Inside File: Pretoria envoys get the jitters

HOWEVER saintly Nelson Mandela may be, he must surely be experiencing a devilish frisson of pleasure at being courted by white members of the South African foreign service who may be looking to their pensions when majority rule comes into force next year.

The ANC president's visit to London this week provided a foretaste of the massive upheaval that is going to hit the South African diplomatic service come April 1994. In a scene unthinkable a few years ago, Pretoria's white diplomats and senior members of the ANC were on Tuesday sitting side by side at the Confederation of British Industry listening to their future president asking for British investment in his country.

Mr Mandela and his team took the trouble during their visit to reassure members of the formerly white-supremacist embassy that they would not find themselves on the street in seven months. 'I was told I'll be all right,' one commented nervously later.

'Broadly speaking, in government service, there is of course some anxiety about the coming changes,' said another. 'But Foreign Affairs is the most well- equipped to deal with the changes. We've had contact with the ANC and other parties all along. We've always had a non- partisan way of going about things. We've shown them our training facilities. I think serving diplomats need not have any fear, because the department is bound to expand.'

There are at present only a handful of non-whites of ambassadorial rank in the South African diplomatic service. In the past, the ANC discouraged its supporters from joining on the grounds they would be obliged to defend the policies of the current white-ruled government.

Under a future foreign minister - widely tipped to be Thabo Mbeki, the ANC international secretary - those in line for senior posts include his deputy, Aziz Pahad, and Stanley Mabizela, the head of training in the ANC international department. Existing ANC representatives will in a number of cases slip into position as ambassadors of South Africa.

There are 25 young non-white South Africans being trained in diplomacy at the University of Birmingham, three-quarters of them from the ANC. The pounds 275,000 bill is footed jointly by the EC and the British Overseas Development Administration. Next week, they will come to London to learn the ropes from their white compatriots at the large South African embassy in Trafalgar Square. A reception will be given in their honour by an under-secretary of the Foreign Office. Others are being trained at London universities on private charity money. 'It's a very fashionable charity to be in at the moment,' said one insider.

More startling is the case of Robert McBride, the coloured ANC member sent to death row in the 1980s for planting a bomb in Durban which killed three women. He has just returned to South Africa from Malaysia, where he spent three months training to be a diplomat.

IT is now a month since Amnesty International issued its report claiming Christians in Saudi Arabia have become victims of persecution and torture as a result of the state-sanctioned activities of the religious police.

Contrary to usual practice, Saudi embassies in London and elsewhere in Europe have failed to issue a response.

Ghazi Algosaibi, poet, author and former industry minister, arrived as ambassador to London 18 months ago with a brief to bring Saudi information policy into the modern age. It now emerges that his instructions went much wider: to co-ordinate Saudi Arabia's image throughout Europe.

In response to queries, Mr Algosaibi's aides have proffered various reasons. Most of them have dismissed Amnesty as 'a bunch of self-appointed Western liberals who don't matter' (which assessment did not prevent them firing from the hip on previous reports). One suggested a more imaginative explanation: the report has only just been translated into Arabic.

Not only was Mr Algosaibi, with an MA from the University of Southern California and a PhD from London University, fully capable of reading the report in English; he translated his recent book - aptly entitled The Gulf crisis: An attempt to understand - from Arabic into English himself. The authors of the Amnesty report, it turns out, sent an Arabic translation of the document three days before it was released in English last month.

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