: IOL Archives

ANC veteran Ambassador Welile Nhlapo paid tribute to former Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Aziz Pahad, who died this week. Picture: IOL Archives

Published Sep 28, 2023


South African former Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Aziz Pahad, who died on Wednesday, has been remembered for his compelling demeanour and natural charisma on the global stage, particularly during the pivotal anti-apartheid campaign.

ANC veteran Welile Nhlapo, who served as the South African Ambassador to Burundi and the United States of America, paid tribute to his close friend and colleague on the sidelines of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) Parliamentary Forum in Johannesburg on Thursday.

Speaking to IOL, Nhlapo reminisced about the first time he met Pahad in Angola on a visit alongside Dr Yusuf Dadoo and while Nhlapo was a librarian at the military training camp.

“I was the camp librarian at the time and we had very few books. I explained to him the kind of books we needed to help those training there to develop their political understanding.

“Aziz delivered the books within a week and he promised to deliver more as soon as he got back to London and those books came. He was a man of his word,” Nhlapo said.

After finishing his military training, Nhlapo was sent to London to work and remembered fondly on the day of his arrival, he bumped into Pahad.

“He immediately invited me out and he took me through the ups and down of London and got me to understand the dynamics of what was happening there and that helped me quite a lot.

“There was a lot to learn from him,” he said.

Speaking on his diplomatic charisma, Nhlapo described Pahad as “razor blade sharp”, with the knack to engage diplomats and people, convincing them to support the anti-apartheid movement.

Nhlapo said the manner in which Pahad approached issues, “he knew how to strike the right chord”.

“He was very popular and very accessible. When it came to Dirco [Department of International Relations and Cooperation], which was the Foreign Affairs Ministry at the time, Aziz blended with anyone. I can say without any fear of contradiction that some of them never left foreign affairs at that time because of the assurances they would get from engaging with Aziz. He had no barrier. Aziz was always available to everybody, even his staff was like his family. Today, all of them are distraught,” he said.

Nhlapo said that this week marked exactly 15 years since Pahad left Dirco.

Pahad was called to chair the panel that reviewed the foreign policy - a grouping of minds that included Nhlapo.

“We all participated under his guidance and leadership. We knew we would never go wrong because the man knew what he was talking about. He was a walking textbook.

“You could send Aziz anywhere, you knew he would get results,” he said.

Pahad played a prominent role in South Africa's attempt to stop the US-led attack on Iraq in 2003. He went on to represent South Africa at the International Court of Justice in 2004, when South Africa argued strongly against the erection of the Israeli West Bank barrier.

At the time, he told the court, "The Palestinian separation wall is not a security wall. It is a wall of occupation, a wall that has separated hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their families, their homes, lands and religious sites."

In Africa, Pahad played an active role in bringing peace to the warring factions of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and Angola. He visited Saudi Arabia in March 2006 to promote bilateral political and economic relations between the two countries.

Nhlapo applauded Pahad’s tenacity in his engagement with Palestinians during is term as former president Jacob Zuma’s special envoy to Israel and Palestine in 2014.

“He did a fantastic job because he knew the Palestinians and he knew the people in the Arab states that needed to be engaged.

“Every time an ambassador left, he would organise a farewell. So when we needed to reach out, he knew exactly who to talk to. That is what is important in diplomacy, building and maintaining trust.

“His death leaves a big void for us all, especially for those retired ambassadors and Dirco. Everybody cannot believe Aziz is gone,” Nhlapo said.

Pahad’s funeral is expected to take place on Saturday in Johannesburg.