Struggle, freedom, transformation: South Africa

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From the villages of KwaZulu-Natal to the skyscrapers of Hong Kong, Phumelele MaButhelezi Gwala’s life of transformation is like that of her nation. As it celebrates its 20 years of freedom, there is much more to be done.

Mrs Phumelele MaButhelezi Gwala Consul General South Africa Interview

It begins with a little girl in the village, carrying a 20l bucket of water on her head. Her parents, both teachers, were self-sufficient enough to build a house for their 8 children – without running water. She worked the fields and gardens; washed clothes in the river.

Fortunately, she didn’t get eaten by a lion. First she studied them and now she protects lions from Asian predators from a 19th floor office in Central Plaza. Likewise, her siblings all emerged from the villages, finished university and hold senior positions in the government and private sector.

Patience Phumelele Gwala, nee Buthelezi, is on her first diplomatic posting and in the top spot. Right away, one gets the sense this was not the typical path to a Hong Kong Consul General position. While places like Paris and London often see political appointees, it rare in the Fragrant Harbour. In China’s official Year of South Africa in China and on the 20th Anniversary of Freedom Day, how did a girl from the villages of KwaZulu-Natal end up in a Hong Kong skyscraper, living out the values of ubuntu and batho pele?

Resistance is not futile

The family name Buthelezi is a known factor. The family did move to the same area as the famous founder of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), Mangosuthu Buthelezi, but was not directly related. While name-sharing does inspire a certain brotherhood, in this case, the relationship became strained over time. Phumelele’s family was active in the ANC – one brother was in exile in Tanzania with the armed wing of the ANC, Umkhonto Wesizwe. He spent 6 years on Robben Island, the same prison where so many leaders were incarcerated under the apartheid regime. It was Nelson Mandela’s home for 27 years before he was released and later became President.

Everyone was affected by the struggle against apartheid including the Buthelezi family. “The minute my brother left, for instance, we got harassed by the Special Branch [special police units fighting antiapartheid activists] . They would come home, raid the house, wake us up in the middle of the night, asking us if we knew where he was.” They had to live with the Special Branch “taking my father to the police stations to interrogate him.”

“It was hard.”

Students of the struggle will remember that not all returned from their midnight interrogations. Stephen Biko was one such martyr to the cause.

While the IFP and ANC were initially allies, they later became antagonists in the early 1980’s. Given the family’s strong alliance with the ANC, their position in the IFP stronghold became untenable and they had to leave their second home at Ulundi.

Later, she couldn’t avoid the struggle. “After I left university, I learnt that my brother was back. I actively participated as a courier. You had to participate somehow.” At university, she claimed that as a nice girl from the rural areas and having studied at a Catholic school (“work and pray”), she was was off the radar of suspicious police. Those from the rebellious townships were under much more scrutiny.

Still, marriage in 1985 didn’t extinguish her spirit for resistance and her activist tendencies put her on the map as an ANC volunteer. Special Branch forces made occasional visits to her home, leading to the family decampment to Pietermaritzburg while their children were growing up.

The other side of life

After high school, she studied zoology, biochemistry and botany as an undergraduate and masters degree student. This opened the door to a career as a high school science teacher, lecturer at a teacher training college and then an educational consultant. She played a number of senior managerial roles during this time in the education sector. The one exception was a two years stint as regional manager of a construction company.

During these years, she visited her sister, serving the Department of Trade and Industry. Her sister served in France and Germany as a Trade Attaché in the late 1990’s and Phumelele had a wee taste of life as a diplomat; a seed had been planted.

20 years ago on April 27, a nation declared its freedom

The call

Over a decade later, she was considered a competent person by the capital for consideration and, now Mrs. Gwala, a mother of three adult girls, got the call. Six months of training and a long flight later and she was in Hong Kong.

While she always cherished the memory of visiting her sister, she had no idea she would be asked to join the service. It was rare for someone from the provinces to be so nominated.

Department of International Relations and Cooperation

Even the name is different. No simple ‘Ministry of Foreign Affairs” for the new South Africa. “Relations and Cooperation’ speak to the values of the newly reconstituted nation. South Africa’s radical overhaul of government after the first Freedom Day means that their diplomatic corps does not operate like that of other nations. They could not wait to slowly shift over with policies aimed at fresh-faced university grads.

“There had to be a lot of transformation taking place. It was inevitable.”

There are no entrance exams. Training is a six month course and may include a mix of previously posted diplomats mixing with new inductees that may have extensive careers behind them already. Mrs. Gwala says many are from the education sector. In South Africa, this is normal and so it didn’t seem to have occurred to her to question why. The traditionally close links between teachers unions and the ANC may have something to do with it, but one can’t be sure without further investigation.

The Department has a list of values – not unusual among government departments and corporations in the modern era. However, two stand out: Ubuntu and batho pele.

buntu and batho pele

As the Consul General explains it, ubuntu is defined as “I am because you are.” A marked departure from Descartes “I think, therefore I am”, it is an outward looking definition that connects one to the other.

Batho pele roughly translates as ‘people first’’. It embodies a value placing others in an elevated priority.

“These two are intertwined.” Expressing values as aspirations, Mrs. Gwala explains that “South Africa is for a world without hunger, without disease, nor ignorance.” While this are common aspirations hard to disagree with, the values find expression in foreign policy justifying an outward looking perspective: Struggle, freedom, transformation: South Africa From the villages of KwaZulu-Natal to the skyscrapers of Hong Kong, Phumelele MaButhelezi Gwala’s life of transformation is like that of her nation. As it celebrates its 20 years of freedom, there is much more to be done.

“We feel, as a country, you can’t say you are peaceful [and] prosperous when a neighbour doesn’t have peace; when the neighbour is not prosperous. We feel as a country that we do need to focus on our neighbours. We need to focus on the continent, which will then spill over to the world.”

Practically, it means taking part in peacekeeping missions in neighbouring and regional nations, like the Central African Republic. It also drives their thinking in participating in multilateral institutions. They seek “A world with global institutions that represent all. That’s why we say it is a world founded in Ubuntu.”

This differs from realpolitik, isolationist or border integrity driven philosophies of other nations.

To the skyscrapers..

While Mrs. Gwala seems at home in the Consulate’s new 19F offices, she is not insensitive to the transformation that has happened in her country – and her life. She feels a strong sense of obligation to her nation. The highest floor office she had had in South Africa was ‘maybe the 5th floor’. A recent visit to the vertiginous Ritz-Carlton to pick up a visiting Minister reminded her how far she had come.

The weight of batho pele is manifested in her daily practice. The 20th Anniversary of their Freedom Day, when apartheid was ended, causes introspection and feelings of obligation.

..and mindful of home

“We do have a feeling that it is ‘our’ country. It has also given us pride and ownership. It’s something you always think about, going to bed. What can I do for my country? What can I do to give my people a better life?

“A better life [in South Africa] is not like a better life in Hong Kong. If you talk of a better life, you talk about people having food on their plates – not [becoming] rich – the basic needs. Getting educated, access to health programs.”

To that end, she is working to advance the establishment of a Double Taxation Agreement, promote South African exports and inbound investment; both measures that would enrich and advance her nation’s peoples. In addition, she is, as mentioned in the  opening, working to save the lions – as well as other animals threatened by Asians’ insatiable demand for exotic animal parts to be made into ‘medicines’. Rhino horns and lion bones are on the list. She praised the Hong Kong government saying the “Hong Kong government are incredibly supportive of us in stopping this” illicit trade.

In addition, Hong Kong and China participate in the Kimberly Process, a South African initiative to ensure diamonds are properly documented and tracked as they move across borders to prevent the spread of so-called ‘blood diamonds’. South Africa chaired the global body for the first ten years. While some nations have been expelled and some voluntarily withdrew, there have been criticisms of the programme’s effectiveness in controlling this admittedly problematic trade. China has recently undertaken to Chair the organisation for the next ten years and will be tested in this role.


The little girl from the village of KwaZulu- Natal has seen amazing transformation in her life. She was born into a world where blacks were ruled by whites, then struggle, then freedom. Old enemies named Buthelezi would now take issue being called other than friend. The famous IFP leader recently attended her sister’s wedding, a mark of honour, respect and reconciliation. She saw Mandiba – Nelson Mandela – imprisoned on the same island as her brother, released, lead the nation and pass away. She represented her nation and spoke at his memorial in Hong Kong, one of thousands around the world. 20 years ago on April 27, a nation declared its freedom. Today, Patience Phumelele MaButhelezi Gwala is still making the most of that freedom in the service of her people.

Patience Phumelele MaButhelezi Gwala

Career highlights

  • 1982 B.Sc.,(Biochemistry, Botany and Zoology) University of Zululand.
  • 1983 University Education Diploma, University of Zululand
  • 1984-1988 Secondary School Science Teacher
  • 1988-1994 Science Lecturer at Appelbosch College of Education (Teacher Training Institution)
  • 1985 Acquires new name: Mrs Gwala.
  • 1990 Bachelor of Science Honours (Botany), University of Natal (UKZN) Pietermaritzburg
  • 1995-1990 Promoted to Head of Department for Science and Mathematics at Appelbosch
  • 2001-2008 National Business Initiative. Manager, then Provincial Manager. Later consultant.
  • 2002 Post-experience Diploma in Business Engineering Management, University of Warwick
  • 2009-2011 Regional Manager for a Construction Company
  • 2012 Joins training for Foreign Service.
  • March 2013 Arrives in Hong Kong
  • Languages: English. IsiZulu, IsiXhosa, IsiSwati, IsiNdebele, Afrikaans, Elementary Mandarin.