I joined the establishment of the Zambia High Commission in Pretoria, South Africa, on 17th December, 2007, as Press Secretary.
The High Commissioner then was former Secretary to the Cabinet, Mr Leslie Mbula. Apart from the Deputy Head of Mission, Mrs Catherine Lishomwa, and the High Commissioner’s personal secretary, Mrs Mulenga, the rest of the diplomatic staff at the Mission were male.
We were told that there were missions where the Head of Mission and his deputy did not see eye to eye – where members of staff had divided loyalties, with some paying their allegiance to the Head of Mission and others to his deputy. But this was not the case with us in Pretoria, thanks to the leadership of Mr Mbula, who constantly counselled us on the need to work as a team if we were to achieve anything as a Mission.
Initially, while awaiting my accreditation as Press Secretary by the South African Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Foreign Affairs), I was assigned to do protocol duties at Oliver Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg. My duties basically entailed welcoming Zambian VIP’s at the airport- those coming to or transiting through South Africa. These included Cabinet Ministers, deputy ministers and other VIPs, including the first Republican President, Dr Kenneth Kaunda and the Speaker of the National Assembly, Mr Musa Mwanamwambwa.
As if by design, each time either Dr Kaunda or Mr Mwanamwamba came to or transited through Johannesburg, I happened to be the one assigned to do protocol duties at the airport. No wonder, over time, we got to know each other very well.
Perhaps because of the position he held as Speaker, I had always thought that Mr Mwanamwambwa was a tough, unfriendly type. How wrong I was! During my interactions with him, I discovered that he was actually a very humble person with a remarkably good sense of humour. Before taking him to his hotel, we would sit in the State Lounge for a brief rest and freely share information on current events at home in Zambia and South Africa.
A State Lounge is a government facility used as a resting point for VIPs, who include current and former Heads of State. In the case of the South African facility at O.R.Tambo International Airport, it is an impressive structure rehabilitated during the 2010 World Cup. It has compartments specifically reserved for current and former Heads of State and those for Cabinet ministers, deputy ministers and other VIPs hailing from various parts of the world.
And each time he returned home, the Speaker would write to the High Commissioner thanking him for the courtesies extended to him by his members of staff. He was such a nice man, never taking anything for granted. Indeed, if all VIPs behaved like him, it would be a pleasure working as a protocol officer at the airport.
But the reality on the ground was that some VIPs were quite bossy. They did not look at the protocol officer as a person deserving respect. They enjoyed using him as their “chola boy” whose duty it was to carry their luggage and take them wherever he was supposed to take them.
Coming back to Mr Mwanamwambwa. His favourite hotel was the five-star Southern Sun located within a stone’s throw from the airport. So each time he came to Johannesburg, the Mission made sure that we booked him at this hotel. Perhaps because I was new at the job, my thinking was that since the Speaker liked the Southern Sun, then it meant that all VIPs of his status were to be booked there!
Then there came this time when I made my first boob as a protocol officer at the airport. I had barely done two months as a protocol officer when the Mission received a message that the First Lady, then Mrs Maureen Mwanawasa, was coming for some business in Johannesburg.
As the protocol officer on duty that week, the High Commissioner’s Secretary, Mrs Mulenga, asked me to book the First Lady “at her usual hotel near the airport.”
Mrs Mulenga obviously assumed that I knew what she meant by “her (Mrs Mwanawasa’s) usual hotel near the airport.” Yes, all my colleagues at the Mission would have known what she meant but not me! I didn’t bother to ask her what she meant: I just assumed that I knew.
As already alluded to, my thinking was that since the Speaker, Mr Mwanamwambwa, was always booked at the Southern Sun, it could only mean that it was the same hotel where I was to book Mrs Mwanawasa as well. This was to turn out to be a grave mistake!
I had confidently driven to the Southern Sun and made the bookings for the First Lady and her entourage – only to discover later, much to my shock, that I had booked her in a wrong hotel! It transpired that the First Lady had her own favourite hotel, which was also near the airport, and this was not the Southern Sun…. but Hotel Intercontinental!
So there I was, shivering from stem to stern, wondering what would happen to me for making what I now considered to have been a foolish mistake. My colleagues told me that Mrs Mwanawasa might not take kindly to this, thinking that I had done it deliberately since every officer at the Mission was supposed to know her favourite hotel.
This scared me out of my wits because I thought my ‘juicy’ days as a diplomat, which had just begun, would soon come to an end. I could even visualize receiving the “infamous” document every diplomat dreads – the letter of recall – in the next diplomatic bag. And how would I explain it to my family and friends at home as to the reason for my abrupt recall?
For what worse crime could a diplomat commit than booking the spouse of your country’s Head of State in a wrong place? I wished the earth could open and swallow me so that I didn’t have to explain anything. But then the earth refused to open and remained the way it was, thus leaving poor me to my fate!
Fortunately, when the High Commissioner, Mr Leslie Mbula, was informed of the error I had made, he rushed over to the airport to sort things out before the First Lady arrived. We cancelled the bookings at the Southern Sun and booked her at Hotel Intercontinental.
And seeing that I looked so worried, Mr Mbula calmed me down, saying such mistakes happened in life. “What is important is that you learn from such mistakes,” he told me. “In diplomacy, there is no room for assumptions. You must always be sure of what you are doing. You should not have just assumed that since you always booked the Speaker at the Southern Sun, then the First Lady should have been booked there as well.”
And when the First Lady finally came, she had to be delayed for about half an hour (just imagine!) at Hotel Intercontinental before she and her entourage took occupation of their rooms as they had to be cleaned first. Mr Mbula explained the situation to her and she said it was fine, I shouldn’t worry about it. I felt so relieved and thanked her for her understanding. She had proved to me that she had a motherly heart and I would remain eternally grateful to her.
But after that first boob, I made sure that I did not repeat the same mistake. In fact, I was soon to become an “expert” at protocol duties. I became so popular with some VIP’s that even long after I had left the airport to concentrate on my area of duty as Press Secretary, they would ask the High Commissioner that I should be the one to receive them at the airport! I didn’t know why, but I was told they found me helpful, mature, jovial and entertaining!
The author is a Lusaka-based media consultant who also worked in the Foreign Service as a diplomat in South Africa and Botswana. For comments, Sms 0977425827 or Email: firstname.lastname@example.org