19 March 2009, Zenani and Zinzi Mandela speak at the opening of the refurbished mandela house in Soweto. Picture: Shayne Robinson XSR003

Fiona Forde

Nelson Mandela’s daughter Zenani Mandela-Dlamini is to become SA’s ambassador to Argentina, the first of his three surviving children to enter public life.

The 53-year-old will replace Tony Leon, the former DA leader, who has reportedly requested to come home ahead of his scheduled 2013 return. Owing to rising trade figures between the two countries, Argentina has been identified as one of SA’s emerging strategic partners and President Jacob Zuma would like Mandela-Dlamini to push bilateral relations over the next four years.

The elder daughter of Mandela and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, she was born in Soweto and schooled in Joburg, Swaziland and the US, where she lived from 1982 until 1990 with her children and then-husband, Swazi Prince Thumbumuzi Dlamini. They separated 10 years ago, though she stills bears the official title HRH Princess Zenani Mandela-Dlamini.

She stood by Mandela’s side when he was sworn in as democratic SA’s first president in 1994.

However she has steered clear of politics and the ruling ANC since then, maintaining a low profile as a business player instead.

Mandela-Dlamini’s entry into the diplomatic service has been shrouded in secrecy, despite the fact that she is in training at the diplomatic academy in Pretoria and is expected to take up her position within the next three to four months.

Leon was kept in the dark about her appointment until he was contacted by The Sunday Independent on Friday.

“What I can tell you is that the required agreements between the two countries for a diplomatic changeover to happen are not in place and have not been initiated, as they would have to come through the embassy here in Buenos Aires.”

However, it is understood that the process will begin next month when Mandela-Dlamini makes her first trip to Argentina and, subject to approval of her credentials, she is expected to be in her post by the last quarter of this year.

Leon was also unaware of her visit next month.

Mandela-Dlamini declined to respond to queries yesterday, while a spokesman for the Department of International Relations and Co-operation refused to confirm the pending appointment.

“We do not confirm diplomatic postings as a matter of protocol and out of respect for relations between Pretoria and our partners abroad,” Clayson Monyela said yesterday.

With Mandela-Dlamini being a member of such a reputable family, the department expects her role as ambassador to add significant strength to Pretoria’s relations with Buenos Aires.

“The Mandela name carries a lot of weight and we are making an important statement by appointing her to Argentina,” said one of the department’s diplomats.

Since Leon took up the posting in 2009, trade between the two countries has increased by 80 percent, while tourism traffic between Argentina and SA is up by 70 percent on 2009 figures.

“With Mandela heading up the mission, we expect those figures to continue to grow,” the diplomat said.

Satisfied with his achievements, it is understood that Leon had hoped to return home at the end of 2012. Officials said yesterday that they expected him back by the end of September.

Though Leon won’t be drawn on the matter, his close friends say he will start a professional life in the private sector but will maintain an important presence in the pubic sphere, although he will not return to party politics.

By then Mandela-Dlamini will have joined the siblings and children of current and past heavyweights of the tripartite alliance in the diplomatic service.

Beryl Rose Sisulu, a stepchild of Walter and Albertina Sisulu, is the country’s ambassador to Norway.

Joseph Kotane, the son of the ANC and SACP leader Moses Kotane, is ambassador to Algeria.

Oliver Tambo’s daughter Tembi heads the mission in Hong Kong as consul-general.

Keitumetse Matthews, the daughter of the late Joe Matthews, is the ambassador to Portugal.

Takalani Netshitenzhe, a sister of Joel Netshitenzhe, is ambassador in Hungary while Mphakama Mbete, a brother of Baleka Mbete, is the newly appointed ambassador to Brazil.

Walter Sisulu’s daughter-in-law, Sheila, is the former SA ambassador to the US, while Thandeka Luthuli-Gcabashe, the daughter of Albert Luthuli, was once an ambassador to Venezuela.

Though they are drawn from prominent families, most of these diplomats were activists in their own right during the Struggle era.