Thandile Sunduza, Consul General in Los Angeles. Photo: Twitter/Thandile Sunduza
Thandile Sunduza, Consul General in Los Angeles. Photo: Twitter/Thandile Sunduza

South African diplomats abroad, though many of them are good at doing their job, are constantly seeing their efforts undermined by colleagues who are alleged criminals and cadres making exorbitant demands who never think about doing the job they were put there to do, as repeated and urgent queries by South Africans in different countries are met with unanswered phones and emails and dead-ends.

The latest, according to a report in the Sunday Times today, is the consul general in Los Angeles, Thandile Sunduza, who is alleged to have rejected more than 30 properties offered to her by her own department, the department of international relations and co-operation (DIRCO), and wants something on the elite Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. She was apparently accused of making other demands, being “uncouth” and lacking a full grasp of her job.

It is one of many such stories about staff in South African embassies, especially those who are not career diplomats but have been given or, according to a recent letter to DIRCO, bought the job. During the Jacob Zuma years, cadres, sometimes failed politicians or people who allegedly had some dirt on Zuma, were sent out to fill the highest posts of ambassador.

The DIRCO Minister Naledi Pandor, appointed by President Cyril Ramaphosa, is now left with the fallout, embassies that for a decade have not only been dysfunctional but often don’t have a boss. SAPeople, in dealing with the issues of South Africans abroad, has on numerous occasions tried to get information out of embassies, many times without success, or, in the case of the high commissioner in London, Nomatemba Tambo, a curt message saying “I’m afraid I don’t intend to engage in an ongoing dialogue on such issues.” These are civil servants, mind you, paid for by citizens’ taxes.

The Sunday Times report will come as little surprise to South Africans living in the LA area who have been struggling for months to elicit any response or support from the SA Consulate despite continued phone calls, emails and even visits to the office.

For one South African, whose passport expired at the end of September 2020, he has been battling to hear back since January when he submitted his renewal application. (Sunduza has apparently been in the LA post since around February.)

waiting, waiting, waiting

“Due to Covid, I expected a delay, but I haven’t been able to get in touch with anybody at the Consulate for months,” he told SAPeople in August. In mid-September he was finally sent a letter stating that consulate members were working remotely and requesting patience. The letter was “not reassuring”, didn’t address his renewal, and gave no indication of when services would be properly administered again.

“I called the person who sent the letter, using the phone number in his signature of the letter, and surprisingly he answered. He was working from home, but unfortunately didn’t have any additional information.”

In a subsequent call he was informed that “they are still working from home and they have no idea when they will receive diplomatic bags with renewed passports. In the meantime my passport has expired which leaves me in limbo. I just can’t believe they don’t have a simpler system to streamline these kind of things.”

Today he told SAPeople: “Still waiting unfortunately. I did email them last week at the Consulate and they told me that they are still working remotely but that they have been receiving diplomatic bags with documents. I guess I’ll just continue to wait. They said to email Home Affairs in South Africa for any further updates which I did twice with no response.”

Asleep in los angeles

A South African in Seattle shared her similar frustrating experience with SAPeople, with no luck receiving a response from the LA consulate, her nearest foreign mission. “I’ve tried calling several times when the office is reported to be open by their website (9am-12pm) and either get cut off or it goes to voice mail that never gets a response. I’ve also re-sent my questions by email and haven’t had a response.

“It’s frustrating because we South Africans are entitled to a passport and mine has now expired (in early August). I can’t even access a list of instructions for how to apply for a new passport — from the LA consulate website.”

The desperate South African in Seattle finally found a list of requirements for renewing her passport on the Washington D.C. website, and submitted her new passport application and payment to the LA office. According to UPS, her package was successfully delivered… but she has still not heard anything from the Consulate.

She told SAPeople today: “Ten years ago when I last made a passport application, the LA office was helpful and answered emails with questions almost immediately. They also previously let me know when passport application materials were received and that they were all in order.”

Problems in London

Expats in the United Kingdom are suffering the same headaches, where the website has been down since mid-August, phone calls lead to a “dead end”, and emails are ignored. Many South Africans are asking if the way they are being treated by the very people who have been appointed to support them, is even legal.

The high commissioner, Nomatemba Tambo, briefly answered SAPeople questions on behalf of South Africans in the UK in August, but when we followed up for clearer answers, she sent a curt message, “I’m afraid I don’t intend to engage in an ongoing dialogue on such issues.” She added that “whatever operational inconveniences our nationals are experiencing will be resolved in due course as I stated yesterday.” That was on 20 August. Two months later, and the problems seem to be increasing, judging by the cries for help we receive daily from South Africans in the UK who cannot get hold of their embassy. (In the past week we have again written to Ms Tambo and her office several times, in search of answers for these South Africans. She has not replied.)

No longer able to download application forms, South Africans in the UK have to send postal requests for the forms to be sent to them. The SAHC states the forms will be sent within 5 business days, but many are still waiting after a month. One expat in London told SAPeople: “It appears SAHC have effectively stopped servicing SA citizens in the U.K. and I wonder if there is not some breach of law or responsibility in this regard that can be investigated?”

Please sign the petition for a Passport Emergency Extension for South Africans living abroad.

DA Shadow Deputy Minister of Home Affairs, Adrian Roos, said in a recent podcast for South Africans abroad that he will raise the urgent matter in Parliament of the UK website being down.

Across the world, almost guaranteed problems await any South African citizen wanting to get a passport. Inaction or inefficiency from Home Affairs and DIRCO belies the fact that South Africa has plenty of embassies and representatives in over 100 countries (117 heads of delegation, according to the DIRCO website, 14 of which are vacant).

Delays for passports and other documents last for up to six months, sometimes over a year, due mainly to an archaic system, which in many cases is run inefficiently, in which applications are sent in diplomatic bags to DIRCO in South Africa, before being sent to Home Affairs to process… and then returned to DIRCO to send back to overseas missions. (Roos points out that so much time could be saved by the larger missions offering online applications, similar to the procedure within SA.)

Zuma cronies and free loaders

As many as 70 percent of South Africa’s heads of mission are apparently political appointments, often with no training to run an embassy abroad. As recently as this year former human settlements minister Nomaindia Mfeketo was appointed ambassador to the United States.

South Africa’s former ambassador to the Netherlands, Bruce Koloane, was recalled last year (and then resigned) after he gave evidence at the state capture enquiry about his involvement in the controversial Gupta plane landing at Waterkloof Air Force Base in 2015.

In 2016 Sibisiso Ndebele was recalled as high commissioner in Australia because of allegedly getting R10 million in kickbacks from tenders when he was a minister. The charges were withdrawn in 2018 and he is now high commissioner in India.

In the same year (2016), SA was embarrassed by the revelation that its high commissioner to Singapore – Hazel Francis Ngubeni (55) – had withheld the fact that she was jailed in New York for a couple of years for smuggling cocaine. In Singapore drug trafficking can lead to the death penalty. Ngubeni, who was formerly an SAA air stewardess, was jailed between 1999 and 2001… but omitted to disclose the conviction when nominated for her role in Singapore in 2013. DIRCO subsequently withdrew her security clearance and her employment contract was terminated.

Zindzi Mandela, the late daughter of Nelson and Winnie Mandela, and former ambassador to Denmark, was often in the news for undiplomatic statements, most notably her apparent support for the Economic Freedom Fighters.

In October Peter Fabricius reported in Daily Maverick that South Africa’s deputy ambassador to Sudan, Zabantu Ngcobo, and her partner were being investigated for allegedly hiring the embassy driver and his accomplice to kill the intelligence officer because he was sending home damaging reports about Ngcobo.

SA ambassadors are reportedly paid a minimum annual salary of R1-million, excluding living allowances, free accommodation and other perks that can double that amount, according to BusinessInsider.

“Uncouth” Sunduza

Sunduza, a former ANC MP with a degree in sports from the Vaal University of Technology, worked for the Gauteng Department of Health and its Department of Sports. She made headlines in 2014 when she wore a tight canary-yellow dress to the opening of parliament that elicited many negative remarks on social media, and she burnt the dress, according to City Press, in 2015, saying “That dress was a flop and it was the designer’s fault.” (The Mail & Guardian called her dress one of 8 Things that Broke the Internet in 2014.)

thandile sunduza parliament opening south africa 2014
Thandile Sunduza in the yellow dress. Photo: Twitter.

Faced with the mounting problems and glaring issues at many foreign missions, in June President Cyril Ramaphosa signed into a law the Foreign Service Act, which “provides for the minimum requirements a person must meet to qualify for transfer to a South African Mission (and) regulates the appointment of Heads of Mission and the requirements that such persons should have in order to be appointed.”

In October, the DA called on DIRCO to refer to the Zondo Commission into State Capture allegations contained in a letter from diplomats Francis Moloi and Nyameko Goso, dated 9 October 2020, which alleged that the ranks of ambassadors, diplomats and senior officials were filled with cadres and political appointments who were forced to make donations to the ANC from the moment of appointment.

In the meantime, SAPeople has launched a petition to help South Africans abroad receive a more efficient service. After our repeated requests to DIRCO and Home Affairs officials fell on deaf or deliberately blocked ears, SAPeople teamed up with the DA, who will be able to raise the concerns in Parliament and effect urgent changes. The petition already has over 8,000 signatures. It requires 20,000 in order to be debated in Parliament. Previous petitions have had no impact because they did not receive enough signatures, so it is vital that this petition reaches its target. Please sign and share the petition here.

Please sign the petition for a Passport Emergency Extension for South Africans living abroad.