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Maite Nkoana-Mashabane

The Minister’s MacGuffin

by Brandon Edmonds / 20.09.2011

The last time a South African official yelled “diplomatic immunity!” they were shot in the head by Mel Gibson. In 1989’s Lethal Weapon 2. Now life isn’t as murderously succinct as a summer blockbuster – except when it is, as it was ten years ago, when zealots with box cutters got stuck between kaboom and New York city. The Minister of International Relations & Co-operation, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, isn’t about to be shot in the head for yelling diplomatic immunity, but it led to “wasting” public money on an expensive chartered flight after refusing, on principle, to allow her handbag to be x-rayed by airport security in Oslo. Yelling, quite literally, according to eyewitnesses, ensued. Various press reports quote a department official: “emotional shouting and arguments ensued with the security personnel as to their audacity for requesting that South Africa’s minister of international relations have her bag x-rayed… the Minister was in such a rage that she refused to board the plane.” A refusal that led to a new chartered flight with an official price tag of R235 343. Cue strategic DA apoplexy and yet another toxic wave of loathing for the ANC on mainstream media comment threads.

Lethal Weapon 2

More interesting is the departmental line of defense, that the Minister was right to invoke the Vienna Convention which states, in Article 36, “the personal baggage of a diplomatic agent shall be exempt from inspection, unless there are serious grounds for presuming that it contains articles not covered by exemptions… or articles the import and export of which are prohibited by the law or controlled by the quarantine regulations of the receiving State.” In short, everything hinges on a classic MacGuffin: the burning desire to know what was in the Minister’s handbag?

A MacGuffin is a plot-motivating device that doesn’t matter in itself as long as the characters in the story are spurred into action by it. Hitchcock believed the audience doesn’t really care what it is, while George Lucas insists that audiences do. The Death Star plans is Star Wars’ MacGuffin. The ark is the MacGuffin in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Rosebud in Citizen Kane. Unobtanium in Avatar. The ring in Lord of the Rings and the glowing suitcase in Pulp Fiction. To them all we can now add the Minister’s handbag, with it’s nagging lure, what was in it?

Answering that question, given that we may never know, is a Rorschach test taking us deep into our own fantasies about this country, where we believe it’s headed, how we imagine it’s doing, and the whole Clash question of staying or going. Imagine drugs in the Minister’s handbag, a suspicion by no means outlandish given convicted drug trafficker Sheryl Cwele, ex-wife of the Minister of State Security, and you’re a counter-revolutionary undermining the integrity of black governance. Imagine a phial containing a top-secret prototype-virus that kills whites, let’s call it The Malema Plan, ironically inspired by the work of Wouter Basson, the cardiologist who headed Project Coast, the chemical & biological warfare division of the NP’s solution to the Total Onslaught, and you’re a right-wing nut job. Imagine shoplifted duty-free goodies, Victoria’s secret and Toblerone, the Minister as Winona Ryder, and you equate the Zuma cabinet with runaway venality. Africans with moral laxity and the ruling class with cynical, self-serving opportunism. The handbag that escaped scrutiny contains whatever it is we imagine this Government, if not the new South Africa, to be.

Potentially, there’s a political mystery brewing here as intriguing as who really reverse-engineered JFK’s cranium, Deep Throat’s identity, and the great conspiratorial chestnut of 911, it being an inside job, an elaborate self-harming Black Ops, stage-managed to launch the War on Terror. What was in the bag?

The government wants to stop the MacGuffin’s momentum dead. From it’s attempts to contain and control press freedom, we know the State knows the danger of stories left to their own devices. It is only interested in its own plotting. Department spokesperson, Clayson Monyela, an ex-SABC reporter who escaped the kow-towing era of Snuki Zikalala for government, seems to have forgotten the right to know. When asked about the Minister’s handbag, he responded, “I can’t believe you are asking that. It’s not an issue we want to debate… She was strong and defended her principle, and we have moved on from there. The matter was not about the contents of the luggage. It’s a matter of principle.”

The principle of diplomatic immunity laid down by the Vienna Convention. But Monsela has let slip something that fatally exposes the Minister’s conduct, he said she defended her principle. In other words, despite being a public official, a civil servant, representing every South African, she suited herself at our expense. She acted in her own interests and refused to have her property exposed. That gesture of putting her own personal property before the demands of her public position defines the kleptocratic Zuma regime.

Put out by the scanner, livid at being symbolically reduced to a regular passenger by Oslo airport security, who have said they treat all government officials the same way, including the prime minister of Norway, she elected not to pass, to ditch her duties, a meeting in Romania, and return to her hotel. She aborted the diplomatic mission in the name of diplomatic immunity! This directly contravenes the Vienna Convention, the very one she invoked to justify her behaviour. It reads: “the purpose of such privileges and immunities is not to benefit individuals but to ensure the efficient performance of the functions of diplomatic missions.” To safeguard the mysterious contents of her handbag, the Minister compromised the ‘efficient performance’ of her diplomatic mission. Thereby revoking her immunity since she was acting on her own behalf, not the country’s.

The Minister’s MacGuffin ought to set in motion a series of questions about the perk-laden lifestyle of the governing elite. It is an opportunity for us to fill that handbag with grenades of critical dissent. It is time to ask whether the lavish provisions of the Minister’s Handbook, that set of guidelines outlining the wonders (housing, car, travel, medical, pension) top tier government representatives enjoy, has essentially distorted the perspective of public servants, turning them into a class of privileged exceptions, at our expense.

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