Tribute to Malcolm Grant Ferguson – servant leader, pragmatist, epitome of human decency

Ambassador Fergie, as we used to call him, hung up his diplomatic passport and retired from the South African foreign service, where he had served our country diligently as Ambassador to Israel and Mexico.

An imposing figure with a heart that was matched only by his physique, he was a mentor to many aspiring diplomats, with a reputation for speaking truth to power and fearlessly challenging improbable foreign policy positions to protect South Africa’s interests in bilateral and multilateral engagements. The young cadets will remember him as a sounding board for all sorts of ideas, for his characteristic pithy comments and insistence on something as mundane as the correct use of grammar. Remember how effortlessly he could pronounce Ga-Rankua and Mpumalanga in his recent presentations?  Not accidental, but the outcome of a conscious effort to do it the right way, classical Malcolm!

A true and decent gentleman, I always wished he would enter politics after exiting the foreign service, where he no doubt would have brought a combination of valuable domestic and international experience to enrich our political discourse. He abhorred populist and ideological politics and was an advocate for a contest that brings people together rather than one that divides them. Fergie’s pragmatism however led him to do something more impactful: inclusive agricultural development.

Out of the Ambassadorial limousine straight into a pickup truck, he first worked with established commercial farmers (mega boere) as an agricultural commodity broker, eventually becoming a founding member of the Agricultural Development Agency, which focuses on supporting small scale farmers to gain access to finance, skills and markets. It was on a field trip in pursuit of these objectives that he met his untimely death in a car accident on Friday 10th March in my home province of Limpopo. He literally died with his boots on as it were, and these boots will no doubt be hard to fill. 

Malcolm’s involvement in agriculture was motivated by a strong belief that mainstreaming emerging black farmers will ultimately contribute meaningfully to land reform and ownership, which as we know, remains largely unresolved. As he so eloquently put it, “AGDA is the private sector’s response to the failure of land reform in South Africa”. He correctly pointed out that the failure of meaningful land reform remains “a festering sore” in our body politic and an impediment to the achievement of meaningful reconciliation and ultimately social cohesion. It was not just about the narrow fear for potential implosion or the risk of instability in future, but also about addressing poverty and inequality by partnering with government for the growth of the agricultural sector, jobs, sustainable food security and transformation.  Drawing on his experience of land reform failure in El Salvador, one of the six Central American countries to which he was the accredited non-residential envoy, he warned, “if we don’t change the state of land ownership, we are awaiting a future we don’t want”.

He ran a good race, and we must do our bit to get to the finish line. It is no cliché that he earned the respect of intelligent people, and definitely left this world a little bit better than he found it. It has been an incredible privilege to work with Malcolm Ferguson and other inspirational ITI associates such as Dr Johan van Zyl, Ebrahim Ebrahim and Geoff Doidge. May their legacies be our lives.

Tribute to Malcolm Grant Ferguson – servant leader, pragmatist, epitome of human decency
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