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A long road from union organizer to diplomat

By Sneh Duggal      
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Membathisi Mdladlana still remembers the day 15 years ago when former South African president Nelson Mandela appointed him to his cabinet. 

Mr. Mdladlana’s first swearing-in ceremony as South Africa’s labour minister was on July 18, 1998—Mr. Mandela’s birthday. 

“It was quite an emotional moment,” the South African high commissioner to Canada told Diplomatic Circles on Feb. 6. 

“All of us as members of Parliament, we aspire to be ministers even if we don’t say it,” Mr. Mdladlana said. 

He thought of his parents that day and what they would say. After all, their “naughty boy” had become a minister, he said smiling. 

The “cherry on top” was working with Mr. Mandela, the anti-apartheid leader who is commonly known among South Africans as Madiba. 

“It was a lovely thing to work with that man, I was very proud of that moment,” Mr. Mdladlana said, sitting in his spacious office inside the high commission located right across the street from Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s house. 

“He taught us not to be angry,” Mr. Mdladlana said. “I was very lucky because it was his last year as president.”

After Mr. Mandela left office in 1999, the next three presidents reappointed Mr. Mdladlana as the country’s labour minister. He served as a minister until October 2010. 

South African President Jacob Zuma decided to shuffle his cabinet at the time. 

Mr. Mdladlana said he was informed that he would be posted to Burundi as an ambassador, so he resigned as a member of Parliament although he stayed on for a short period as a backbencher. 

Being the labour minister was quite an experience for Mr. Mdladlana. He was a teacher by training, and had been a member of teachers unions including as president of the South African Democratic Teachers Union. 

As a minister, he was on the other side, negotiating with the same people he used to previously work with.  

“It was quite tough because they find it quite easy to say…‘You know what we want and we expect you to do what we’ve been saying.’”

He introduced two laws, one on employment equity and the other on developing skills in the workplace. 

There were also the tougher moments. 

“When you are a minister of labour, you get a lot of strikes, and some of the strikes were very adversarial,” he said. “It was hard, because you must actually get in there.”

He recounted his predecessor who once had to fly by helicopter to go negotiate in the streets with truck drivers who were on strike and had blocked off the roads. 

Mr. Mdladlana began his career as a teacher in Cape Town in 1972. He also joined the Cape African Teachers Union.

A turning point for him was in 1976, when students started protesting in the Soweto area against the introduction of Afrikaans, which stems from Dutch, as a teaching language in local schools. 

“That was a difficult time to be a teacher,” he said. 

Teachers had to take crash courses to learn the language. 

“It was difficult for many of us; what’s worse is that it was forced,” he said. 

He said teachers were torn between the students and the system. 

It was then that some teachers left the unions they were with, because they wouldn’t meet with students, Mr. Mdladlana said. 

He helped form SADTU and became its president in 1990. Those were tough years, he said, recounting stories of people he knew who were killed.

There was a day he said his house was surrounded by unmarked cars. 

Someone happened to visit him at the same time, causing the cars to disperse. 

“In fact I’m glad to be alive, because many of my colleagues died.”

 

Taking in Canadian life

Mr. Mdladlana seems to be adjusting well to his new job as high commissioner. He’s been in Ottawa for about seven months. 

“It’s more relaxed here than when I was a minister actually…and maybe I’ll gain my sanity also and be more relaxed,” he said with a laugh.

His energetic and candid personality is comparable to that of his predecessor Mohau Pheko, who was known in Ottawa for being a frank diplomat. 

He said being a high commissioner in Canada reminds him of the days when Canadians helped South Africa during apartheid. 

One of his priorities is to get a new high level visit between the two countries. Former South African president Thabo Mbeki visited Canada in 2003, and former Canadian governor general Michaëlle Jean visited South Africa in 2006. 

Trade Minister Ed Fast led a trade mission to Nigeria and Ghana earlier this year. The government also recently signed a foreign investment treaty with Benin and finished talks on one with Tanzania. While South Africa hasn’t received such a visit, Mr. Mdladlana said he’s excited when he sees these things happening. 

He said he wished Canada would also think about countries such as Botswana, Swaziland, or Zimbabwe. Many of those country’s citizens go to South Africa to find work, he added.

“We are the hub of those economies,” he said. “I don’t think we should be seeing ourselves as the big brother, hovering in the sky who gobbles everything.”

He added that if the economies surrounding South Africa were developed, it would give his country the chance to develop its own economy. This would mean more jobs for South Africans. 

But Mr. Mdladlana said he is seeing a change in Canada-South Africa ties. He believes the two countries can nurture the relationship.

Mr. Mdladlana said he would like to deepen ties in the mining area, and between universities in the two countries. 

The South African diplomat said he is impressed by what the provinces are doing on environmental issues and tackling climate change, and that this is one area where the governments and universities could share their knowledge with his country. 

 

Taking the wheel

Mr. Mdladlana had a driver as a minister and as president of SADTU. But don’t be surprised to find the high commissioner driving himself to events and even to other cities at times.

“I drive myself because…I’ve been having protectors, I’ve been having drivers, and now I’m enjoying my freedom,” he said.

“We must always remember that [drivers] are also human beings, they’ve got rights too, they need to be with their families.”

Despite having failed his driving test seven times before getting his license in 1977, Mr. Mdladlana explained that he was a very good driver and had no record of causing a single accident.

“I always say I’ve got a masters in driving because I failed seven times,” he said, his deep chuckle seeping through the room.

Mr. Mdladlana said he’s been made to feel right at home since his arrival, especially from his African colleagues. The day he arrived in Canada, there were about 20 to 30 people at the airport to greet him.

“It’s such a lovely environment,” he said.

sduggal@embassynews.ca

@snehduggal

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