Obituary

Dumisani Kumalo: Exile activist, later SA's man at United Nations

27 January 2019 - 00:00 By Chris Barron


Dumisani Kumalo, who has died at the age of 71, played a leading role in the anti-apartheid struggle in the US and then became SA's ambassador to the UN in New York for 10 years.
Forced into exile after the 1976 Soweto uprising, he went to the US, where he found that most people he met knew little about apartheid in SA and cared even less.
As projects director of the American Committee on Africa and the Africa Fund, he crisscrossed the US in the 1970s and '80s, speaking at more than 1,000 college campuses. He drummed up support for the struggle and was a key organiser of the sanctions and disinvestment campaigns.
Largely through Kumalo's efforts, the US Congress overruled president Ronald Reagan's veto on sanctions in 1986.
While the SA government focused on lobbying political leaders in Washington against sanctions, Kumalo lobbied "on the ground", as he put it, making sure senators and members of Congress received upwards of 10 calls a day at their district offices.
As SA's ambassador to the UN, he took the lead in 2002 in demanding that the UN General Assembly be allowed to express its views on the then-imminent invasion of Iraq.
Representing SA as leader of the Non-Aligned Movement and the AU, he insisted that debates on Iraq should not take place behind closed doors of the 15-member UN Security Council but in the General Assembly, where all member states could have a say.
But when the General Assembly chose SA to serve a two-year term on the Security Council in 2007, Kumalo's credibility and that of SA was badly damaged.
SA voted against a resolution condemning human rights abuses in Myanmar, helped block a sanctions resolution against Zimbabwe's rulers for violating human rights, tried to water down a resolution on sanctions against Iran, and refused to support a US resolution making rape a war crime.
These decisions drew strong criticism in undiplomatic language from countries and human rights groups that had previously applauded SA's human rights record. Kumalo's US counterpart at the UN said president Thabo Mbeki was "out of touch with trends in his own country".
Kumalo said SA didn't want human rights to be used as a tool and accused SA's critics of double standards.
"When they don't like you they trot out human rights violations that you may have, but when it is Guantanamo Bay or Gaza they keep quiet," he said.
Sanctions against Zimbabwe were motivated by Britain's "hatred" of Robert Mugabe, he said - SA was pilloried because it refused to kowtow to the West.
"We didn't do things the way the British and Americans wanted us to do them, and if you don't do it like the big ones, the French and Americans and British, want to do them, then you are a cheeky African. Well, I am happy being a cheeky African," he he charged.
Britain's then UN ambassador, Sir John Sawyers, responded to this by calling Kumalo "an outstanding public servant and personal friend . but a bit of a maverick".
Kumalo complained that the UN Security Council's "lead countries" on African conflicts were not themselves from Africa, but "former colonial powers".
He returned to SA in 2009 after SA's term on the Security Council ended.
Kumalo was born on September 16 1947 in Kwambunda village, on the banks of the Blood River in KwaZulu-Natal. His family soon moved to Evaton township in Johannesburg, where he grew up. His father was a carpenter and fundamentalist preacher, his mother a counsellor and midwife.
His political consciousness was awakened when his father took him to hear Nelson Mandela and other ANC leaders speak.
He attended Wilberforce College in Evaton, a Methodist missionary school that produced intellectuals and activists before being shut down by the apartheid government in the mid-1960s.
He received his BA from Unisa and a master of arts degree from Indiana University in the US.
For 10 years from 1967 he worked as a political reporter on the Golden City Post, the World, Drum magazine and the Sunday Times.
Under increasing pressure from the security police in the wake of the 1976 Soweto student uprising, Kumalo left journalism for a job at Total Oil as its first black marketing executive, before going into exile in 1977.
He returned 20 years later as director of the US desk in what was then the department of foreign affairs. In 1999 he was appointed South African ambassador to the UN. On his return he became CEO of the Thabo Mbeki Foundation until 2013 when he suffered a stroke.
He died at his home in Midrand during an asthma attack. He is survived by his wife Tikky and two children.
1947-2019

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