The Afropolitan spent time with the man sent forth by President Obama to serve as United States Ambassador to South Africa, Donald Gips (recipient of the 2010 Sue M. Cobb Award for Exemplary Diplomatic Service) and his lovely wife Liz; they shared some thoughts, insights and fond memories with us on their role, which Ambassador Gips jokingly describes as “eating and drinking for their country.”

What were your initial thoughts when nominated to take up the post of Ambassador to South Africa?

Donald: When the opportunity came I was in charge of Presidential personnel so I had a bit of inside knowledge about ambassadorships and where they were going and this was the one we were most interested in. We all grew up watching the transformation in South Africa and so being able to come and participate in that and represent President Obama - one could not have asked for a better opportunity.

The Afropolitan spent time with the man sent forth by President Obama to serve as United States Ambassador to South Africa, Donald Gips (recipient of the 2010 Sue M. Cobb Award

Liz: Lots of excitement, yet not really knowing what to expect with regards to living in South Africa or serving in the role as wife of the Ambassador. I had done a lot of work in Kenya, from about 2006 to 2009, developing a leadership programme, which is very near and dear to my heart, so I had fallen in love with the continent before we settled here.

What surprised you most about the country? What concerned you the most?

One of the things that surprised me was how similar the problems in South Africa are to the problems we face back home with regards to education, unemployment, and job creation; just on a different scale and magnitude. Even the conversations around race all felt very similar. Because we are both multi-racial democracies with all the opportunities and challenges that brings, it makes sense if you think about it, but I had not focused on it until I arrived.

A concern was that I had not realized how much the government-to-government relations had deteriorated. While the relationships between the people of our nations were strong, it was amazing to note the parts of the ANC and the community that we had grown apart from over the years. When I got here many people in the South African government called the Bush/Mbeki period “The Lost Years” in our bilateral relations due largely to battles around HIV/Aids, Zimbabwe, and Iraq. It took a lot of work to bridge those divides and progress started being made with the ushering in of the Zuma/Obama era.

In what way does the foreign policy style of the Obama administration differ from the Bush administration?

The most obvious is that President Obama believes in a multilateral approach to problem solving whenever possible. You can see it in how he approached Libya, following the lead of the Arab League to say a “no fly” zone was the right thing and going through the United Nations (UN). His whole approach to problems is that we need global solutions to global problems.

Both President Obama and Secretary Clinton have told all of us that we need to do a better job of listening to our counterparts.  Early on in my time here, I sat in meetings with Secretary Clinton where I could see the remnants of the previous era which had the “you should tell them to do this” tone to the points she was asked to convey. She took a different approach, though, and engaged in a more conversational manner, asking questions rather than dictating answers. I have tried to follow that example here in recognition of President Obama’s belief that this is a different time that required a change in how America approaches foreign policy.

Many Africans view the American government and country as being a “political bully”. Do you think this a fair view or is America misunderstood?

The challenge of being a global leader is that each and every person has different expectations of your nation. How then do you project your power in a way that is constructive and in partnership with other countries? It’s not an easy position to be in – there will always be people that resent your power and there will be people that welcome you for it.  While some want you to not intervene, others want you to intervene to stop crimes against humanity and protect fundamental freedoms.  With power comes responsibility and it is our challenge to find the right way to pursue that responsibility in a manner that is consistent with our value system.

What do you see as the way forward for Egypt and Libya in the aftermath of the Arab Spring?

Vice President Biden, who has been in U.S. Foreign Policy for a long time, stated when discussing the Arab Spring that, “if there was ever a time for all of us to be humble, it is now. We have entered into new, unchartered territory.” That statement stays with me. The path to democracy is never smooth. Tunisia seems to have made a good transition and we will see how the elections work out in Egypt and Libya. South Africa has a huge role to play in this as larger democracies of the world need to figure out how to help these countries achieve their potential. These countries may go through a rough period but I am confident they will be better off in the end.

The African Union (AU) recently went through a leadership election debacle, which saw factions exposed. What are your thoughts on this?

This is something Africa nations need to decide for themselves and we have been very consistent and clear that we do not have a favoured candidate. We do believe that Africa needs a strong AU that can be a true partner to the UN and other agencies; however, this does not mean the AU needs to be solving each problem on its own. It should partner with other countries that have an interest in helping, just as the UN does. We believe strongly in making the AU a strong partner of the United States but we will not get involved in the elections.

Clearly there is disunity in the organization based on what I read in the papers. But to be fair there is bound to be some disunity. All countries involved are in different states of development and are facing different challenges. There are different languages, perspectives and history to be considered and some nations are competitors in different economic spheres. If you look at how long it took for the European Union (EU) to come together and see the challenges of actually operating the EU now, it’s clear you need to have reasonable set expectations for the AU.

I am always struck when people say they want unity in Africa and that Africa needs to speak with one voice. There are many African nations, of course, and each has its own priorities and challenges. It should not be surprising that they do not always agree on the right approach to solve very complicated problems.

In South Africa the rate of unemployment amongst the youth is a “ticking time-bomb”. What can we as the youth do to help ourselves out of this tragic situation?

Donald: That’s a very good question. The youth bubble that is hitting the continent is either the greatest social challenge or biggest economic opportunity in Africa.  Demanding a better education system is definitely part of the long-term answer. South Africa needs an education system that’s not just about basic education but gives children and young adults required skills.

Liz: Uganda has just started a programme that gives entrepreneurship lessons in high schools and I think that is something that every country should consider. There are so many things that people can do if they have entrepreneurial skills and some training to go along with it.  Young people need to engage with their governments to remove corruption and demand better services. They need to be forces of change to drive out corruption and call for transparency as that will go a long way to securing a better future with fair opportunities for all.

Africa is a continent rich with minerals yet trade between the countries is poor. In your opinion what’s the biggest hindrance?

There are two major issues, namely corruption and inefficiency. A recent study documented how someone drove from Kinshasa to Kigali, crossing several borders, and they were stopped 72 times to get bribes! That is absolutely unacceptable and scares away investors both locally and internationally. Inefficiency is also a huge hindrance to trade and economic development.

At the end of your tenure in South Africa what would you like your legacy to be?

Donald: There is no easy answer. I think a big part is strengthening government to government relationships. If you look around the world at countries that share incredible constitutions and multi-racial democracies, we have a fundamental belief in tolerance and acceptance of different races and religions – our two countries are fairly unique. We don’t always agree on tactics or how things should play out on a global stage but I think it’s critical that we have that dialogue and honest interchange. It’s critical that not only existing powers but also emerging democracies take a bigger voice on the global stage. We need to move into an age where we have constructive dialogue that doesn’t break down along old ideological lines. I hope at the end of my tenure we will be engaging on that level.

The United States has made a huge investment in fighting HIV/Aids through PEPFAR (U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief). A whole health care system has been built outside of the government health care system to treat HIV/Aids through Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and other parties, so we are now in a process of moving that entire infrastructure over to the primary healthcare system that Minister Mostoaledi and his amazing team are busy trying to reenergize. That’s hugely difficult. It’s a transition that involves moving funding, people and operations. It will take five years but hopefully by the time I leave we will have left it on a very strong path.

For us this transition is important for the following reasons:

·         First, it’s the right way to ensure people in South Africa get the right care. It’s a more efficient way of operating and will allow the maximum impact for every dollar spent.

·         Secondly, it’s a role model for the world as to how aid initiatives can be transitioned and will be an example for other governments in Africa to see a real example of a country that has taken their HIV/AIDS program over and done it successfully.

·         Thirdly for us, is there is a big fight in the United States as to the effectiveness of foreign aid. Having a role model that shows an intervention that saves lives and can also be transitioned and become sustainable and shows that African governments can step up is critical to demonstrate to American taxpayers that their dollars are being spent wisely to strengthen countries and save lives.

·         My last focus is that we hope we are able to bring more American businesses to the Continent to create jobs and development opportunities here, while at the same creating jobs back home.

Liz: As an ambassador’s spouse it’s important to find a meaningful role and so when I think of my own legacy it’s definitely in education. We have made an enormous effort to re-engage United States government resources in a smart meaningful way in the education space here. The South African Government is already spending an incredible amount of money in education, so how can we make a difference to the ministry of education and what is going into South African classrooms in a way that makes sense? We are not necessarily focused on the infrastructure side but on improving the quality of education. We have launched a terrific project at USAID where we identify South African innovations and then help these become institutionalized at school district or provincial level. The best practice of education is pretty much well known. You can find it in all kind of countries. So how do we take what we know works and adapt it on this continent?

The education system here is in crisis. But there are some very passionate people from diverse backgrounds that recognize this and are willing to come together, after hours even, to try and find solutions.

Donald: Another part of the legacy is reaching out to the youth, whether it’s attached to outreach programmes, reaching out to the social media world or the African Leadership Academy. In the United States, a leader can make a difference but the institutions (Congress, Courts etc.) are so well established that the degree to which an individual leader can make an impact is somewhat limited. On the continent, however, institutions are younger thereby leaving leaders the ability to make huge impact, positive or negative. President Obama and Vice President Biden want to support those future leaders here in South Africa and around the continent and so it was the President’s idea to reach out to the young people and help develop that next generation of leaders who will help the continent realize its full potential. As president Obama has said, “Africa’s future is up to Africans.”

You were Chief Domestic Policy Advisor to Vice President Al Gore; what were the most memorable times during that period?


I have now worked in the White House twice.  While working in the White House is an honour it’s an incredibly intense responsibility. Sitting in meetings and listening to people like President Clinton and Vice President Gore debate serious issues where occasionally you are asked to give your view - you feel you are part of history in the making.

But on the other hand you also realize how impossible these jobs are. There are no easy issues in the White House, if it was easy someone else would have solved it and it would have never made it to the White House! There is also not a lot of joint problem solving. Over the years it has become very much an “us vs. them” scenario between Democrats and Republicans which makes the jobs in the White House that much more difficult with each generation. Hopefully that will all swing back and people on both sides of the issues on finding solutions to the challenges that face our nation and the world.

Favourite memories in South Africa

·         The World Cup is a given!

·         Hosting First Lady Michelle Obama during her visit in 2011.

·         All the South Africans we have met who have turned into friends.

·         Meeting Madiba and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

·         Meeting the recipients of the community grants. The backbone of this country is these people that get up every day and give back to the community. They are not famous or well known but they are the heart and soul of this country.

Seeing our boys settle and engage on so many different levels in South Africa, including community service projects.