Jerry Matthews Matjila, South Africa’s point man at the United Nations, took the hot seat on the Security Council as its president for October with busy days now in sight. “There are 40 meetings already planned before we start the month,” he told the press, noting the month covers five weeks. “It’s going to be a very packed program.”
The focus that South Africa intends to keep is clear: peace and security in Africa.
Members of the Council will travel to Ethiopia and to South Sudan, where it has imposed sanctions during what it has described as a precarious peace process. The Council will also hold its yearly meeting with the African Union’s Peace and Security Council, with a stronger working relationship as one goal. In addition, the Council will discuss Libya with members of the African Union, who “feel sidelined” on the issue, Matjila said.
South Africa’s two-year term on the Council began in January, making Matjila one of the three African members, or A3, regularly representing the continent on the Council. Other current African members are the Ivory Coast and Equatorial Guinea, but their two-year terms are almost up. In January, Tunisia and Niger will join the Council. These are three very different countries with different geopolitical situations, priorities and demographics.
Still, Matjila believes that to make the most of their two years they all need to unite. Since January, South Africa has been instrumental in pulling together the A3 informal coalition.
Before even joining the Council, Matjila dedicated South Africa’s term to the legacy of Nelson Mandela, the leader of the country’s anti-apartheid movement, its first post-apartheid president and a believer in diplomacy and peacekeeping. Matjila’s agenda similarly comprises peace and dialogue as well as the inclusion of youth and women throughout the process.
Already this month, South Africa organized a Council session dedicated to taking guns out of children’s hands in Africa by 2020.
Each month, PassBlue profiles UN ambassadors as they step into the role of Council president, and highlights important data about their countries, including their carbon-emission levels and maternal death rates, which signal the extent of their commitments to mitigating climate change and women’s rights.
For example, the maternal death rate for South Africa was 24 for every 100,000 women, according to the latest data, from 2015. By contrast, the United States’ rate that year was 26.4/100,000.
This column follows ones on Britain, the US, Bolivia, China, Ivory Coast, Dominican Republic, Equatorial Guinea, France, Germany and Russia, among others.
The interview has been edited and condensed and includes information from the ambassador’s media briefing on Oct. 1 (see below).
Ambassador to the UN: Jerry Matthews Matjila, 67
Education: Master’s degree, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, Scotland
His story, briefly: Matjila was no stranger to the UN when he was appointed permanent representative in 2016: he joined the South African foreign affairs ministry in 1994, and for five years was high commissioner to India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Nepal. He represented South Africa in Geneva for many years, including stints with UN organizations.
Matjila has been an active member of the African National Congress (the ruling party in South Africa since the end of apartheid) since 1976, when he was exiled. From 1978 to 1984, he managed the ANC’s underground activities in South Africa, and even during his exile, he was involved in the formulation of ANC foreign policy. During the anti-apartheid fight, he served as an ANC representative in Japan, South Korea, China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, Singapore and Brunei.
The ambassador and his wife, Ntsebe Matjila, live close to Central Park, where he likes to walk and run. He says he enjoys the diversity of New York City, which reminds him of home.
You take over the presidency of the Security Council immediately after the big annual General Assembly session. So are you excited or already exhausted? It’s a responsibility that we prepared and planned for. We knew at the beginning of the year that our presidency would come immediately after UNGA.
You moved to New York in 2016. How has it been to represent South Africa at the UN and to live in New York?It’s a privilege and a responsibility, of course, to represent the country at the United Nations. I was a permanent representative in Geneva, so it’s familiar to be working with other [permanent representatives] in the UN environment. New York is different but better because everything is in the same UN building, and it’s easier to move around. As for New York, I think it is laid out in a way that makes life slightly easier.
You also get the sense of being in a truly multicultural, multi-religious, multiethnic society — there’s so much diversity. [At the UN], for me the most important thing is that you meet people from all over the world but with one common aim: to uphold international peace and security. In New York, you are part of this sphere of civil servants, diplomats who want to make things better for everybody all over the world. And of course you know you have bars, you have restaurants and you have music. I’ve enjoyed it so far.
What do you like to do when you’re not busy? As a diplomat, there are a lot of meetings, and sometimes you attend diplomatic dinners. Groups of friends form around issues — Security Council reform, gender parity, the environment — so we spend a lot of time together, over dinners and breakfasts in those areas. I spend a lot of time in Central Park; when you have time, you try to relax as much as you can, because at the UN there is so much pressure.
Have you found good South African restaurants? There used to be one, Madiba, but it is closed. But South Africa is a multicultural society — we enjoy Greek and other cuisines. A Chinese community has been there for, what, 200 years? Then we go, oh, that’s Indian food! They’ve been in South Africa for 150 years. Then, oh, Dutch food, and Portuguese, they’ve been there 500 years!
Moving on to the Security Council presidency, you said at the start of your term that it is dedicated to the legacy of Nelson Mandela and his commitment to peace. Many UN peacekeeping missions are in Africa, where many conflicts are also concentrated, so how can Mandela’s legacy influence the Council? In three areas. The first is preventive diplomacy. The second is to make sure that when we have peace agreements, we implement them. And once you have implemented them, we can have elections and prioritize nation-building.The third phase is healing and reconciliation.
We can identify a brewing problem, because all the elements show that the tension is there. So we say to the parties, why don’t we just sit down and talk? Heal the wound, and talk and negotiate. We’ve trained so many negotiators in South Africa, and we’ve spent a lot of time going to various parts of the continent to say, this issue can be resolved. It is not insurmountable. But we need to find a way to reach one another. There must be some compromises. It’s less costly to sit, talk and negotiate before things collapse.
Then you can have inclusive elections, where everybody says, I did my part, I made my mark, to change things at the ballot box. And then you get a system where everybody can be there to see the contents of the ballot boxes. All the parties must be there and it has to be transparent. So already you have the confidence of the people in the outcome. Now we say, don’t have winner-take-all.
Let’s take South Sudan. The issue is how to use the outcome to heal and build society. The question of national consciousness, nation-building is a priority. So we say to them, Nelson Mandela won elections by inviting former enemies to form a government together. Now, after 30 years of fighting, the issue is how to bring people together.
Then you move to the third phase, healing and reconciliation — which takes time. Elections are a stage, an event. It’s important to set a tone for reconstruction, forgiveness and unity. So that’s where we started in South Africa. Youth must be part of it. They’re the majority, but they are sometimes mobilized for the wrong things.
What are some “wrong things,” as you say, that are mobilizing youth? They join terrorist groups. Human smuggling, trafficking, militant groups in Africa are made possible by youths. They should be in school! All this illegal mining, people mining in rivers without shoes — you can’t do that. If you want to silence [the] guns in Africa by 2020, let’s remove the trigger. If young people are able to start building communities, they will flee the mountains and forests.
As for the second phase, we say, look, there are so many peace agreements. South Sudan has a peace agreement, what is lacking is implementation. That’s why when we came to the DRC [Democratic Republic of the Congo], we said, you have to have elections. And make sure that, gradually, DRC becomes peaceful. We’re now supporting people in South Sudan who agree to make sure that in all these agreements, the likelihood of peace is increasing.
Finally, Mandela was very strong on the issue of women. Even before he became president, he used to advocate that at least 50 percent of his party should be women. Not everyone was thinking about these things at the time.
Head of State: President Cyril Ramaphosa
Foreign Affairs Minister: Naledi Pandor
Type of Government: Parliamentary representative republic
Year South Africa Joined the UN: South Africa was a founding member in 1945; it was suspended by the General Assembly for its apartheid policies in 1974 and readmitted in 1994, after dismantling apartheid.
Years on the Security Council: 2007-2008, 2011-2012, 2019-2020
Population: 56.7 million
2019 Contributions to UN Regular Budget: $8,336,000
2019 Contributions to UN Peacekeeping: $3,639,000
Membership in Regional Groups: African Union, Arab States League, International Organization for Migration
2015 Maternal Death Rate: 24/100,000. By comparison, the US rate in 2015 was 26.4/100,000
2017 Per Capita GDP: $11,300; EU, $33,723; US, $59,531; world, $10,721
2018 CO2 Emissions (in tons, per capita): 12 (world average, 5)
Electric Power Consumption (1,000 kWh/per capita and year):6.6; US, 13 (world average,3.1 kWh)