Embassy of South Africa
The South African embassy in Berlin, via TheFlyingDutchman
  • South Africa's ambassadors are paid a minimum of R1 million per year in salary – before living allowances that can double that amount, plus free accommodation, and other perks.
  • In return, say former ambassadors, they are expected to promote trade and economic growth, fly the flag, and always be available in case of trouble. 
  • Tougher postings come with advantages, such as more frequent trips home.
  • For more stories, go to www.businessinsider.co.za.

An ambassador for the Republic of South Africa earns a minimum of just over R1 million per year – which many tend to put aside as savings because their expenses are covered.

Senior ambassadors, typically posted to the world's most glamorous cities, have base salaries of just under R1.2 million a year before various allowances and perks. But those posted to violent hotspots are not entirely forgotten either: in terms of a hardship scale, tougher postings come with much more frequent trips back home, paid for by the state.

In return those ambassadors are expected to promote South African economic growth through trade, to promote SA by telling its story – and to never leave their post without express permission.

Some details about the job of an ambassador are never talked about. How and why an ambassador is selected, for instance, is considered sensitive because it may offend host nations.

Other details – such as actual levels of remuneration – are not strictly secret, but are simply not available thanks to the opaque nature of the public service.

This week, however, former ambassadors concurred, and the department of international relations and co-operation (Dirco) confirmed, that ambassadors are paid as either directors or chief directors in the civil service. That puts them at level 13 or 14 on the pay-scale used for civil servants. Level 13 comes with a minimum salary of R1,005,063 per year, and level 14 jobs are currently going at R1,189.338 per year.

But for ambassadors, that is not the end of their remuneration. They also receive cost-of-living allowances, or colas, and in the past those have been – according to a government investigation – extremely generous.

"My allowance was much bigger than my salary," one former ambassador said this week.

In 2016 South Africans had a rare insight into the cost of such allowances thanks to a "performance and expenditure review" by an agency of the National Treasury that sought to identify the cost drivers of foreign missions.

Dirco declined to participate in the study, but the Treasury drew data from the government accounting system and found that, in 2013 and early 2014, colas ranged between R600,000 and R1.3 million per year.

This, it said, was "exceptionally generous", coming in at 50% higher than allowances paid to staff of the United Nations – who have to pay for their own accommodation – and 60% higher than allowances then paid to foreign diplomats of the United States of America.

The allowances are not taxed.

Dirco later promised to review the way in which allowances are calculated, but said it could not simply reduce such payments without renegotiation of the dispensation for foreign service workers.

The job: fly the flag – and encourage trade

In terms of traditional international diplomacy ambassadors have a specific traditional role to play, with much required by way of protocol. In reality, former ambassadors say, the job is relatively easy if sometimes taxing: promote South Africa in every possible way.

"You need to shake a lot of hands," said one former ambassador.

"It is important to be at the right events," said another.

Being visible and accessible helps when it comes to promoting trade and investment, an overriding priority. It also helps to be known in the right circles in the host country if a South African citizen gets into trouble and needs help.

Ambassadors have a great deal of leeway in which to achieve those objectives, their former peers say; they report little to no day-to-day oversight of their work. There are just two critical rules: never, ever leave your post, and always be reachable.

"It doesn't matter if you are just a short hop across the border, you can not leave the country without permission," said one.

But being in the country you are posted to is no good if your government can't reach you, hence the second rule: always be at the other end of the phone.

"If something happens on the ground you need to be reachable," said one former ambassador. "That's the whole point of being there."

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