WITH his close ties to Africa, a solid background in human rights activism and an affinity with the fight against HIV/Aids, Patrick Gaspard’s appointment as US ambassador to South Africa can be considered a diplomatic coup.
Just more than three months into his new appointment as the leading diplomat in South Africa from the world’s largest economy, Gaspard arrived in Port Elizabeth for a whirlwind two-day visit this week.
His plans included visiting two US multinational companies, meeting the Bay’s municipal leadership and taking part in activities on behalf of the multibillion- dollar US President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (Pepfar).
Speaking at the Boardwalk Hotel yesterday, the affable ambassador demonstrated his quick wit and charm. These qualities have helped bring him through the ranks from executive vice- president for politics and legislation for one of the US’s largest health worker unions, to the White House where he served as day-to-day leader of the Democratic Party headquarters.
Between 2009 and 2011, he served as director of the White House office of political affairs for the Obama administration and during 2008 he was the national political director of Obama’s presidential campaign.
Between 2011 and 2013, Gaspard, 46, served as director of the Democratic national committee, overseeing the president’s reelection campaign.
With a wide smile and chuckle, Gaspard quickly swept aside questions around achieving an ambassadorship while in his mid- forties, and chose to focus on American-South African trade, the fight against Aids and education issues in South Africa.
Gaspard might be considered an African by virtue of country of birth – the Democratic Republic of Congo. He said he had also visited South Africa 23 years ago as part of a delegation to assess “the way forward after the ANC had been unbanned”.
“It is fantastic therefore to be here as an ambassador and as the country is about to mark 20 years since the advent of democracy here,” he said.
Gaspard said he was at the forefront of the fight against the Aids pandemic in his home country years ago during an era where there was still much stigma around the disease.
“My close friends were affected. It was terrible. It is great now to have the backing of funds and be able to assist in the eradication of this disease. It is no longer terminal, it can be fought.”
Gaspard will be at the Kwazakhele community health centre today where, in collaboration with the Institute for Youth Development South Africa, medical equipment will be handed over.
Turning to trade Gaspard, who visited the Ford engine plant in Port Elizabeth yesterday and will be visiting General Motors South Africa today, highlighted the importance of trade between the two countries. He said his country considered the automotive sector in the Eastern Cape particularly significant.
Demonstrating his extensive union experience, Gaspard pointed out the recent strikes in the automotive sector had been crippling and urged unions and manufacturers to improve cooperation and bargaining systems.
On the local controversy surrounding fracking for shale gas, Gaspard smiled wryly about being drawn into the debate. “There are instances where fracking has been done well and instances where it has not. I believe that if all concerned parties are included, if all the controls have been put into place, if all the environmental concerns are addressed and everything has been done well, then one should certainly explore the shale gas potential.”