Tanzania's role in liberating South Africa from apartheid

Retired diplomat who served as Tanzania’s first High Commissioner to South Africa, Ami Mpungwe. PHOTO | SUNDAY GEORGE

What you need to know:

  • Tanzania's first high commissioner to South Africa, Ami Mpungwe, recounts his involvement in the liberation struggles 30 years after the overthrow of the apartheid regime.

You were appointed Tanzania’s first High Commissioner to post-apartheid South Africa following the country’s attainment of an African majority government. Briefly take us through that moment.

It was quite an exciting moment and the culmination of my long involvement in the liberation struggle in Southern Africa in general and South Africa in particular. As you know, the only job in my life has been in the diplomatic service. It was a historical moment because our main focus at that time was the liberation struggle, and liberating South Africa became part of my professional life way before I was appointed High Commissioner. I remember back in 1977 I was assigned to New Zealand, partly for training but also to mobilize international support to boycott sports like rugby, which was quite an emotive issue for both countries. We were trying to isolate South Africa by breaking these [sports] ties, which were critical at the time. We then went on to conduct arms embargo campaigns and economic sanctions against the apartheid regime.

Prior to my assignment in South Africa, I was assigned to various southern African countries to help Zimbabwe’s independence in 1979. In 1989, I was part of the frontline transition assistance groups for the independence of Namibia. I still kept contact with all of the liberation movements in South Africa, such as the African National Congress (ANC) and Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC), and I became quite close with President Thabo Mbeki.

In 1989, that’s when we got the framework for a three-phase transition, which included the release of political prisoners such as Nelson Mandela. We felt that these steps would create an atmosphere for free political activity.

Phase two was to create an atmosphere for negotiations, which included the repeal of repressive and discriminatory laws, the suspension of death sentences, and the removal of troops from townships.

Phase three included putting all political parties together to agree on constitutional principles that would guide the constitution-making process.

What were your first major diplomatic actions as the High Commissioner, who was appointed immediately post-apartheid?

Most of the liberation efforts happened when I was at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as the Director of Africa and the Middle East. At that time, I was also involved in the Rwandan peace negotiations. When we finished the peace negotiations for Rwanda on August 4, 1993, in October of that same year, I was assigned to open a representative office to assist with South Africa’s transition. Because I was detailed on the dynamics of the transition process, it wasn’t by accident that I was also chosen to be the first High Commissioner.

I was naïve at that time. I thought that I would just oversee the transition and then come back home to my bigger position as Director of Africa and the Middle East at the Foreign Service. But President Ali Hassan Mwinyi said, “No.” After the transition, he felt that I should remain there.

Tell us some of the major challenges you encountered during your mission in South Africa and how you managed to overcome them.

Getting all the political formations in sync to create a new South Africa, which was deeply divided, was a huge challenge; there was a lot of division and mistrust. I understood the ANC and PAC very well; they had lived in Tanzania for many years, and we interacted with many liberation committees of the Frontline States. So, it would have been comfortable to continue to only cooperate with them, but I thought that it would be unfair if I limited myself to the liberation side. I needed to understand the other side, which we never had contact with—the white section of South Africa.

So instead of remaining comfortable with friends, I chose the tougher option of reaching out to the Afrikaners. There was a lot of fear, but I knew I would be doing my mission a disservice if I didn’t try to understand the other side.

They started welcoming me to the white/Afrikaner communities, and I was able to understand their perceptions about South Africa and Africa in general—they deeply and emotionally considered themselves as Africans. Some of them trace back several generations.

However, as much as they considered themselves to be Africans and South Africans, they were still different from their fellow South Africans.

Were black Africans in support of your engagement with the whites, the oppressors?

Those two communities were deeply separated. They always wondered why I was spending time with people on the other side, people who were perceived to be enemies. But I had a job to do, and I was representing Tanzania. As an ambassador, you have to have full details about the country you are in, especially the political forces.

You served as a personal assistant to President Ali Hassan Mwinyi before becoming a high commissioner. How did this experience shape your diplomatic approach?

It gave me a lot of confidence, without which I don’t think I would have been able to engage with the ‘enemy’. President Mwinyi was very reconciliatory in his policies and philosophy. My approach was in line with his philosophical thinking, despite the fact that we did not have a clear policy or approach on how to deal with post-Apartheid relations. With my understanding of his thinking and personality, I knew that I had his backing.

30 years later, what do you make of Tanzania and South Africa's economic, diplomatic, and cultural ties? Are we closer today than we were when you were in office as High Commissioner?

We have a wonderful, cordial relationship. But I wish it could be deeper. The foundation for close relations had been laid down a long time ago by the founding father of our nation, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere. And as he pointed out, African nationalism is meaningless and dangerous if it is not pan-African. So the liberation struggles in our individual countries were geared towards promoting not only country-to-country relations but also pan-Africanism and African unity.

In your opinion, has the Tanzania-South African historical brotherhood been fully optimized and lived up to expectations? What more can be done?

When I was formally posted in South Africa in 1994, we had not only political relations but diplomatic ties as well. I told my colleagues in Dar es Salaam that South Africa was very developed economically in manufacturing, agriculture, mining, and tourism and that I wished we had the resources to widen our ties beyond diplomatic and political relations. We could have had an attaché for agriculture or research in areas of medical science, tourism, and other areas where they were ahead of us. When I was overseeing the end of apartheid, I was one of the proponents of economic diplomacy. Since the liberation struggle was coming to an end, we had to start looking at economic affairs as well.

I spent a lot of time promoting economic diplomacy in South Africa. I mobilized a lot of investment from South Africa.

Retired diplomat, Ami Mpungwe responds to question during an interview with The Citizen's Managing Editor, Mpoki Thomson.PHOTO | SUNDAY GEORGE

Despite having gained independence 30 years earlier, Tanzania’s economy lagged far behind South Africa’s. It still lags behind today. What do you think is the reason for that?

The only part of South Africa that was far ahead of Tanzania was for white people. Unfortunately, the black side was not too far from where Tanzania was in terms of being underdeveloped. Bridging that gap has been the major challenge in South Africa post-Apartheid.

Tanzania suffered tremendous economic losses because of her support for the African majority rule in South Africa. As someone who was in the government at that time, tell us what made Tanzania so resilient despite the economic beating.

It was not a beating. We can characterize it differently. It’s a price you pay for a principle. As a result, it helped us build resilience. It was an important price to pay. We would have spent a lot of resources fighting apartheid 30 years later. So I think we paid that price at the right time. Or perhaps we should have even done it much earlier.

Were Tanzanians in support of the government making such a huge sacrifice that would have an adverse impact on their lives?

The government was quite effective in mobilizing public support under Julius Nyerere. It was a sacrifice worth making. It wasn’t a problem at all for Tanzanians to support the liberation movement. In fact, we saw it as our duty and responsibility, along with the dictum that Africa is not free until all of us are free. That is why we have these structures of cooperation, such as SADC. It is a consequence of that support for liberation across the entire subcontinent that we are talking about issues of economic collaboration today.

What is the one thing you would have done differently as High Commissioner, given the chance and full authority as a representative of the Tanzanian government?

I wouldn’t have done anything differently. I could see that the government had complete trust in me. That is why, even when I made the decision to retire early, I could see some resistance from my leadership.

President Thabo Mbeki awarded you the Order of Good Hope for your service. What did it mean to you at that time? What does it mean to you today?

It was quite humbling because I was doing my normal call of duty as a Tanzanian diplomat. It was good to know that my efforts were recognized and highly appreciated by South Africans.

As a career diplomat, what is your general view of Tanzania's foreign policy today?

During our time, the focus was on liberating Africa. But towards the end of my career, some new developments came in. The end of the Cold War brought in a new environment, which required us to open up our politics and the country. For example, we were a one-party state, but we had to open up and introduce a multiparty democracy in Tanzania focused on human rights, rule of law, and good governance.

However, today’s global dynamics are very different. If you thought we had diplomatic challenges during the liberation struggle, I think my colleagues who are in diplomacy today are dealing with a much more complex situation.

Does Tanzania still hold the same weight in terms of its influence in Africa?

Different administrations come with different priorities. Julius Nyerere was very focused on pan-Africanist issues. These were sustained by President Mwinyi. But increasingly, the presidents who came after Nyerere had the challenge of addressing local economic issues. They had to be much more focused on national issues.

I think we still play an important role today. We still have a historic leadership role in the region. This, however, varies from one administration to another. Presidents Mwinyi, Mkapa, and Kikwete sustained. President Magufuli focused on domestic affairs, so in a way we lost a bit of our traditional leadership in the region and on the continent, but now President Samia is reviving it; she is marketing the country across the world.

You took early retirement from diplomatic service to focus on the private sector. What drove you to make that decision at a time when many thought you were at the peak of your career and destined for a bigger role within government?

I think I was burned out. There was no more juice in my body. I was lucky to have been given huge responsibilities from a young age. I was appointed assistant to President Mwinyi at 34. That was when I lost my youth.

The second reason, I think, is that the bigger part of my career focused on the liberation struggle. To see apartheid eradicated and Nelson Mandela out of jail was the pinnacle of my career. So I felt that even if I had remained for the next 50 years, I would not achieve that kind of excitement. It might not be appreciated now, but back then, it meant a lot.

Third, when I was in South Africa, I took an aggressive approach to promoting economic diplomacy and South African investment in Tanzania. I mobilized funds for Tanzania. I always say that my deputy was the High Commissioner; I was more of a door-to-door salesman for Tanzania.

So, in my engagement with corporate South Africa, I came to understand Tanzanian opportunities much better. Tanzania was undergoing an economic transformation under President Mkapa. He had taken measures to modernize the economy by establishing macroeconomic fundamentals, addressing the debt burden, and addressing issues of inclusiveness. So I saw a lot of opportunities, which made me decide to retire from diplomacy and focus on the private sector.