The following article in this Johannesburg newspaper outlines some of Kumalo’s work in the UN.


Richard Knight, posted February 2003


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Sunday Times, February 2, 2003


Our man shakes up the UN

South Africa's ambassador has led a spirited campaign against the US going to war, writes Justice Malala


It is an icy Wednesday morning in New York and Dumisani Shadrack Kumalo, South Africa's ambassador to the United Nations, is running again.

He has just been told that an important vote is about to take place in the UN General Assembly, and he rushes out of his office, jumps into a car and gets dropped off at the UN headquarters.

As he walks in, the security guards smile and call out: "Good morning, Ambassador!"

The greetings and nods do not stop. Diplomats converge on him, jostling to get a word in quickly. Junior diplomats smile and wave: "Hello, Excellency!"

Inside the assembly, as he sits down and is briefed, more diplomats come over: some ask for meetings, others introduce themselves, many ask for guidance on particular issues. Each time, Kumalo dispenses a word of wisdom and shares a joke. He gets up to say hello to the US representative, who sits two rows behind him.

After voting, Kumalo steps out of the assembly and the greetings and congratulations continue. He jokes with Botswana's ambassador, gets lobbied by a Danish representative, is hauled aside by the Palestinian representative and is stopped by the Namibian ambassador, Martin Andjaba.

"I have been following your statements in the assembly. You are doing brilliant work; it is very important," Andjaba says.

Kumalo has become one of the most important and powerful politicians in the UN. Although acknowledged across the spectrum as popular and hardworking since his appointment in April 1999, respect for him has grown with the crisis surrounding Iraq.

Kumalo, representing South Africa as leader of the Non-Aligned Movement and the African Union, essentially opposed the US by requesting that debates on Iraq take place not behind the closed doors of the 15-member UN Security Council but in the General Assembly, where all countries could take part.

He made it possible for the world to express its views on the US's intention to attack Iraq.

Until Kumalo's intervention in October, the debate had been limited to the ambassadors of the US, Russia, China, Britain and France. No longer.

"We cannot dictate to the Security Council. But we, as UN member states, do have the right to have our views expressed before them, so they know how we feel about this particular issue," Kumalo said at the time.

The debate led to so many countries expressing outrage at the prospect of war that UN weapons inspectors were dispatched to Iraq with the world assured, at least for the time being, that they would be allowed to do their work.

The debate also gave notice to the US that the world disapproved of its belligerence.

Last week, when UN inspection leaders Hans Blix and Mohammed El Baradei reported back to the UN, Kumalo had managed to ensure that their report was available to all members of the UN, not just the Security Council.

His interventions have led to acknowledgement that the debate on the "war on terror" has many sides, and that developing countries can raise a voice against wars that have the potential to devastate them.

"All we have done as South Africa is prove that you do not need to be in the Security Council to contribute to international peace and security. We have forced the only public debate on Iraq, where more than 100 countries spoke," Kumalo says.

Organisations like the UN were founded to preserve peace, not support wars, he says, lamenting the fact that the organisation's work is largely bureaucratic. The UN needs to focus more on "helping poor people", he says.

"That is why it would be a shame if there is a war. Think of our neighbours in Africa. If this war goes on it means the price of oil goes through the roof. It is not the petrol that people think about. It is the poor people who rely on paraffin who will suffer. It will be the farmers who rely on diesel," he says.

"If paraffin goes up 50 cents a litre, then it will wipe out a lot of people because we are going into winter in our part of the world. War for us is a non-starter."

But tackling the US does not mean Kumalo is unaware of what the US and Britain, supported by other countries, might decide to do. He acknowledges that war may indeed be imminent.

After US President George W Bush's speech this week indicating that war may come soon, Kumalo said: "I am a perpetual optimist. I think that war can be avoided. You can't work in the UN and be about war.

"The US may still end up going to war, but I hope we allow the international ways of dealing with issues to prevail. The truth is we are talking about the world's only superpower and if they decide to attack Iraq then they certainly can do so. Nobody can stop them. We just wish and hope that they will consider that other people around the world think otherwise."

Throughout Kumalo's interventions in the UN, he has kept up his wit and charm, and he gives the impression that he is always having fun. His style is a mixture of the Left-leaning intellectual and the street-smart township boy, essentially a diplomat who knows how to fight - and how far he can take a fight.

His large frame and booming voice make his presence felt at gatherings, and his laugh is a fixture in the corridors of the UN. His colleagues at the world organisation say the friendly exterior hides a man whose commitment to President Thabo Mbeki's vision of a united and prosperous developing world is unshakeable.

His toughness was apparent in his life before the UN. After working as a journalist for the Sunday Times, Drum and The World, Kumalo fled into exile in the US in 1977. He dedicated his life to campaigning against apartheid.

While in New York, he was attached to the ANC's UN mission, interacting with the Special Committee Against Apartheid. Kumalo also served as projects director of the Africa Fund, a US non-governmental organisation that spurred more than 30 states, 400 universities and scores of cities to remove their pension funds from US banks and companies that were doing business with the apartheid regime.

During that time, Kumalo and others picketed the South African mission to the UN so regularly and ferociously that it moved to a residential area (where US law prohibits demonstrations) just to avoid him.

Today, he sits in the office where, in the 1980s, a letter was written to him saying he was not welcome back home in South Africa because of his picketing.

Kumalo returned to South Africa to vote in the first democratic election, and in the UN there is a postcard showing him leading Soweto residents to vote on April 27 1994.

In 1997, he returned to South Africa more permanently to head the Department of Foreign Affairs' US desk. In April 1999 he accepted the job of ambassador to the UN.

Kumalo believes the UN is one of the most difficult diplomatic postings because one deals with a plethora of issues, not just one country and its laws.

On Wednesday morning he dealt with issues and delegates from Rwanda, Britain, the Palestinian Authority and the US - and that doesn't count those who stopped him in the corridors of the UN.

His deep opposition to the proposed war on Iraq may give the impression that he is against the US, but Kumalo says he is sympathetic to Americans' feelings, particularly about the September 11 terrorist attacks. For years he worked across the street from the World Trade Center at the American Committee on Africa and spent a lot of time in the twin towers.

On September 11 he had intended to go to the World Trade Center to buy a pair of shoes (he buys all his shoes at the same shop because his feet are wide and most shoes are narrow), but his wife's flight from South Africa was delayed so he did not go.

Waiting at the office, he saw fire coming out of the first tower and saw the second aircraft hit.

"To me the events of that day had a personal effect. I personally knew many people who worked in there, who died there.

"I used to do everything at the World Trade Center. It was a personal shock, and a shock for everyone else.

"So the US was woken up to the fact that terrorism touches everyone. The challenge for them is how to respond. The disadvantage that the US faces is that it is a major power. It is like an elephant: when it reacts the people on the receiving end experience it as an avalanche.

"The US has the right to defend itself. The only thing we are saying is that in defending itself we must not break the norms and rules that the international community has agreed to," he says.

Asked if the onus is not on the Iraqis to produce the weapons they are allegedly hoarding, Kumalo says: "Maybe there is nothing there. It is also good to know that there is nothing, because that means we must leave the sanctions and allow the people of Iraq to rebuild their country.

"That is precisely the point: for the inspectors to go and find whatever there is and destroy it. The state we are all shooting for is a state of nothing, no weapons of mass destruction."

The Iraq debate has put a spotlight on the effectiveness of the UN as an institution and many commentators have asked what the future holds for it if the US decides, unilaterally, to go to war. For Kumalo, who is one of the facilitators of a committee to revitalise the UN, the challenge is to make its General Assembly more powerful.

"This whole Iraq issue is being handled only in the Security Council, but it is really an issue which should be in the General Assembly and be dealt with by the 191 members. Unfortunately for us, the assembly is not at the strength where it can deal with such issues," he says.

"If the UN were really about doing its work, then it would be dealing with issues of poverty and underdevelopment. Those are the issues the UN should be about. War only adds to misery."

Kumalo's efforts at the UN mean he is always in demand, always on the move between meetings and speeches and functions.

But these days everyone at the UN knows that when the man who is always running stops to talk about Iraq, a lot of important people stop to reflect.

And that includes the leaders of the world's most powerful country, the United States of America.