(Vatican Radio) George Johannes is the very first South African Ambassador to the Holy See to reside here in Rome.
He presented his credentials to Pope Francis at the beginning of June and is currently in the throes of setting up an office that he has held since 2009, but that was was previously based in Berne, Switzerland.
Ambassador Johannes has held many prestigious roles, including positions of authority within the government of his country’s first democratically elected leader, Nelson Mandela.
Before that, his militancy with the outlawed African National Congress and his forced exile during which he worked a full-time political activist and as a journalist with Radio Freedom in Angola provided him with a unique socio-political experience that he brings to the table as a negotiator and mediator in conflicts such as the ones in Mozambique, in Northern Ireland, in Central African Republic and on the Lockerbie issue.
In a conversation with Linda Bordoni he spoke of his five main objectives as Ambassador of South Africa to the Holy See and much more...
Ambassador George Johannes explains that the decision to set up office in Rome – as opposed to having an Embassy to Switzerland and to the Holy See – is a consequence of a series of political changes that have occurred in the past few years.
He says that the personality of Pope Francis has played a role in this decision and – to his mind – confirms his belief that “we ignore the smaller States at our peril.” He says it has finally sunk in that the Vatican – small as it is – is in fact the biggest place of influence “in terms of the governments and NGOs that it reaches, and you can’t ignore the personality of the Pope who leads 1.4 billion people”.
And of course, he continues, Pope Francis is dealing with all the issues that “we in South Africa are dealing with: poverty eradication, climate change, migration, human trafficking, etc: those are the things that interest us and I think that on that basis we found common ground for collaboration with the Holy See”.
Thinking back to his recent encounter with Pope Francis when he presented his credentials in the Vatican, Ambassador Johannes said the conversation focused on the plight of Africa in terms of the ongoing wars there.
The Ambassador revealed he is personally very involved in peace-making and mediation and has been nominated Special Envoy for mediation by the South African government. He said he was recently engaged in negotiations in Mozambique between Frelimo and RENAMO; prior to that he was part of the negotiating team in Northern Ireland and also worked on the Lockerbie issue.
“South Africa has also been engaged in peace initiative s in South Sudan, Burundi, Rwanda, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Central African Republic and many other places. So we’ve been playing a big role in Africa to ensure that we get people round the table because our experience in South Africa itself has taught us that it is better to engage than to make conflict” he said.
Ambassador Johannes recalls when President Nelson Mandela came out of jail and came to address his ministers and staff and said ‘what type of South Africa do you want to inherit? A South Africa that will look like pictures you see from WW2 with destruction, poverty and people struggling to survive… or do you want to engage people and get the majority of the people behind us who want to see the end of apartheid: “that – he said - is where I got involved”.
He also tells his pre-ambassadorial and ministerial story during which he was an activist of the military wing of the African National Congress, exiled from the nation to Angola where he fought during the ‘70s until he was struck down by malaria. Johannes says he then joined “Radio Freedom” as a journalist in Luanda and worked with the exiled Oliver Tambo and with Thabo Mbeki.
The Ambassador says he had the fortune to work with Nelson Mandela for a number of years after 1994 and talks of some of the many things he learnt from him.
Recalling the man he used to call the ‘gentle giant’, Johannes remembers a car journey together during which he had the chance to ask Mandela a number of questions, including how he felt when the Apartheid government first contacted him and asked him to give up the struggle.
“My head – Mandela answered - said I shouldn’t engage with them because they have done so much harm, but my heart said that if I didn’t, South Africa would be in serious danger of being totally burnt by fear, by hatred by all that we don’t want for our country…” he said.
Mandela, the Ambassador said, told him that in those final years he was at peace with himself in the knowledge that he would never have to answer for cruelty or harming anyone in South Africa and in the knowledge that he helped to bring about a situation in which we can live together as human beings.
He also tells a number of anecdotes of travelling and working with Nelson Mandela, whom he says was a very gentle and kind man – a lot like Pope Francis in some ways!
In fact, Johannes reveals, he has given Pope Francis a portrait of President Mandela and Pope John Paul II together: “to me they were already two Saints in my mind”.
To the question ‘what does an ambassador to the Holy See do?’ Johannes says there is much work to be done.
“Since I have been here I have participated in a peace agreement that was signed recently between the warring factions of the Central African Republic” he said.
Other appointments in his busy agenda include meeting with most of the Cardinals who are in charge of Pontifical Councils to agree on collaboration on social issues.
“There is so much that can be done here that there is no time to sit back and relax and think ‘I am going to have an easy time here’ if you are worth your salt!” he said.
He also speaks about the South African interest in setting up a new Observatory and generally giving a clear message that “South Africa is standing on side of morality, goodness, love, peace…”
The Ambassador spells out his immediate agenda which features five top objectives he wants to achieve during his tenure here in Rome. They include engagement in international issues, the commitment towards eradicating poverty, a focus on human trafficking and especially on the exploitation of women and children, the commitment towards issues of care for the environment including the extraction of mineral wealth and the moral problems associated to it, and pushing forward with the cause for the canonization of Blessed Benedict Daswa who would become South Africa’s first saint.
“I would say that the message from me is that there are good people in South Africa, and if we can build on this we can have a society which can have a global effect on other parts of Africa and will also play a role internationally” he said.
“We would hope – Ambassador Johannes concludes – that South Africa will continue on the road to where people like Mandela and Tambo left off, and now we have to carry the banner and implant it. (…) I am happy to be here and I’m certainly looking forward to making waves!”