Anton Hammerl: Fire the Minister of DIRCO

May 20, 11 Anton Hammerl: Fire the Minister of DIRCO

The news world is buzzing with the death of Anton Hammerl, a South African photojournalist who was shot in the stomach in Libya by loyalist troops and then left to die. The Department of International Relations and Cooperation then not only failed to inform his wife of his death or very-apparent danger, but assured her for six weeks that he was completely fine. The betrayal of a South African in a very dangerous situation for the sake of pandering to Libya is completely unacceptable, and Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane should be sacked because of it. If it weren’t pandering, the only other plausible reason for such horrendous mismanagement would be sheer incompetence, in which case the same punishment should apply.

If you are overseas working or stuck in a conflict zone and you get abducted or wounded, there are only two organisations which can protect you: The sympathetic media and your government, or more specifically your ministry of foreign affairs. When Hammerl’s potential death was raised by the media, they were doing their part to raise attention and put pressure on the Libyan government to come clean about his condition. The media in this case did the right thing, and did it to the best of their knowledge. It didn’t help that DIRCO blatantly lied to them (specifically the Star newspaper) a week ago assuring Hammerl’s safety, but ultimately they went with what they had and performed the crucial function of making sure nobody forgot that there was a South Africa in presumably dire straits while in Libyan captivity. DIRCO, however, failed dismally.

When you are injured and/or captured in a foreign warzone, your ministry of foreign affairs, through local diplomats, are supposed to apply pressure on the local authority responsible to firstly assure the individual’s well-being and safety, and secondly to negotiate their release (or extradition if it is a criminal matter). South African diplomats at the highest levels have been keenly-involved in the Libyan crisis, including a presidential visit to Gaddaffi. The Loyalists assured DIRCO that Hammerl was safe, alive and well, when in reality he had been left in the desert weeks ago to die from a gunshot wound to the stomach. Based on nothing but their good wishes, DIRCO took this for the gospel truth, apparently assuming the Colonel would never lie to cover his own ass, and then spread this newfound wisdom to local media and, worst of all, Hammerl’s family, thereby instilling an unforgivable sense of hope in a situation that was already past horrible. DIRCO failed Hammerl, and they failed in the most egregious manner. For that, the Minister should be removed from her post as soon as a competent replacement can be found.

What DIRCO has done is remove any shred of confidence we might have in our foreign ministry to look out for ourselves or our loved ones should they be in a conflict zone. If you are captured or wounded abroad, for god’s sake don’t ask DIRCO for help, because they clearly place national interests above the well-being of their own bloody citizens. Moreover, not only will DIRCO be unhelpful in South Africans’ welfare abroad, they will actively misguide the entire negotiation process, making everyone’s lives far more difficult and traumatic. This will only further discourage South African foreign correspondents, what few are left, from covering the important crises around the world as they occur, and it will erode any confidence South Africans had in DIRCO’s ability to do its job.

Fire Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane and hope you reach a good settlement with Hammerl’s wife Penny Sukhraj, because I certainly hope she sues their pants off, so that DIRCO will never again make such a glorious cock-up of a situation again.

Photo by Unai Aranzadi