DIRCO’s role in support of processes by Government to fight Covid-19 pandemic

International Relations

03 June 2020


DIRCO - role in support of processes by Government to fight Covid-19 pandemic

DIRCO - role in support of processes by Government to fight Covid-19 pandemic

Video: Portfolio Committee on International Relations and Cooperation 3 JUNE 2020

Meeing Summary

The Committee met to hear a presentation by the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) on its role in support of Government's fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. Within the Department workplace measures have been implemented to create a safe working environment at head office and at its missions abroad, state guesthouses, state protocol lounges and parliamentary offices. It has established a DIRCO COVID-19 Steering Committee which is a multi-stakeholder committee made of senior management and registered unions.

DIRCO encountered problems in tackling the number of South Africans stranded abroad as the number was much higher than initially thought. However, DIRCO has managed to facilitate the repatriation of 7100 citizens and 3800 still need help and efforts are being made to help these citizens. Its 2020/21 Budget adjustment due to COVID-19 is ongoing as consultations are still happening with Treasury and various stakeholders and DIRCO is working on how to adjust to the demands of this pandemic. The budget adjustment discussions have not affected its ability to provide services to South African stranded abroad.

There is a very thin line between DIRCO’s role and Department of Home Affairs, as citizens think DIRCO can help them with immigration services but those are functions of Home Affairs and this creates confusion for citizens who wants to migrate back to South Africa.

Members asked DIRCO about delays in building the Pan African Parliament. They suggested DIRCO was making excuses and hiding behind COVID-19 pandemic on this matter. DIRCO's property management strategy also came under scrutiny as Members said that DIRCO could not implement this strategy without the requisite skilled staff. Questions were raised about the medical student who had passed away in Cuba as his body had still not been repatriated to South Africa. Members condemned the USA for withdrawing funding from the WHO during the pandemic and noted that this could delay efforts to fund a vaccine and derail efforts in fighting this pandemic.

The Committee agreed that it should show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and send condolences to the family of George Floyd in the USA.

Meeting report

The Chairperson welcomed the Deputy Ministers and noted DIRCO has responded in writing to the Committee’s questions from the previous meeting.

The Chairperson spoke about the new normal and the impact brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic on diplomacy cannot be ignored. The Committee is observing how multilateralism and diplomacy is increasingly being undermined. Countries are adopting nationalistic approaches and responses to the global pandemic instead of taking the global solidarity approach to work together and defeat the pandemic. The Committee has seen the UN Security Council unable to agree on supporting the call made by UN Secretary-General, Mr Antonio Guterres, for a global ceasefire to allow a rapid response to COVID-19. The USA blocked a vote by the Security Council on this resolution for a ceasefire during the COVID-19 pandemic. The effort failed because of the refusal by US President Donald Trump to endorse a resolution that urged to support and endorse the World Health Organisation (WHO) operations during the pandemic. The absence of a resolution from the world's most powerful nations undermines the UN Secretary General's clout in his efforts to maintain those fragile ceasefires. This by association frustrates the programmes and efforts of the AU Chairperson to address the pandemic and conflicts in Africa. This is surely an attempt to hold multilateral diplomacy to ransom. The same USA administration withdrew financial support from WHO during the pandemic. The Committee is grateful that President Ramaphosa as the AU Chair was able to support and express confidence in the work of the WHO and its Director-General, Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, in handling the pandemic. The withdrawal of funding by USA has the potential to interfere and delay trials currently underway to find a COVID-19 vaccine. Indeed, multilateralism is under threat because of narrow nationalistic approaches to global issues. In another attempt to derail multilateral work, the UK and USA tried to open a formal debate at the UN Security Council about Beijing’s plan to introduce national security legislation for Hong Kong. A clear majority of the Security Council members did not support this resolution, believing Hong Kong related matters were China’s internal affairs and had nothing to do with the external affairs of the UN Security Council. As a result, this item was kept off the official agenda of the Security Council and was listed as an informal discussion. The Committee applauds South Africa for being a voice of reason.

The Committee encourages South Africa to continue as a peacebuilder and solution finder on a divided Security Council. The trade war between the USA and China has the potential to hamper the African continent’s efforts to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, as the cost of fighting the pandemic is higher than the debts African countries already have. The Committee therefore notes with appreciation the efforts of President Ramaphosa as the AU Chair to seek debt relief for the continent. The Committee has noted with concern a flare of tension between India and China, who share the world's longest border. The concern is however that the USA strongly backed India amid the simmering tensions with China. Is this not a threat to the geo-political relations within BRICS and are such matters featuring on the BRICS agenda?

The Committee expectation is for DIRCO to show how the pandemic has impacted upon its operations, the Committee expects that there will be budget adjustments, reprioritisation of DIRCO’s pre-determined objectives and the legacy issues for the AU Chairpersonship be adjusted. The Committee will invite DIRCO again in August to deal with these adjustments. This will give DIRCO time to highlight what DIRCO will focus on. South Africa needs to draw inspiration from Miss Universe Zozibini Tunzi and tell its story to the world. With the pandemic-imposed limitations and restrictions a strong public diplomacy strategy is even more urgent, with digital diplomacy at play. DIRCO needs to ensure that South Africa’s foreign policy efforts are not left in boardrooms. South Africans and the world should be kept informed on DIRCO’s triumphs and tribulations. If public diplomacy is efficient and effective, South Africa will be able to claim its rightful place in the international arena as a peacebuilder, as encapsulated in the NDP.

DIRCO commissioned a review panel on South Africa’s foreign policy in 2018. The pandemic has advanced some areas DIRCO may want to look at in addition to what the review panel already recommended. The Committee believes that South Africa’s embassies should have both science, technological and health attachés to be able to engage with cooperating partners around the world. DIRCO needs its global footprint to put its finger on the pulse so that South Africa is not left behind. Other countries are discussing G6 technology and South Africa has not even arrived at G5. The pandemic has proved that science and health diplomacy are essential. The pandemic has again bought to the fore insecurities about women and children. Violence against women has increased during this lockdown, teenage pregnancies have increased, and the agenda of women security must be attended to. Youth diplomacy has emerged prominently. Some unique innovations during this pandemic have been from the youth of the continent. South Africa should focus on the youth, the future of the world is Africa because of its young population. New innovations will come from Africa and its youth. One of the pandemic effects is that everything needs to happen virtually. South Africa will celebrate its Youth Month virtually among other celebrations. The pandemic has forced the world to move into the fourth industrial revolution as most activities now have to happen virtually. Without DIRCO having a modernized ICT infrastructure, it will be an uphill battle for DIRCO to fully discharge its mandate. This item is now more urgent than before.

DIRCO’s COVID-19 response
Mr Kgabo Mahoai, DIRCO Director-General, said that DIRCO has played a significant role in supporting government to respond to the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as to deal with its negative socio-economic impact. Internally, within DIRCO, measure have been implemented to create a safe working environment at Head Office, as well as the satellite offices at its missions abroad, the state guesthouses, state protocol lounges and parliamentary offices. DIRCO had to ensure all workplaces were safe for employees. DIRCO also established a DIRCO COVID-19 Steering Committee which is a multi-stakeholder Committee made up of some DIRCO senior management and unions that are registered within DIRCO. The critical work of DIRCO continued since the lockdown started and it has been a very difficult period for DIRCO navigating the effects of the pandemic while continuing its work.

One of the problems that DIRCO was facing is South Africa does not have a mandatory law that requires citizens to register when they travel abroad. This made it difficult for DIRCO as they had no idea how many citizens were trapped abroad and which ones needed help returning to South Africa. Initially DIRCO thought they had very few citizens stranded abroad but realised later that the number was much higher than previously thought.

The 2020/21 Budget adjustment is ongoing as consultations are still happening with Treasury and various stakeholders. DIRCO’s own internal process is working on how to adjust to the demands of this pandemic. The budget adjustment discussions have not affected its ability to provide services to South African stranded abroad. The categories for South Africans needing to be repatriated have varied on a case to case basis and DIRCO had to assist initially at no cost to the state and later at minimal cost. Some citizens had to pay but, in some cases, DIRCO had sourced donations/sponsorships. DIRCO to date has managed to facilitate the repatriation of 7100 citizens and 3800 still need help and efforts are being made to help these citizens. DIRCO’s role is very limited as DIRCO is only a facilitator and does not have the resources both financial and human capital to be able to cover all repatriation aspects. DIRCO has tried its best and was supported by citizens themselves in some cases.There is also a very thin line between DIRCO’s role and Department of Home Affairs. Citizens think DIRCO can help them with immigration services but those are functions of Home Affairs and this creates confusion for citizens who wants to migrate back to South Africa.

COVID-19 has triggered perhaps the gravest socio-economic crisis for Africa in the post-colonial era. DIRCO has supported continental and global efforts to stem the pandemic. DIRCO has been working hard to provide consular services with a focus specifically on stepping up consular services at its missions. Consular services are the most important service a country can offer to its citizens abroad. South Africa’s missions had to offer more help than what missions normally provide. Missions were located in countries with severe lockdowns which made it even more difficult for consular services to reach South Africans needing help.

The DG summarised the efforts to support government's role in the COVID-19 response which overlapped with the written questions of the Committee.

1.The impact of the initiatives by DIRCO to facilitate the repatriation of South African citizens who were in the Wuhan Province in China, and subsequent initiatives which facilitated repatriation of citizens from Brazil, Germany, Indonesia India and others, in order to assist the government in curbing the COVID-19 pandemic.

DIRCO established a dedicated team with channels where those requesting repatriation could contact officials, under the auspices of the Consular Incident Command Centre (CCIC). The Implementation of the Repatriation Project, including through partnering with other countries which sought to repatriate their own nationals from South Africa, focused on stranded and distressed South Africans who, in many cases, have become destitute due to protected stays abroad as a result of the global lock-down. Repatriations were facilitated through both air and land ports of entry.

Wuhan City, China, was the only epicentre of the outbreak before COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic. Most countries repatriated their stranded citizens. The first repatriation of South Africans citizens stranded abroad as a result of the COVID-19 was from Wuhan City, with 114 citizens being repatriated on 13 March 2020. The repatriation flight from Wuhan City created expectations that government would consider similar flights for citizen stranded elsewhere abroad. DIRCO has negotiated with airlines, primarily with SAA (including an agreement with SASOL for fuel donation to SAA to contribute towards the expenses), but also, in conjunction with missions. Qatar Airways, Etihad, Emirates, Saudi Airways and Ethiopian Airways also provided flights, on a fare paying basis, for the repatriation of South African citizens. Such flights generally took place in partnership with evacuation flights from South Africa for foreign nationals who were returning to their countries of origin. In cases where South Africans were destitute, DIRCO utilized existing government mechanisms, such as a form with acknowledgement of debt and a commitment on the part of passengers concerned to repay the loan amounting to the cost of the airfare on a repatriation flight.

Overall, South African missions have facilitated repatriation flights from Central and Eastern Europe, North and South America, Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Australia. Missions in Africa also assisted with the repatriation of, for example, SADC citizens on flights bound for South Africa. This collaboration has strengthened the relations with the countries of the region. In several instances, missions have assisted South Africans to arrange private charter flights, including from regions that were not easily serviced by the repatriation flights arranged through the larger traditional commercial and freight carriers.

The impact of successful repatriations was that these South African citizens reunited with their families, friends and loved ones, and were able to avoid unnecessary and unplanned cost and expenses that they would have incurred had they stayed abroad for a longer period. The initiatives taken by DIRCO has positively impacted on the image of South Africa, as a responsible global citizen and as a leader on the African continent. In particular, the repatriation of South Africans under exceedingly difficult and uncharted circumstances has demonstrated the actions of a caring government. To date DIRCO has assisted 7000 citizens and 3800 still need help with repatriation.

2. The role of South African missions abroad in extending consular services to South Africans with different challenges abroad brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. What types of assistance was being offered to those South African in various parts of the world, and the impact of such consular services offered?

DIRCO has coordinated all efforts for the repatriation of stranded and distressed South African abroad through the Consular Incident Command Centre (CICC). Dedicated hotlines and email addresses, both at head office and at missions, are in place to deal with enquires from the South African public at home and abroad. Missions also expanded and diversified the traditional means of communication and outreach through social media platforms. At the start of the repatriation process on 7 April 2020, DIRCO had a database of almost 5000 South African stranded abroad. By 18 May 2020, almost 6000 South Africans had registered as stranded abroad. In terms of categorisation, 284 indicated that they were destitute, 815 distressed and 4894 stranded. South African missions have been at the forefront of the crisis by offering consular services to distressed citizens, brought on by, for example, loss of employment and income, a lack of accommodation, dwindling funds, an increased cost of living, the expiration of visa, a lack of transportation, closed border post, exorbitant food costs, limited seating on outbound flights, food shortages and chronic medical issues.

Initiatives to provide consular assistance, in the context of significant financial and other resource constraints, included the ongoing registration of a growing number of South African citizens abroad. It also meant the facilitation of special exemptions at the ports of entry in host countries, in cases where citizens stranded in other countries in the region travelled to departure airports for repatriation, arrangements for the screening of passengers before departure, the vetting of all passengers and confirming their citizenship through the appropriate channels, liaising with airlines to obtain relevant and updated flight information, recording the names of persons who were stranded and in distress abroad, as well as of those who indicated their wish to return, but are unable to do so due to the absence of commercial flights. DIRCO also provided information to parents in South Africa about the status and wellbeing of their children who are studying abroad. DIRCO missions had to submit a comprehensive list of citizens to the CICC for processing to the National Joint Operational and Intelligence Structure (NATJOINTS) for pre-clearance through appropriate channels in advance of repatriation flights.

Consular services at missions also liaised with aviation companies to negotiate commercial or charter flights to repatriate distressed citizens, liaison with host countries on reciprocal repatriation agreements and gratis extension of visas and assisting citizens with unique challenges, such as a lack of accommodation, food or chronic medication with the help of NGOs to provide for the needs of such persons. DIRCO also raised money from donors to assist with flight and other costs for citizens.

3. Cognizant of the fact that the world has implemented various degrees of lockdowns, limiting movements of people to fight the pandemic, what plans and initiatives do South African missions have to ensure a safe return of the citizens, and that citizens do not find themselves on the wrong side of immigration laws of those countries regarding their unintentional extended stay in those countries?

Missions have had to adapt to local regulations, but foreign governments generally allow diplomatic missions some flexibility in movement in the execution of official duties. South African citizens abroad are being advised to observe local lockdown rules and regulations. As the COVID-19 crisis is far from over, efforts to facilitate the repatriation of citizens will continue. This, given that many of those South Africans who initially indicated that they do not need repatriation, are now beginning to make requests for repatriation, due to unemployment and economic difficulties being experienced. The initiatives taken by missions will have to be maintained as the crisis unfolds. Missions are continuing to negotiate with relevant authorities in host countries to grant authorization to South African citizens to board flights, despite expired travel documentation. Some countries have provided automatic visa renewals and extensions, which have helped alleviate the stress on stranded South Africans abroad. Most countries have agreed not to penalize South Africans who stayed longer than their visas permitted. In countries which have imposed penalties on visa renewals, diplomatic engagements to resolve the matter are continuing. Negotiations are also under way with Air India to arrange repatriation flights. Other flights are being arranged for stranded and destitute South Africans to return from the USA and UK. South Africans in smaller numbers in more remote regions of the world will be able to take advantage of special repatriation flights being negotiated with Emirates, Qatar and Ethiopian Airlines to return to South Africa.

4.The government has been calling out for assistance for medical equipment and other forms of assistance in order to fight the pandemic. What role has DIRCO played in terms of sourcing assistance from friends of South Africa, including China, across the globe and what forms of assistance has been received so far through the efforts of DIRCO?

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that maintaining strong international relations with all countries during and beyond this pandemic is essential as the well being of their nations, more than ever before, depends on cooperation between all countries. South Africa has reached out to the international community at large, using various high level platforms, including virtual summits with world leaders, to support its fight against the spread of the pandemic, as well as the other countries on the continent, and help stem the devastating social and economic fallout. Through the efforts of DIRCO, several countries and public-private organisations made donations of medical equipment and offers of technical assistance to South Africa, including amongst others China, UAE, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Russia. UK, EU, USA and Turkey. Also, the Indian government, when requested by DIRCO, agreed to lift export restrictions on 26 active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) deemed crucial for South Africa’s need for adequate medical and pharmaceutical supplies in the face of the pandemic. This will facilitate the export of certain pharmaceuticals and formulations in favour of South Africa. South African companies has also been assisted with customs clearance procedures for medical equipment bought in China, in addition to purchases by the National Department of Health and the National Health Laboratory Service of critical supplies needed in the country’s fight against COVID-19. Several bilateral science cooperation initiatives have been launched with other countries to exchange information on COVID-19 treatment and research.

5. The Portfolio Committee has learned with appreciation that that Cuba, a historical friend and partner of South Africa, is sending 180 doctors to assist in fighting the pandemic in South Africa. What role has DIRCO played in this initiative and what will be the impact of their presence in South Africa towards the fight against the pandemic?

The strong and historic relations between South Africa and Cuba was deepened on the basis of the existing bilateral agreement on cooperation in the area of health, that served as a basis for discussions on how Cuba could assist South Africa in curbing the spread of COVID-19. After discussions between the two Presidents, and following substantive and ongoing engagements between DIRCO and the Government of Cuba, through the South African Embassy in Havana, as well as the Cuban Embassy in Pretoria, it was agreed that 217 members of a Cuban Medical Brigade would be deployed to South Africa. The medical brigade arrived in South Africa on 26 April 2020 and have been deployed, under contract, by the Department of Health.

6. Has DIRCO consulted the authorities in China regarding claims of mistreatment, including forced testing, random isolation and evictions of African living in the Guangzhou province in Southern China, and what is the outcome of discussions if any?

DIRCO has been proactive in dealing with this matter, in conjunction with other African governments, through their diplomatic missions. When the alleged mistreatment of African nationals in China became known, DIRCO issued a media statement and conducted media interviews to condemn the actions. On 13 April 2020, a meeting of Africa Group Ambassadors with the China's Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs was held, during which the Vice-Minister responded to the allegations of mistreatment of African nationals in Guangdong province. Assurances were given that China abhors xenophobia, discrimination and racism of any kind and African nationals would not be singled out in prevention and control measures. During a bilateral meeting with its Deputy Director-General of African Affairs in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 15 April 2020, the processes undertaken by the government of China to ensure Provincial Authorities in Guangdong Province, and its capital city Guangzhou, were observing fair, just and equal treatment of all nationalities in the implementation of prevention and control measures against COVID-19, were explained. At the BRICS virtual Foreign Ministers Meeting on 28 April 2020 on COVID-19 and its impact, Minister Naledi Pandor stated that “South Africa strongly condemns any stigmatisation or discrimination of states, peoples or individuals in connection with COVID-19” and stressed “that there is no place for racism and xenophobia in the response to the pandemic”. Subsequent to these engagements, there have been no further reports of mistreatment of African nationals in Guangdong province.

Mr D Bergman (DA) said that we must come to a place where the UN is making a positive contribution not a political contribution. What the Committee is seeing in the USA with the George Floyd situation, you cannot have a protest now and say that things are going to change, it is not about the protest, it is about looking at policemen’s behaviour in the USA because this has been the persistent issue. And on that matter, who is talking about China and Hong Kong? We cannot have the UN discuss one country's issue and not discuss the another country's issues. In the last year South Africa has become more mature on how they are voting in the Security Council and this has confused Russia and China because it has not been as obvious to them on how South Africa will vote.

Mr Bergman's concern is that the Minister comes across as mis-briefed by DIRCO, because the Minister said that the flight schedules are on the website but these schedules were actually not on the website. The Minister also said that repatriations are paid for by DIRCO but people were actually paying for their own repatriations. This not the Minister's fault because it is the information she is being given by DIRCO. Mr Bergman asked DIRCO why this is happening. There is a problem at the Mozambican border as South African citizens are unable to cross the border – now both the Minister and the DG have said that it is the constitutional right of our citizens to have consular services. However, South Africa’s ambassadors hands are tied and Department of Home Affairs which is an important partner in this pandemic, is not even involved in this. Home Affairs is pointing fingers at DIRCO and not taking responsibility. Some ambassadors have been doing their job very poorly, the issue of Sri Lanka and Turkey shows that some ambassadors are not stepping up during the pandemic. Home Affairs and the Department of Transport have been hampering the services of DIRCO. There needs to be a discussion amongst these three departments on how they can solve common issues affecting them.

Ms B Swarts (ANC) said DIRCO is unable to monitor and implement a property management strategy because they do not have the necessary qualified staff to do so. DIRCO has budgeted for a function for which they do not have the necessary skills. DIRCO said that they have commenced with this strategy. How does DIRCO commence with a strategy when they do not have the skills to implement this. What does DIRCO mean – it has started to commence with this strategy? Does commencing mean DIRCO has a Project Management Unit (PMU), a property management strategy or another way of implementing this strategy? DIRCO needs to have a property management footprint and not in writing as it is always presented to the Committee without being implemented. The PMU will assist DIRCO with the bare minimum and get the groundwork started on a property management strategy. Next year it will be give the Committee the same report and state that the Department of Public Works is not assisting them. The Pan African Parliament will never be built. When the Committee did an oversight visit last year at DIRCO, it found that the property management function was under the finance unit, this is an anomaly. She hoped that in its structure review DIRCO will separate the two as they do not belong together. The root cause of DIRCO's problem is this misalignment. She asked DIRCO to include timeframes when they revise the 2020/21 APP targets for property management and infrastructure through the three-year MTEF.

Mr B Nkosi (ANC) welcomed the input by the Director-General on multilateralism, the Committee needs to debate this as at times there is some confusion on the multilateral nature of the work. When it comes to repatriations DIRCO must stick to what it is doing currently. Focus on people who are distressed and destitute and avoid dealing with people who have sought permanent residence in other countries and who due to the changing economic situation want to come back to South Africa. The Committee needs a road map of how DIRCO is going to execute the building of the Pan African Parliament. The same with the new African Renaissance Fund (ARF) Bill, what will be done as soon as the Bill is passed? He asked for a breakdown of the R433 million shortfall. DIRCO has a senior management cohort of 255 and he wanted a breakdown on this. How many are situated at missions across the world and why is this cohort largely black and male? This is not reflective of the country’s demographics.

Ms T Msane (EFF) said the Director-General did not cover how DIRCO is planning to oversee the elections which will be happening all over the continent during the COVID-19 pandemic. How will DIRCO oversee these elections with the pandemic in place? What plans does the AU have in place to strengthen its regional value chains, especially by increasing the manufacturing in the regions, because as we all know dependency of the Continent on other countries is not going to be sustainable. Apart from the ceasefire, which was called by the UN, has the AU done anything about the killing of citizens in their countries by military and police forces implementing lockdown regulations. As we know there is the case of Mr Collins Khosa in South Africa. What is the AU doing to ensure police and military forces are not abusing their power? Is there a plan to revive Agenda 2063 in the AU? About repatriations, what happens should a student for example in Cuba pass away, will the body be repatriated by DIRCO? There is shortfall of R433 million – which programs will be affected. What happens to the programmes that have been cancelled due to the pandemic? Will there not be a surplus of money from the cancelled programmes which can be used? With the new supply chain system, has it been fully implemented as we know DIRCO has in the past failed to implement programmes timeously. DIRCO does not have the capacity to implement their property management strategy and it said they will hire contactors; will this not lead to more corruption and a repeat of what happened in New York? DIRCO also has a Foreign Service Bill implementation team, but the team does not have anyone from DIRCO Finance unit. Currently there is a bill of R971 million on leases – the FSB team include someone from Finance.

Mr M Chetty (DA) said the performance of ambassadors needs to be addressed. For example the ambassador to Brazil has embarrassed South Africa on three different days. He sent messages to people who were looking to be repatriated back to South Africa. He first sent out a message saying as long as people had a return ticket to South Africa they will be repatriated. The second day he sent another message telling people they will be repatriated on humanitarian grounds and do not need a ticket. The third day the ambassador said unfortunately whether you have a ticket or not people would have to purchase a ticket at the cost of $500. DIRCO will need to look at this as it did not put South Africa in very good light. Everyone knows Department of Home Affairs does not function properly. Home Affairs has made it hard for citizens to cross borders legally yet there are people crossing the border illegally. DIRCO will never implement or revive the new African Renaissance Fund (ARF) Bill as DIRCO has now found a perfect excuse which is COVID-19. All of DIRCO's failures will now be blamed on COVID-19.

Mr T Mpanza (ANC) said the Committee cannot keep quiet on what is happening in the USA currently and the Committee must express its condolences to the family of George Floyd. He welcomed the Chairperson's input and saw it as very inspiring. The Committee should not allow US bullying on withdrawing funding for the WHO. The Committee should speak against this and President Ramaphosa as the AU Chairperson should mobilise African countries and demand that the USA pay its dues to the WHO. Tensions between China and USA should not be corrected by doing wrong. China is not withholding funding from the WHO, so the USA should pay its dues to the WHO. He suggested that DIRCO address the Committee monthly on the impact of COVID-19.

Rev K Meshoe (ACDP) agreed that the Committee should send condolences to the family of George Floyd. Why does South Africa not have a mandatory law requiring those travelling abroad to register with DIRCO as this would have helped in tracking citizens needing help? Is there any consideration of adopting such a law? Does the DG know how many people wanting to be repatriated are now permanent residents in other countries. How many of the citizens repatriated were students? What criteria is used by DIRCO to determine which citizens pay themselves and which get paid for by DIRCO? Does DIRCO know how many citizens are trapped in other countries and are unable to pay rent and does DIRCO assist them? What were DIRCO staff doing at the state lounges if there were no international flights; why were they open?

Mr X Nqola (ANC) referred to the Eastern Cape medical student studying medicine in Cuba who passed away two months ago and there has been problems in getting his body repatriated to South Africa for his burial. Is DIRCO aware of this situation and what is DIRCO doing about this? He noted 26% of DIRCO’s workforce was youth. When will DIRCO move to 40%?

Dr C Mulder (FF+) said the Committee's task is to do oversight over DIRCO and the Committee has been doing it very well….(connection was lost and was unable to regain connection).

Mr D Moela (ANC) said the DG mentioned 3800 South African citizens are still stranded abroad. What are the challenges for these South Africans so the Committee knows exactly what the problems are. How long will it take to implement the programme on the Pan African Parliament? Women are still not represented fairly in the DIRCO senior management cohort. He asked DIRCO to correct this, as well as representation by persons with disabilities and youth in DIRCO’s workforce. The future is young.

DIRCO responses
Mr Caiphus Ramashau, DIRCO CFO, responded to the finance questions and repatriations. COVID-19 has required a new normal. One of its challenges is that DIRCO's spending is in foreign currency in support of its missions. Areas of expenditure in foreign currencies include compensation of employees and accommodation leases. The COVID-19 pandemic affected the financial markets and the rand/ dollar exchange is now R18/19 to the dollar. The budget agreed on with Treasury did not include this rate and no provision was made for such a huge change in the exchange rate. This means with the current allocation DIRCO will not be able to meet all obligations committed to in the APP. The R433 million shortfall represents this. One of the discussions with National Treasury is for DIRCO to contribute towards the COVID-19 response fund which is required by all departments. However, DIRCO will not be able to do that because of its money shortfalls due to fluctuations in exchange rates. The DIRCO budget will need to be reviewed.

In response to the 2018/19 audit findings raised by the Auditor-General, DIRCO has developed an audit action plan which indicates what steps will be taken to rectify these findings and DIRCO is being assisted by National Treasury with quality assurance. In terms of the new supply chain management system, DIRCO has not moved much in capacitating the supply chain with the necessary practitioners in this field. One of the challenges as indicated last year is that DIRCO had already exceeded its expenditure ceiling on the compensation of employees. For DIRCO to fill the critical posts required, there are ongoing discussions with Treasury in assisting DIRCO in balancing the cost to company and the compensation of employees as well as looking at business continuity which will also help when it comes to bringing in more youth, women and people with disabilities into DIRCO’s workforce.

Rental costs are indeed a challenge that DIRCO has also raised. It is looking at ways to resolve this and lower costs. The repatriation project is a difficult project for DIRCO as it has never done repatriations before and when DIRCO started it was based on trial and error. DIRCO looked into how to assist South Africans stranded abroad and in the process DIRCO managed to receive assistance from SASOL through the Minister of a donation of R1 million and jet fuel which enabled DIRCO to partner with SAA and reduce the cost of chartering flights for South African citizens. One of the issues which caused confusion in the beginning was on the additional cost South Africans had to pay. The money however was not deposited into the SAA commercial bank account but rather into a SAA repatriation fund so there can be proper accountability of all the money received by South African citizens repatriated from all over the world. The scheduling of repatriation flights have been very difficult as DIRCO has to discuss the financial viability of these flights and whether SAA will be able to afford to charter a flight and bring back as many citizens as possible. Currently DIRCO has received an approval for the minimum amount of R47 million in a budget submission DIRCO made to Treasury for repatriation purposes because it was not part of DIRCO's programme. DIRCO has been able to cut costs due to reduced travelling by DIRCO and some of these gains will also be used for repatriation of citizens. On the criteria to determine which citizens must pay for their own repatriation flights, all repatriated citizens had to pay for their flights. Even the ones who could not pay had to sign a loan agreement, agreeing to pay back the cost at a later stage or as soon as they are able to do so.

South Africa’s ambassadors were the ones making recommendations to DIRCO Head Office in managing and applying governance so there can be proper accountability for all money received and for those who were helped with loan agreements.

DIRCO does not have the necessary skills in the built environment. This is because DIRCO used to have a partnership with Department of Public Works and there was no need to acquire these skills; but DIRCO is looking at acquiring these specialised services.

Ambassador Mxolisi Nkosi, Deputy Director-General: Global Governance and Continental Agenda, responded about the elections happening on the continent. Election observation is conducted on the invitation of the country planning to hold an election. African countries as a matter of practice invite both the AU and SADC and not individual member states to constitute observer missions to observe elections in their countries. The SADC chair normally constitutes the observer mission. South African observer members on SADC observer missions are funded through the African Renaissance Fund. There is an allocation for this specific responsibility which is aligned to DIRCO’s overall foreign policy objectives of promoting democracy and good governance on the African continent.

On the African Union passport, as the Committee is aware, the AU Assembly adopted the AU Free Movement Protocol for free movement of people, rights of residence and rights of establishment as well as its implementation road map. DIRCO fully supports the vision of an Africa where it citizens can move freely across borders and encouraging inter-Africa trade, integration, and development on the African continent but DIRCO supports a phased approached during the negotiations which will include pre-conditions or enablers that must be met before the protocol can be implemented. This view is shared by SADC and several other AU member states. The list of pre-conditions include for example the existence of peace, security and stability including the silencing of the guns, effective civil registration systems, reliable movement control systems, machine readable passport compliance with international standards and many other pre-conditions which have been agreed upon by all African states. DIRCO believes that it is important that all these pre-conditions are met or put in place before the AU can proceed with the overall project of the free movement of people. DIRCO will continue to advance the objective of the free movement of people on the continent in a sustainable and phased approach ensuring all necessary milestones are in place at every stage of the process.

The AU will certainly have to review Agenda 2063 due to the impact of COVID-19. It has significantly reduced and reversed the impressive progress the continent was making in development and integration. This pandemic has caused a major devastation in the health system on the continent, but it has also created a serious challenge in the economic development of African countries. DIRCO believes that COVID-19 will inevitably dictate development plans of African countries. For example, South Africa’s own agenda, NDP 2030 will also be reviewed together with the UN 2030 Sustainable Goals – so COVID-19’s impact is felt across the board. At state level, regional level, continent and global level, from an AU perspective DIRCO hopes that they can move forward and discuss this at the African Heads of State Summit in February 2021.

On the question of the Pan African Parliament, the Minister did indicate that she will be taking the issue for discussion with her colleagues in Cabinet and will determine a way forward. DIRCO will then come back and inform the Committee on these discussions.

DIRCO’s Chief of State Protocol, Ambassador Nonceba Losi, replied that the reason the state lounges were still open was because the lounge managers were helping with the repatriation of South Africans and because consular services continued to be provided and ambassadors were at the front of offering consular services to distressed citizens abroad and most of these distressed citizens had lost their jobs, some had no accommodation, some were on holiday and could not get back home. DIRCO’s embassies and high commissions were at the forefront of helping these citizens. One of the things embassies did was to start registering South Africans at embassies. These names can then be sent to the CICC and NATJOINTS so the names can be verified to ensure they were South African. Embassies were very involved in this process.

On the unfortunate situation of the student who passed on in Cuba, there were lockdowns all over the world and Cuba was no exception and there were no flights going to or coming from Cuba. The lockdown has made it very difficult and DIRCO has tried everything to repatriate the student's body, There is a flight scheduled with SAA for the repatriation of the body and DIRCO has liaised with the Premier of the Eastern Cape and Department of Defence but these details have not been confirmed and the Ambassador said she does not want to give the Committee or the student's family false hope. DIRCO longed to repatriate the body as they have done with the student from Russia. There were flights available from Russia but in the case of Cuba, there were no flights.

Director-General Mahoai replied that they will take equity as a very important priority when they continue with the restructuring process. DIRCO is mindful that its management cohort is aged. DIRCO will provide timeframes for all the matters that will be reviewed in the APP to enable the Committee to track progress on what DIRCO undertook to do. DIRCO will revive the new ARF Bill as indicated and will look at its submission by the Minister to Cabinet. The biggest obstacle to the resubmission was the concurrence between DIRCO and National Treasury but this matter has been resolved. DIRCO will be tabling the bill to Parliament. DIRCO will provide the Committee with a road map on when DIRCO will finalise internal processes and resubmit the bill to Cabinet for consideration. On the numbers in the senior management cohort, the heads of the 120 missions are appointed at senior management level. This number includes the heads of missions together with senior management at domestic level. COVID-19 has enabled DIRCO to implement a system in future that will allow South African citizens to consult with DIRCO when such an outbreak happens again. This could be done in the form of a new policy or legislation that DIRCO will be developing. DIRCO will be looking at the best models in the world to help South Africa develop its own model.

Further questions and comment
The Chairperson said that Members must not be insensitive when they discuss matters happening throughout the world around COVID-19. The Committee must support the Black Lives Matter cause which is currently unfolding in the USA. The Committee has seen protest in support of this cause happening throughout the world. The Committee must not be shy because it wants to defend its master or allies because it would not be good for the Committee in the long run. She supported the suggestion that the Committee send condolences to the family of George Floyd.

The Chairperson wanted to reiterate what she wrote in an article a few days ago. Some Members will say the Committee is Pro-China or Anti-USA. The reality is that some people throughout the globe have tried to use COVID-19 to advance their own political interests. The USA President Donald Trump has turned this into some kind of competition and this has not assisted anyone. The USA has resorted to accusing China for the pandemic and this will not be the first or the last time the USA has done this. USA President Donald Trump is facing an election in November and the Chairperson does not think it will yield positive results for President Trump. We will forever cherish China and its ability to assist and contribute – even assist its enemies – during the US recession China was assisting the USA and this is a fact. We will not be involved in some kind of conflict of the big brothers of the world but we have a responsibility to send a message of truth to the world as a revolutionary country and if that message does not reflect the stance of all Members, then Members would have the right say whatever they want to say. However, the Committee will speak the truth that the capitalist system has been shaken to the very core of its foundations. The Committee needs to engage and reflect on what is happening globally, without being biased, as the Portfolio Committee on International Relations and Cooperation which is a very important Portfolio Committee in the South African Parliament.

The Chairperson said that the ambassador’s response about the student that has passed away in Cuba is not acceptable. It raises the question on how the Cubans doctors arrived in South Africa if there were no flights between Cuba and South Africa. She wanted the ambassador to answer this question through a written submission to the Committee. When the Portfolio Committee said that the building of the Pan African Parliament will not begin in October 2020, the Committee did not say this in anticipation of COVID-19. If COVID-19 was not the issue, would DIRCO be able to start with the building of the Pan African Parliament? DIRCO should not hide behind the pandemic and blame it for DIRCO's failures that have been long coming.

The Chairperson said that DIRCO sits on the COVID-19 National Command Council and she noted the court judgment that Level 3 and 4 regulations are unconstitutional. She asked the DG to inform the Committee on what the balance of forces are? Is the country automatically on Level 1 or back at Level 5? What will happen to the country? The presentation fell short on informing the Committee on this. This is an important report that DIRCO tabled today as it deals with current issues facing South Africa and the world.

Mr Nqola asked if DIRCO is alleging that they were unable to repatriate the student’s body due to the lockdown. The Committee was of the understanding that cargo flights were operating. It has been two months now and DIRCO has not been able to return the student’s body to his family. DIRCO's response to this question was not satisfactory and he requested a written report on the matter.

DIRCO responses
Mr Mahoai replied that they have been trying their level best in working with Department of Health and the Eastern Cape government. As the Chief of State Protocol indicated there are plans being made to repatriate the student. As recently as this afternoon, before this meeting, DIRCO was in a meeting with another Department which DIRCO believes will assist in this matter. No conclusion was reached as the DG had to come to this meeting. DIRCO is constrained in both resources and abilities. DIRCO’s power is limited as they can only facilitate on some issues however it will engage all the necessary departments on how best to resolve this matter. It is unfortunate that this had to happen during the lockdown and the fact that there are not frequent flights between Cuba and South Africa. He was not sure about the flight details of the Cuban doctors as this had been mainly organised by Department of Health.

On the Pan African Parliament, DIRCO does not cite COVID-19 as a reason. The reason DIRCO has been unable to finalise this matter was because it was not feasible due to the delayed finalisation of the land selection and acquisition for the project. This is the domain of the Department of Public Works and DIRCO is waiting on the Department of Public Works. The Minister is in discussions with the Minister of Public Works to resolve the matter of land selection. DIRCO is relying heavily on this matter to be completed soon.

The Chairperson still wanted to know how the Cuban doctors arrived in South Africa and in bringing the Cubans here how can we leave the student behind. It has been two months, and this is un-African. In this new normal it has been said that people over the age of 60 should not continue going to work. How will DIRCO deal with this matter? It is not in the presentation. It is important that the Committee knows how DIRCO will be planning for this.

Mr Mahoai said that DIRCO only learned of their arrival on the day the Cuban doctors landed in South Africa

Ambassador Losi replied that the student passed away on 29 April and the Cuban doctors arrived in South Africa on 27 April and that was the last scheduled flight between Cuba and South Africa. There has been no other flight between Cuba and South Africa. There was a cargo flight from Cuba to France but there was no flight from France to South Africa. The Committee will recall that Cuba is still under sanctions and there are no regular flights in and out of Cuba. DIRCO has really been struggling to organise a flight from Cuba. DIRCO understand what the family is going through and wants to assure the Committee that it will do everything in its power to resolve this matter. It was very unfortunate that the student passed away two days after the Cubans had arrived in South Africa.

Mr Mahoai replied that there is a COVID-19 workplace plan in place that provides for staff over 60 and arrangements will be made between the supervisor and the relevant employee considering all operational requirements, so there is a plan that provides for that age group in line with health protocols. DIRCO will share its workplace plan with the Committee

The Chairperson thanked DIRCO for the presentation and has asked for a weekly update on the repatriation of the student’s body from Cuba. She concluded that there has been quite an immense improvement on DIRCO's side. She asked both Deputy Ministers to make remarks before closing the meeting.

Deputy Minister Alvin Botes said they will send a report to the Minister about the concerns the Portfolio Committee has raised today about DIRCO’s repatriation efforts and that the Committee should be kept up to date with repatriation movements. The DG has responded about DIRCO’s APP which will be submitted to the Portfolio Committee. It will obviously include some of the observations by the Portfolio Committee as part of the recommendations to strengthen DIRCO’s APP.

Deputy Minister Candith Mashego-Dlamini said that important matters were raised by Members and DIRCO will ensure they respond to these. DIRCO will also ensure that a complete report that includes all repatriation numbers will be made available to the Committee in writing.

The Chairperson thanked both Deputy Ministers for attending the Portfolio Committee meetings. These virtual meetings are official meetings of the Portfolio Committee and Parliament and everyone is expected to uphold the decorum of Parliament.