OBITUARY: Aziz Pahad, SA's best deputy foreign minister who ...
“Humane and a sunny disposition and common touch” is how former president Thabo Mbeki described Aziz Pahad in the eloquently written foreword of Aziz Pahad’s autobiography, Insurgent Diplomat — Civil Talks or Civil War? It was when the two men were in exile during the apartheid years that they developed what Mbeki described as “a deep and abiding sense of comradeship”.
Pahad was one of the exiled members of the ANC who helped to shape the “rich tapestry and the great legacy of SA’s transition to democracy — a reminder, especially to the younger generations, that freedom was not free!” Mbeki wrote.
In the autobiography, published in 2014, Pahad wrote that his life and experiences could not be separated from those of the ANC and the SACP, and that he had the privilege of working under the guidance and leadership of Mbeki from the early 1960s in SA, and later in exile in the UK, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Angola and many other countries of the world.
Aziz Goolam Pahad was born on Christmas day 1940 in Schweizer-Reneke, the North West province, the third of five sons. His grandparents came from Gujarat state in north India and came to SA to work in Indian shops. His family moved to Johannesburg when he was five. Becker Street in Ferreirastown, where he grew up, had a profound impact on his political development as it was a hive of political activity. The offices of the ANC, Transvaal Indian Congress and the Tambo-Mandela law firm were just around the corner.
While the Pahad family’s initial involvement was within the Indian Congress, they became part of the broader struggle along with the ANC. His father, Goolam, was active in the preparations for the historic Congress of the People that took place in June 1955 in Kliptown, a Johannesburg township, where the Freedom Charter was created, calling for a democratic, nonracial, non-sexist and united SA.
In his biography, Nelson Mandela writes that he often visited Aziz’s mother, Amina, for lunch, “and suddenly this charming woman put down her apron and went to jail for her beliefs”. Goolam Pahad was detained and imprisoned for five months after the Sharpeville massacre in March 1960 and on his release he left SA for the UK.
At the Central Indian High school from which Pahad matriculated, he earned the nickname “Bones” because of his skinny legs, and later he was called “Dagga”.
“My droopy eyes gave the impression of always being under the drug’s euphoric influence,” he explained.
He followed up his schooling with a BA degree in sociology and Afrikaans in 1963 at the University of the Witwatersrand and one of his lecturers was the renowned Afrikaans scholar, playwright and poet NP van Wyk Louw. This love of Afrikaans literature proved to be very useful in early talks with Afrikaner leaders.
In 1963 Pahad and his brother Essop were banned under the Suppression of Communism Act, which restricted his movements and prevented him from attending public gatherings. During this time, he was often detained for short periods for violating the order.
After the Rivonia trial, where Mandela and his co-accused were sentenced to life imprisonment, Pahad left SA in 1964. He lived mostly in London where he obtained a diploma in international relations from the University College of London and in 1968, he graduated with a master’s degree in international relations from the University of Sussex.
Veteran foreign correspondent Jean Jacques Cornish described Pahad, whom he knew in the seventies and early eighties in London, as “a tireless campaigner for the ANC against the nefarious police and practice that drove him from his home.
“London at that time gave shelter to dissidents from all over the world,” Cornish said. “They were given the freedom to protest the regimes they opposed. They also benefited from the liberty enjoyed by their hosts to live life to its fullest. There was inevitably a dichotomy between enjoying so-called Swinging London and being a committed activist against a foreign evil.”
Pahad was involved in many of the demonstrations in London against apartheid, calling for sanctions against the National Party regime, and he helped to arrange boycotts against South African sports tours.
He was also part of the ANC’s exiled leadership that started secret talks with leading Afrikaners. At the first meeting held in a manor house in England in November 1987, Pahad recalled how his ability to greet the delegation in Afrikaans and his background in studying Afrikaans literature under Van Wyk Louw helped to ease tensions dramatically. Pahad describes the meeting as “a surreal experience”.
“In all our talks with the Afrikaners,” he told the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, “they first would raise the sports boycott, then of course the economic sanctions. But the immediate thing was, it felt that the rugby and cricket boycott was very important for them. Sort of like the Bible.”
The aim of these talks was to create conditions conducive to negotiations between the ANC and the apartheid government. Meanwhile, within SA’s borders, Mandela had started secret talks of his own in prison.
It took Aziz Pahad 26 years to return to SA. In 1990, the year that Mandela was released, Pahad set foot again on SA soil, and he was appointed deputy head of the ANC department of international affairs. He became a member of the National Peace Executive Committee and served on the transitional executive council’s subcouncil on foreign affairs where he was known for his friendly relations with the media.
After SA’s democratic elections in 1994, Pahad was elected as a MP and was appointed deputy minister of foreign affairs.
“When he returned to SA after the unbanning of the ANC, he managed to continue pursuing the party’s policies and interests while retaining elements of the hedonism from London,” said Cornish. “It is well known that he and Thabo Mbeki, both before and during and after his presidency, met on most evenings to enjoy Scotch whisky and talk over events of the day.
“Mbeki is known to have widely sought counsel on writing and speeches before sending his advisers off and completing his solitary travail. Aziz Pahad was at the front and centre of Mbeki’s trusted circle.”
Pahad was, however, overlooked for ministerial positions and never got the top job in the foreign affairs department. Instead, Mbeki opted for Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma despite the close relationship that the former president had with Aziz and his brother Essop.
Cornish recalled: “Pahad is widely remembered among diplomatic correspondents of the time as the best deputy foreign minister who never got the top job”. When he was sworn in for the third time in 2006, he was jokingly referred to as “the most senior deputy minister”.
The former deputy minister played a prominent part in SA’s ambitious endeavour to stop a US-led attack on Iraq and was the country’s face at the International Court of Justice when SA argued strongly against Israel’s erection of a “security wall” on Palestinian land.
In Africa, he played an active role in bringing about peace between warring factions in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and Angola. For Pahad, these assignments were not “just part of the job”. He said he was driven by a belief that “a better SA, Africa and the world” could be achieved. Before the outbreak of the war in Iraq, he shuffled between Pretoria and Baghdad, trying to convince Saddam Hussein to co-operate with the UN’s weapons inspectors.
Accusations that SA was trying to punch above its weight were brushed aside by Pahad. “People must realise that we are a major economic power in Africa. It is our responsibility to use this power in the interest of Africa. We are not punching above our weight, we are conscious of what is achievable for a country like SA,” he said.
In September 2008, Pahad resigned his position in protest at the recall of Mbeki by the ANC. He was appointed by former president Jacob Zuma as one of the government’s special envoys for peace in the Middle East in 2014 and in 2017, and he was the special envoy for SA’s candidature on the UN Security Council.
He told the SABC: “I hope we’ll get a chance to talk about the broad African challenges and how, when we’re talking of peace and stability, do we then deal with the issue of growing poverty, inequality, unemployment and as you know, that’s a huge challenge not only for SA but for many other countries in the world.”
Pahad said despite SA’s sharp criticism of the lack of reform of the council, it remained important to have a voice representing poor and weaker countries at the table while warning of dangers ahead. He also warned that the international community might be sleepwalking its way into a global conflict without understanding that there can be no victors in a future world war.
Mbeki and Pahad remained close throughout their lives. Pahad wrote how Mbeki tried to “culture” him a bit and taught him about the music of Berlioz and Verdi, among other things, and because of that he loved classical music. When he was in Moscow for military training, tickets for the Bolshoi Ballet were a highlight.
Pahad was seen at Mbeki’s 80th birthday celebrations in June 2022, “still partying”, as one guest observed. He often organised farewell parties for ambassadors returning home and was on a first-name basis with all ambassadors in the country when he was in the foreign ministry.
“His light touch on the job did not diminish from his effectiveness,” said Cornish. His encyclopaedic knowledge of South African policy was sought by politicians, academics and diplomats.
Commenting on where the ANC was heading in the future Pahad said, in an interview with CNBC Africa in 2015, that “we all had, especially those in exile, read a lot of what happens to a liberation movement when it goes into power. I don’t think we fully appreciate it, the effect of us going into government, in all structures of government and the lack of leadership, both from outside and inside who could deal with a country like SA.”
His solution for the ANC, after it was accused of losing its moral fibre: “The movement has to return to its roots,” he said, “you have to involve the younger generations. They have to fight for a better SA and a better Africa. You have to give them some value systems to aspire to. For that you need good, strong leadership at all levels. And it is not only the ANC’s problem.
“All political parties have a similar problem. They are not appealing sufficiently to the younger generations and they too easily use this term, ‘Born Frees’ and ‘Lost Generation’ as if we were born revolutionaries... They must take us back to the origins of a SA that is fundamentally transformed,” he said.
Of Pahad, Cornish said: “History will be kind to Aziz Pahad whose skills, application and talent came to the fore at a time his radically changing SA needed them most.”