Interview: ‘We Do Not Do Trump Here’

South African Diplomacy after the Zuma years

An Interview with South African Ambassador Stone Sizane in Berlin on Corruption in South Africa, Trust in President Ramaphosa, Lessons from Germany.

“We cannot attract business to our country, unless we clean up our act,” Stone Sizane

The Embassy on Berlin’s famous Tiergartenstrasse street runs along the city’s vast Tiergarten park — a green oasis close the German seat of Government and a stone’s throw from the Brandenburger Gate — the symbol of a once-divided city. It sits on prime property right across this park between the Indian and Turkish Embassies. A modern, airy building designed by Cape Town’s MMA architects. One of the architects, Luyanda Mpahlwa was a former political prisoner and then Berlin exile, where he studied architecture. Until the late nineteen nineties it was an empty piece of land, that belonged to the South African Government. It was close to the Wall and the no man’s land section that divided the city and that by some foresight was not sold off after World War Two when West Berlin was an enclave belonging to West Germany and the West German capital was in Bonn.

In East Berlin the apartheid Government had no diplomatic mission, but after 1976 the liberation movement the ANC (African National Congress) had an official representative in East-Berlin. When after reunification the German capital moved back to Berlin in 1999, the Embassy was the first post-apartheid mission built.

Ambassador Stone Sizane has been the South African representative in Germany since October 2016, when he succeeded the Reverend Makhenkesi Arnold Stofile. Like his predecessor he is a former Chief Whip of the ruling party, the African national Congress (ANC). He had also been a young political prisoner with Mandela on Robben Island, a United Democratic Front (UDF) activist and was also exiled. Some observers believe he was posted to Germany because former president Zuma felt he did not protect him enough in Parliament when the heat was on Zuma due to corruption allegations.

Ambassador Sizane (left) with South Africa’s former Public Protector Advocate Thuli Madonsela (middle) in 2016 when she was awarded the German Africa Prize ©Anli Serfontein 2016

In one of my last conversations with former Ambassador Stofile in Berlin in late 2015, I speculated who his successor could be. He told me “It has to be a high-ranking ANC official, otherwise the Germans have no respect for the person.”

South Africa’s chief diplomats in Berlin have had a difficult time in the last few years selling the country as an attractive investment option. Under apartheid and well into the Thabo Mbeki presidency years, Germany was South Africa’s biggest bilateral trading partner before China took the pole position. Before Sizane became Ambassador the Embassy was without a chief diplomat for nearly ten months.

A Difficult Start

Serfontein: When you first came President Zuma was still in power. Germans are conservative and nervous investors, they were saying things like “South Africa equals state capture, forget about that country”. Was it difficult to walk in and convince investors to stay the course?

Sizane: “It was especially because the majority of the contacts that were generated by my predecessor had gone cold in some way. And the general atmosphere about South Africa had been that the corruption that is taking place there is contagious and the fish is rotting from the head. So it was difficult to even start a conversation about South Africa, without going back into the stuff. Even though we veered away from that discussion, the host would speak about it. The conditions of doing business were uncertain, corruption was contagious and the ability to expand in South Africa was very, very difficult.”

“So the majority (of the investors) initially they said ‘let’s wait until December (2017), till after president Zuma was removed by the ANC’. Later they said ‘Let’s wait because of the differences between president Ramaphosa and Nkosinathi Zuma, just in case the opposition to president Ramaphosa would cause trouble or would resist his changing policies.’ (They said) ‘Let’s see after the elections’. And then there was this talk that we would be reduced to less than 50% (in the April 2019 elections). (So they said) ‘Let’s wait and see maybe policies would change.’

“And then when Land Reform and the issue of land expropriation without compensation came up, it complicated matters. It made it worse.”

Land Reform

Serfontein: Did the investors want to pull out?

Sizane: “Well they said buying property in a country that says that it wants to expropriate the people’s property without compensation — then it would be stupid for us to go to that country. ‘It doesn’t matter what your constitution says because if you use the constitution to change the law then you would do it anyway, especially if you form a coalition with the EFF (Economic Freedom Fighters), which wants to reduce you to below 50% so that they can then have that capacity to change the constitution’. So it was a really, really tough situation for us.”

Ambassador Sizane addressing a gathering in Germany © South African Embassy

Serfontein: How did you counter these arguments?

Sizane: “For the full five years that I was in Parliament I was on the Land Reform Committee. I understood the rules, I understood the delays that are caused by the procedures that have to be followed to distribute land. So I understood what to say in relation to the current situation. But I did not understand the difference between what they had in their brains from the media and what the EFF rhetoric was. Because I understood what the guarantees of the constitution was in relation to property holders in South Africa, including myself. “

“So no law in South Africa will take property from anybody which is guaranteed in the Bill of Rights unless the (constitutional) judges say it is constitutional. But not one single judge in South Africa will ever do that. “

“Because the judges in South Africa, they respect their own standing in the whole world, not only just domestically. They get consulted in various international fora all over the world because of their independence but also because of their knowledge of the Constitution of South Africa and the law in general. But they also uphold international law, not only the South African Constitution. So the judges will never destroy their own reputation just to please a political party.”

Reserve Bank

Serfontein: And now we have the Reserve Bank storm?

Sizane: “Look at Trump interfering in America. Again the Constitution is very clear in South Africa on the relationship between the (Reserve) Bank and the Government: it is governed by consultation. It is not an instruction; it is via consultation. And the consultation is conducted by the Minister of Finance not the President. So we don’t do the Trump thing in South Africa: Order!”

Serfontein: But we once in the late 1980’s had a President (Botha) who wagged his finger and did interfere with the Reserve Bank, with dire consequences. (Inflation rose to double digits and the South Africa was then on the verge of bankruptcy.)


“The President respects the Constitution.

“He is a lawyer, he is able to read the law himself and not just rely on his advisors.In the end he has the responsibility as the President to obey the Constitution.”

Ramaphosa or Zuma

Serfontein: What is easier representing a country headed by a president Jacob Zuma or by a president Cyril Ramaphosa?

Sizane: “I did indicate that I got here under very difficult conditions — both personally and the job as well.”

“And when the change took place and the commitments were made on what must change during the change period, I got a little bit of hope myself as an individual.”

“But I also trust the man as a person. And because of that I also got more confident that he would be able to change the situation there. And it did and it does now change every day, because he is trustworthy, he is a man of his word. He is also open about his own weaknesses and strengths. I like that.”

Corruption and State Capture

Serfontein: I have heard that the Germans were at the time (2016/7) taken aback by your open, straight-forward and no-nonsense critical approach in closed door meetings while president Zuma was still in power. And at a National Day gathering in the Embassy in April 2017 you went off script, pleading with your guests “The situation we face in South Africa is not forever, please stay with us.” Up to then my impression was that both sides tried to avoid the elephant in the room and then you arrived. Was it a change of strategy; was it a conscious decision?

Sizane: “The confidence of the hosts about how honest you are, how open you are about the current situation in the country, will come about, about you being honest yourself. I’m also not a person that run away from issues: I don’t. I confront them.”

“We’ve created a country that comes from the constitution of openness and accountability.”

“If you want people who already have access to the information you have to trust you, you have to correct the misrepresentation of the facts and state the facts as you know them. Openly rather than run away from them.”

“But it was also in my nature to own the issues of South Africa, because I love that country and I wanted it to resolve its issues. And I have children that I will leave when I die in that country.”

I cannot be part of the problem. I should be part of the solution.

“So that they inherit a country that is clean that is not abusive. Look the majority of my children are girls, you can’t imagine that I would defend an abusive man: I wouldn’t do that for the sake of my children.”

“We are representing our country as people who want that change to come and maintain it.”

“For the investors to have the confidence to invest their money in the country, they should be able to say we can trust things as they will evolve towards change. Rather than stay as they are. Which is not what I desire. I still don’t desire the situation to go back to corruption, abuse of power and looting. I wouldn’t want that.”

Ambassador Sizane (right) with members of the South African Embassy staff in Berlin at an event celebrating Nelson Mandela’s century in 2017. © Anli Serfontein

Corruption Court Case against his wife

Sizane: Even when my own personal situation presented a track to my wife. I told her openly that ‘You say you are innocent, go and prove yourself in court. I will not be party to it.’ I still say so today. I pay for her legal bills, but I do so purely on the basis that she needs to be assisted to proof herself innocent.”

(In March 2019 Portia Sizane was found guilty of 15 counts of fraud and nine counts of money laundering at the Port Elizabeth Commercial Crimes Court. She was accused of defrauding the Eastern Cape Department of Education.)

“I’m open about this. And I’m open also about the fact that the country has problems and that we need support from our friends to solve those problems. And Germany is a strategic partner and a friend of South Africa. Historically and presently we need those friends to get us out of the situation. They’ve got a stake in the country: 630 companies. They need to succeed and make money for them to stay. And when they stay they provide more than 100,000 jobs. We want more jobs to provide a living for South Africans.”

Serfontein: You want investment but corruption is just so wide-spread, on every level in South Africa?

Sizane: “I tell German companies about this and German companies in South Africa have been sighted participating in this corruption. But we do not want companies to participate. Aiding and abetting corruption is wrong.”

Serfontein: Isn’t it because people think it is the only way to do business in Africa is to bribe?”

Sizane: (A heated Sizane, says emphatically) “No, no. maybe elsewhere, but not in South Africa. Even now countries in Africa are told from Germany with their Marshall Plan for Africa (2017): ‘Change your governance methodology, including fighting corruption. Because if we want to support our companies to invest in your country we will not support them if they come and pay bribes.’

We cannot attract business to our country, unless we clean up our act.

President Ramaphosa

Serfontein: How does the world see us compared to three years ago?

Economist Front Page

Sizane: “That statement by the Economist front cover (‘South Africa’s best bet’) of him summarizes the collective view of the world on him. And secondly I indicated to you earlier on that his track record, given his honesty, given his trustworthiness.

I trust him.

“Thirdly I think the world views the commitment he has made for those changes that are essential for our economy to move forward. He means business and I think I support that.”

Serfontein: But he is now sorting out very much the mess of the lost nine years under Zuma.

Sizane: “So for me the confidence I give him is based not because I have this job, but is based on me knowing him as a leader of Government business in Parliament; me knowing him as a former secretary-general of the ANC; me knowing him as his success story in business, when he built his wealth from nothing to where he is now. So I believe he made a commitment to change the country, he will succeed in doing so.”

Lessons from German Reunification

Serfontein: What lessons are there for South Africa to be learnt from the German reunification? The Wall fell in November 1989 and a few months later in February 1990 Nelson Mandela walked free from prison.

Sizane: “The reunification of Germany have confirmed two things that we have been doing in our country until we were disrupted by that brief period of the Guptas and Sassas and T-systems and SARS (Revenue Services) and others. Two things we really have been at.”

“One is that the redistribution of wealth has a very strong element of solidarity. Even though in South Africa taxes are not that high, but personal taxes are and progressive. Precisely because we have to share with the poor people.”

And South Africans have a reunification of its own model. Because we built in the Bantustans into the main stream of the economy, whereas in the past it was separate. And it confirmed that when we saw that they levy a tax here in Germany so that you can built and develop those parts of Germany that were left behind by the separation of the two states.” (Called Solidarity tax and used mostly for investing into the weak, ailing infrastructure of the former East Germany.)

“The second one is education, education, education. The upgrading of education in East Germany is a priority of the German government now and they are spending a lot of money there.”

“For me even though they were not paying for education, even in the East, but the focus on upgrading both the quality and the resources through which you provide that quality is a very, very encouraging thing which confirms what we always preached in South Africa. Because we invest a lot of money in education in South Africa but the quality is not there. The results are not there.”

“So the two countries really the way they have evolved since reunification is saying that they are on the right track. And it is confirmed by the results of the economy of Germany, which has a sustained growth even when every part of the world is shrinking. It (Germany) is not. So we could go the same route too.”

Serfontein: Do you notice differences between the East and the West when dealing with people? The East Germans had their solidarity with the liberation movements while the West Germans supported the apartheid Government.

Sizane: “We do notice the solidarity that we still find from the East. But what businesses do they have? The businesses that are there (in South Africa) come from the Western side. Off course the majority of the businesses in the East were owned by the State. So the solidarity is maybe symbolical.”

“I go to Sachsen, Sachsen Anhalt, Vorpommern (Saxony, Saxony Anhalt, Pommerania — states in the eastern part of Germany) — and those areas are more dependent on tourism. The major support we get are from companies that come from Niedersachen (Lower Saxony), Bavaria, North Rhine Westphalia — those were western states.”

So I’m saying the solidarity could be there, it is symbolical. The bulk of the business still comes from the West.

Lessons from Germany

Serfontein: What have you learnt in your time here in Germany?

Journalist Anli Serfontein with Ambassador Sizane and his deputy Minister Plenipotentiary Adv. MA Cassimjee in 2018 in Berlin. © Anli Serfontein

Sizane: “We have identified three things that are very good in Germany. The family companies, the really small SME’s are willing to invest. They are brave man and we think if we can build that type of culture in South Africa, South Africa will go places. Not only places but the rest of the Continent is waiting for us to do that.”

“The second thing is the difference between the American skills development of workers and the German ones. The Germans believe it is an investment by the company to stay ahead of opposition or competition, if you have the best skilled workers, including the best technology. Because the latest technology is only implementable or useful if you have skilled workers.”

“They don’t wait for Government, they don’t expect Government to train the workers, because it is their workers.”

“And if we grasp this dual education in the way the Germans do this, it would help us a great deal.”

There is a clear recognition that not everybody needs a degree to find a job.

“By the way not everybody needs a degree, so why do we think that everybody should go to university when there are actual skills that are available without a degree. And the economy needs that.” (Only about 35% of German school leavers go to a university)

“The third issue for me is that the programs of particular Government departments are supportive of the growing of SME’s here in Germany and we want to copy that.”

Serfontein: Thank you for the interview Mr Ambassador.

An Afrikaans version of this interview was published in Vrye Weekblad

South African journalist, author & filmmaker in Berlin. Writing on southern Africa, Germany, politics, culture, films, books, interfaith.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store