Fran Lebowitz is credited with a quote that every government leader – especially charged with the responsibility of administering foreign policy and international relations – should live by. “Think before you speak, read before you think,” Lebowitz counsels. No amount of words can adequately describe the level of profundity of this quote. Last week we witnessed firsthand what happens when the proverbial train of thought is left to its own devices, dangerous utterances are made on national television – which may have far reaching consequences for the country. Our Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Relations, Mrs Thuli Dladla was on the Eswatini TV’s Tindzaba on 12th February 2022 to address a grave concern by Eswatini parents who have their children studying in Ukraine. Here is a verbatim quote from the Minister:

“Umsindvo lokhona siyawubona kubomabonakudze, but silive lakaNgwane sikhuluma naye mbhasada waseRussia lose Mozambique. He has allayed ema fears etfu, kutsi cha loku lesikubonako akusiyo intfo lengatsi iliciniso and nebatali sebacale kwetfuka nyalo. Li office lakitsi leliseGeneva libuke yona iRussia nabo Ukraine. Bavele bagijima nje masinyane bachecka kulama University lapho kunebantfwana khona kutsi ingabe ba safe kangakanani. Ayasho ke ema Universities kutsi cha, loku lokukhona lama tensions akucali emkhatsini walamave lamabili. Kubo bakwetayele, ngako ke asiwetfuka sibatali singemave. Bona bantfwana bakubo, bababambile, babagadzile, bababukile. Batsi uma shutsi kukhona lesekuntjintja, batawuyitjela iembassy yetfu eGeneva.”

The point of departure is that this is a reckless statement that germinated from an ill-prepared Minister who did not bother to consult any material on the Russia/Ukraine issue. On the 11th February 2022, international new media were reporting that the world’s most powerful state was directing its citizens in Ukraine to leave immediately. President Joe Biden of the United States was instructing Americans in Kiev and elsewhere in Ukraine to leave that country immediately because the US had no intentions to send troops to rescue citizens should Russia’s aggression culminate into a full-blown military confrontation with Ukraine. Talking about the directive for citizens to leave immediately, the Commander in Chief of the world’s strongest military said “We're dealing with one of the largest armies in the world.

Stranded African students in Ukraine 

This is a very different situation, and things could go crazy quickly.” The US Department of State issued a statement in which it summarizes the security situation in the Ukraine/Russia matter. Part of the statement states: “There are continued reports of a Russian military build-up on the border with Ukraine, indicating potential for significant military action against Ukraine. The security situation in Ukraine continues to be unpredictable throughout the country and may deteriorate with little notice. There is a strong likelihood that any Russian military operations would severely restrict commercial air travel. Demonstrations, which have turned violent at times, regularly occur throughout Ukraine, including in Kyiv.”

Closer to home, Namibian government issued a statement calling for peaceful resolution of the conflict, and expressly stated that in a recent diplomatic briefing in Moscow, President Putin made the commitment that Russia would not invade Ukraine. In so far as Nambian students studying in Russia are concerned, the Ministry stated that “the Embassy is in close contact with the Namibian students studying in Ukraine. During the last virtual meeting between H.E. Mr Kashuupulwa, Ambassador of Namibia accredited to Russia and Ukraine and the leadership of the students in Ukraine, which took place on 14 February 2022, the students were informed that the Mission would assist with consular arrangements should a student wish to return home.” Countries such as Zambia as well have provided assistance to parents who wish to evacuate their children from Ukraine in light of the security situation in Ukraine.

Then of course enters Minister Dladla who has made Eswatini subject to mockery and ridicule. The statement she made is quite dangerous for a number of reasons. Firstly, as a Minister of foreign affairs, it is folly to publicly say that you are aware of matter of international importance from television. This is something she should be briefed about by Ministry officials based on diplomatic communications and interacting with international counterparties. Secondly, there is a great deal of idiocy in taking the view of a diplomat from one of the parties in a conflict – especially of this magnitude. The Minister says the Russian ambassador has allayed “our” fears, but makes no mention of Ukrainian diplomatic perspective on the security situation.

Thirdly, Minister Dladla tells Swazi parents that the diplomatic mission in Geneva “ran” to Universities in Ukraine to check on the safety of students, and the Universities said these tensions are not new, they are used to this situation and therefore parents should not fear. This is just an embarrassing lie! There is no way that Ukrainians made such a statement in the face of what most security experts call Russian aggression against Ukraine. 3 days after this irresponsible statement by the Minister, Ukraine made an official request for assistance from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. So it is highly unlikely that Ukrainian universities made the statement that parents should not fear because this situation is normal and it is what they are used to.

Minister Lindiwe Dladla

She (the Minister) then goes on to spew more idiotic ideas and says that universities in Ukraine said the students are with them, and they are looking after them, they are guarding them, and they are monitoring. Let us assume for a moment this is true (which it is not of course), if hostilities escalate to a full on war what can institutions of higher learning do to protect our citizens enrolled there? What can 100 universities put together do to protect Swazi citizens from suffering physical, psychological, and emotional harm borne of war? Universities are not equipped to deal with security issues of this magnitude, and they simply cannot do anything of value.

One then wonders, why would the Minister go on national television to make nonsensical statements on a critical global issue? We do not know, but this is a hallmark of the government of the day. It simply does not have the interests of the people as a priority. The whole world is concerned with what is happening in Ukraine and citizens are advised to leave immediately, except for the Eswatini government which would have us believe Ukrainians are of the view that this is normal. More than that, this exposes the inaptitude of high ranking officials. Minister Dladla may have been an excellent Head Teacher at St Marks High School, but this goes to prove that just because you once glossed over a “Social Studies” textbook three decades ago, you therefore can speak on matters of security and international relations.

It may have been better if the Minister said nothing at all, but to simply make sweeping (and blatantly false) statements is at the very least irresponsible and at most quite dangerous because it sends signals as to what Eswatini’s foreign policy is on the Russia/Ukraine matter. Which seems to be that we have taken a side, and we are leaning on the side of Russia given that we have taken their word and guidance on the matter, and we (through) the Minister have chosen to misrepresent facts on what was communicated by Ukrainian universities (if indeed they did communicate with the Eswatini diplomatic mission). 

Perhaps somebody needs to advise the government on the power of knowledge. If Eswatini still approaches matters of governance as if the country is home in some obscure village, we will continue to be an insignificant participant in the global stage. Minister, loku lokwenteka eRussia akukajwayeleki. Please initiate a process to assist parents in evacuating Swazi citizens who are still in Ukraine. The situation there is not what you would have us believe, it is significantly dire.