IT’S been a few months now, and Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool is settling into his new job as South Africa’s representative in the US. It’s a far cry from Cape Town and the raging southeaster. In windless Washington the trees are turning gold in the soft autumn sunlight.
Apart from having to move office so that the Massachusetts Avenue embassy can be renovated, he’s conducted several tours, been to New York and met the Council on Foreign Relations to discuss interfaith issues.
“I’m getting busy,” he says, adding that he’s also met members of the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King’s family and Atlanta mayor, Andrew Young.
“I’ve had productive meetings with a host of front managers responding to our call to invest 1% of their funds into the African economy. Africa is the last frontier for investment, but there’s been a lot of caution in the US.
“So it’s my job to build up courage amongst US corporates; to say to them that returns on South African investments are exceptionally good.”
Rasool comments that he’s had to spend time transforming the thinking that BEE is artificial. Joint ventures and partnering was the best way for US investors to effect meaningful social responsibility, and to share their business risks.
“We’ve just had a wonderful report from the McKinley consulting firm. Growth rates in Africa currently exceed growth rates in the developed world, and businesses are beginning to realise that 60% of the world’s most arable land for food security lies in Africa.
“I think people are looking at Africa with new eyes, and I dare say the Americans are discovering now what the Chinese discovered 10 years ago.”
Rasool adds that the choice of the right partner is critical to fruitful relationships. He sees the embassy as the vital conduit for this.
“We have to make sure we enable the right kind of match-ups. We don’t want quick buck companies destroying our hard-earned reputation.”
I ask about him being in demand on interfaith matters, and that the US – the epitome of multi-culturalism – was looking to South Africa for ideas. His reply was that it was more a question of exploring functional models and sharing fresh approaches.
He agreed that the US was a melting-pot of cultures and creeds, but added that its communities had traditionally been more insular than ours.
However, this insularity was changing. Americans were beginning, for example, to accept Hispanics as Americans. In 50 years there’d been an enormous influx of Muslims. Muslims were now well-established, but Americans were finding it difficult to deal with newer immigrants.
The problem was that all Muslims bore the brunt of this uncertainty in the light of the former President’s security agenda after 9/11.
What struck him about Islam in America was its lack of infra-structure. Ceremonial prayer on ‘Eid or Jumu’ah always had to be performed in shifts. This would never happen in South Africa.
“There’s an amazing mismatch in the US between Muslims and infra-structure. This is very unlike South Africa. I think it’s because we have come to terms with how we handle our minorities and our multitude of cultural, religious and linguistic expressions.
“It is part of my job to show that the South African model does work, to make known that dealing with your minorities is not as frightening as you think…that you shouldn’t judge Muslims, or any community for that matter, by its most visibly destructive presence in the media.”
Rasool said that competing sources of identity disempowered US Muslims from speaking with one voice to counter these damaging forces. Arabic, Indo-Pak, Turkish and other congregations enjoyed competing interests. Then there was a separate Afro-American Muslim community – ignored, isolated and still not in the mainstream.
These internal differences, and the lack of infra-structure, merely added to the difficulty of formulating a unified response, he said.
On his relationship with President Obama, Rasool said he first met him when he was a Senator from Illinois on tour of South Africa.
“On my first visit to present my credentials at the White House, he reminded me of this. He said the first time he met me was in my office in Wale Street as premier of the Western Cape nearly ten years ago.
“On my second visit he enjoyed the gift I gave him – a photograph of Nelson Mandela’s speech after his release. I have a relative advantage here as ambassador, because as premier I was able to give a senator from Illinois some two hours in my diary.
“We had a wonderful discussion on how South Africa treated its Muslim community, how interfaith relations were governed and how we dealt with extremist elements in South Africa.”
Rasool said that he had had “nice” discussions with Obama’s advisors, and was about to meet members of the White House staff on the issue of relationships in the Muslim world.
“I sometimes have to act as more than just a representative of South Africa, but I do it in quiet ways without getting involved in any of the controversies of American society.”
I ask the ambassador about public perception in the US. How could a person such as Daniel Pipes, regarded as an Islamophobe, suggest that Obama (a Christian) is a Muslim and get away with it.
“The media set-up is different here. It’s very powerful, very partisan. Unlike South Africa I get the impression they sometimes value freedom of expression as higher than the right to dignity, whereas in South Africa our right to dignity would be a limitation on the extent of freedom of expression.
“In South Africa you can’t say anything, especially if it’s going to hurt someone. But here I think innuendo becomes perception, perception becomes fact. So if someone puts it up that the President is a Muslim…then half of the country will believe it.
“I mean, Obama bails out the motor industry and, hey presto, half of America thinks he’s a socialist!”
His impression of Obama’s recent mid-term defeats is that the President has remained fairly unflustered in the midst of a crisis fomented by his predecessor. The President had called for a “new civility” in US politics.
But, admitted Rasool, he wasn’t sure whether people were listening to each other to hear the truth of the matter, as opposed to the perception of the matter.
“(The difference) is that in South Africa we’ve taken the time to listen to one another, to respond to each other intellectually. We must really cherish the fact that we still have debate where we really listen to one another.”
He agreed that the President’s overtures to the Muslim world were “unprecedented”. His idea, expressed in Indonesia on his recent Far East tour, that people were defined by much more than just being Muslim, said a lot.
“The President has publicly bemoaned the lack of intellectual discourse that has fuelled misperception,” he said.
The ambassador noted that many people were beginning to realise that it was a massive task for one man to change a whole system, a system that had grown up on a diet of things opposite to what the current President was saying.
“President Obama has opened up a window of opportunity for the US and the Muslim world. I don’t think we take up these opportunities enough.
“Those of us who accept his outreach need to take it a step further to develop a debate, and to get the discourse going…rather than just outsourcing our humanisation to one person.”
I ask whether Obama had opened the window wide enough for the Muslim world and the US, and whether someone after him would merely slam it closed.
Rasool answered that there was a view (albeit an unofficial one) that the Democrats wanted to ensure Obama would be a one-term President. There was another that the Republicans wanted everything he had turned to policy to be reversed.
“What President Obama has done has not reached sustainable levels yet…it is vulnerable, and can be closed down.”
The biggest problem, he said, was that the US sometimes tended to be too inward looking. Patriotism was a two-edged sword. Taken too far it could mean a love of country with too little regard to what was happening in other places.