“My delegation believes that silence on the situation in the Middle East is more dangerous than even meetings where there might be a raising of temperatures or heat.”
It was with great sadness that I learned the news of the passing of Dumisani Kumalo on Sunday, January 20, 2019. Ambassador Kumalo had been appointed by Nelson Mandela in 1999 to serve as South Africa’s UN Ambassador, which he did until February 2009.
For me it was the end of an era when ten years ago, Dumisani Kumalo left the UN. A farewell party held on the 4th floor in the Delegates Lounge. demonstrated why he was so special a figure at the UN. A number of delegates attended, some with their wives or husbands as well.
In the brief speech he gave to his friends and colleagues who had come to say how much he would be missed, Kumalo described how as a child growing up in apartheid South Africa his father told him that help for the people of South Africa in their fight against apartheid would come from the UN – from the United Nations. Little did his father know, Kumalo said, that the young boy would become the Ambassador from South Africa at the United Nations.
The significance of this memory, Kumalo explained, was that it was an example of the hope that many people around the world have in the UN. This is why it is so important, he said, that people at the UN strive to live up to that hope.
What Ambassador Kumalo represented at the UN is something I have found rare among UN officials. He was someone with a vision of the UN being the champion of the people. Moreover, he was willing to struggle against those for whom the UN only meant power politics rather than the fight for a better world.
One of my most memorable experiences at the UN was in early January 2007 when Kumalo stepped down as the head of the G77 and China. He was practically in tears as he recounted how during the South African presidency of the G77 and China, there had been a series of struggles against the US Ambassador John Bolton’s view of how to restructure the UN. The G77 fought for a multilateral UN and won some important battles.
Kumalo was then leaving but one scene of struggle, to enter another, a new set of battles.
As the Ambassador for South Africa, he was beginning a two year term (January 2007- December 2008) as one of the ten elected members of the UN Security Council. When I watched the first meeting of the newly constituted Security Council of 2007, I was surprised and delighted to see how several of the elected members (as opposed to the five permanent members) took up to outline the problems they saw with the Security Council and the need for change.
When Kumalo took over the rotating presidency of the Security Council for the month of March 2007, he made it clear he was there to answer questions from journalists, which he did diligently through the course of the month long presidency. Often during his term on the Security Council he shared his frustration when the Council failed to issue a needed statement or resolution. One such example, was when in January 2008, the Council failed to express its support for Palestinians suffering because of Israel’s closure of the crossing points into Gaza.
Another striking memory is of the South African and Indonesian Ambassadors speaking out in response to the British Ambassador’s proposal that the Security Council only have consultations which are closed meetings, rather than open meetings on the issue of Palestine, as the differences among the Ambassadors led to sharp exchanges.
Kumalo disagreed, stating unequivocally that the disagreements made it ever more important to have open meetings as this was a subject of vital interest and importance to the public.
There is a body of international law and decisions of the International Court of Justice (ICJ). This forms a framework of law to determine issues the Security Council is considering.
During South Africa’s 2007-2008 term on the Security Council, several of the P-5 Ambassadors, especially the US Ambassador, demonstrated little regard for this framework in determining the US position on the issues before the Security Council. Kumalo’s position would in general be consistent with the tenets of international law and the ICJ legal decisions.
For example, when Israel closed the crossing points to Gaza, the US supported Israel in efforts at the Security Council, claiming that Israel’s action was acceptable given its right to defend itself, in retaliation for rockets being fired into Southern Israel from Gaza.
Kumalo and others on the Security Council condemned Israel’s actions as a form of collective punishment, forbidden under international law.
Kumalo also argued that Israel as the occupying state had obligations to support and provide for the well being of the Palestinians under the provisions of international law.
When Kumalo supported the principles he argued were in line with international law, often he would be criticized in South African newspapers for his actions. An example was his opposition to interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign country, as when there was pressure in the Security Council to become involved with the vote for President in Zimbabwe. Kumalo argued this was not a proper issue for the Security Council to become involved with. He maintained that there were other UN organs that could be involved, not the Security Council.
When Miriam McKeba died, the South African Mission to the UN held a program to honor her life and contributions. A number of delegates spoke describing the important role McKeba had played in the struggle for South African independence. Kumalo’s talk encouraged people to carry on her struggle and to dance to her music.
At his farewell gathering at the UN in 2009, Ambassador Kumalo danced with his guests. His farewell presented the challenge to others to carry on the struggle that he had been such an important part of in his ten years of service as the Ambassador to the UN from South Africa.