GETTING TO KNOW: H. E. Mr Claude Ruben Fassinou, Ambassador of the Republic of Benin to South Africa.

One of the more untouched countries on the African continent, Benin is rich in some of the most beautiful ancient architecture. It holds dear to itself ancient kingdoms preserved, a magnificent City on the Lake, and some of the friendliest people. We sat down with His Excellency Mr Fassinou to find out more about this unique country, and their recent interaction with South Africa.

Your Excellency, how would you describe your diplomatic tour in South Africa? Is there any moment or event that stands out thus far?

Thank you for this opportunity. My diplomatic tour in South Africa so far has been very fruitful. Very active, very dynamic, because we have achieved quite a lot being in South Africa. We have made progress in terms of cooperation and in terms of the relationship between the people of Benin and the people of South Africa. Benin is better known in South Africa today, and South Africa is very well known in Benin. Today, we have hundreds of Benin people travelling to South Africa every month – we have a direct flight between our two countries, for a while now, and people don’t need a Visa to come here. South Africans also don’t need a Visa to go to Benin. So I’m satisfied in terms of the progress in the cooperation between our two countries. What stands out, I would say, is one of my achievements which was to create the condition for a state visit in November 2011 of our then-President, here. And since then things have been growing and growing and growing. Of course, I was also happy to come to South Africa just in time to attend the World Cup in 2010. I came less than a month before; I presented my letter of credentials a week before the opening of the World Cup.

It has been quite a long stay, and I know that you are here with your family. So how has that experience been shared by your family?/p>

I’m here with my wife and I can speak on her behalf, she enjoys her stay in South Africa. You know South Africa is now a very cosmopolitan country, so it is a good place to meet people from all over the world. The country has very good facilities, and for a family, it is a good place to live. You can get whatever you want. As Africans, we eat here as though we are at home. In terms of daily life, you can say that it is a good place to live.

If I’m not mistaken, this is your second tour to South Africa. How would you define the relationship between both countries?

As I mentioned before, the people of the two countries know each other far better today. When I first came here in 1999 it was a different country to what I saw when I came back in 2010. The country is more open today than it used to be, there is more opportunity. I remember, it was quite difficult to open an account as a foreigner, the bankers were not used to foreigners. Today it is totally different. There are more international companies and people from the rest of the world. I know many Benin citizens who work here now, who have been recruited as anyone else who is working here would be. And I can also say that we as Africans are impressed by the fact that things kept growing, the country, the construction of the country, the development of the country, is in progress. Even though there are problems like any anywhere else. In my view, South Africa has made progress since 1990 until today.

You have mentioned the presence of Benin citizens in South Africa and you have also mentioned the fact that there is a waiver of visas between the two countries. How has that affected the presence of corporate South Africans in Benin, and likewise Benin in South Africa?

It makes things much easier. The consequence is that the embassy does not know all that is happening because people do not need to go through our embassy to travel to Benin. Whenever we have a delegation from South Africa to Benin, people take their passports and they travel. It has helped a lot in terms of growing relations, even in the economic area.

So following that, is there a presence of companies in Benin that are from South Africa, or companies from Benin based in South Africa?

Benin companies based in South Africa, no. Companies with activities in South Africa, yes. In terms of South African companies, I would mention TransNet. TransNet is our main partner in the economic area, they have a team based in Benin. We are building a strong relation with TransNet, while also working with ACSA (Airports Company South Africa) – TransNet in the port area, in the development of port activity; and with ACSA we have a big project for the building of our next international airport.

As a member of the African Union and serving your present diplomatic post on African soil, do you believe that your host country shares the same goals or ideals as Benin both regionally, and worldwide?

Yes, definitely. We work together in the African union. Benin was the chair of the African Union in 2012, and we played quite an efficient role in making the election of then her Excellency madam Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to the chair of the Commission of the African union happen. We share views in terms of peace and security in Africa, we have the same views for the integration of the continent. You know that South Africa is one of the biggest voices in Africa, it is a powerful country, and Benin and South Africa in the African Union share the same line. So we work together to bring peace and security to the continent.

Benin, as with the rest of your African neighbours, historically went through a colonialism period. After gaining independence, what are your country’s achievements since then?

We have achieved a lot. Most countries in Africa were artificially created. So the first goal was to build unity in the country. And in that area, I think we did very well. Benin is a very peaceful country, we have never had a civil war or even unrest. We have one of the most, I would say, dynamic democracies on the continent. We have just recently had our presidential election, and it went very well – no problems, no one was injured. So we are very proud of what we have achieved in terms of peace, stability, security, unity – a strong and well-rooted democracy. The government’s main focus is now to get an education to more and more Benin people, and even in that area, we are doing very well. Benin used to be called the Latin country of Africa because we have always produced very well-educated people; education is one of our areas of excellence. We do not have big resources in terms of mining, yet, but we are still prospecting. We have some oil and coal so economically, we are growing. And we can say that we are an example in terms of stability, democracy. That’s our main achievement.

Mr Ambassador, earlier you mentioned the presence of TransNet in your country. In relations regarding the transport area, you have done quite a lot with South Africa. Are there any other areas in which South Africa and Benin have some sort of bilateral cooperation that you can enhance?

Yes, I forgot to mention that MTN is there. MTN is in many African countries and sometimes we forget that it is a South African company. They have been there for a while. We have good cooperation in the defence sector, even in the health sector. We are now looking at how and what to do to extend our operations to the social sector, and to strengthen our cultural links. That’s what we have in mind as the next step. But at this stage, we are more focused on economic cooperation, and this is strongest in transport – air transport, maritime transport, even rail.

Finally, most of our readers are from the diplomatic sector as yourself, or expatriates in the corporate environment. What is your recommendation for them if they were to visit your country as tourists? What would you highlight as the things to do in your country?

Benin has many chefs working in South Africa, so I would say Benin is a good place to go if you like good food! We also have game parks in the north of the country, one of the biggest in West Africa. We have something that is very unique, what we call the ‘Venice of Africa’, which is known as Ganvié, the City on the Lake. And we have one of the friendliest people in Africa – when you go to Benin people welcome you as if you are part of the family. We have a lot of cultural wealth in terms of art. We used to have one of the most powerful kingdoms in West Africa, which is known as Dahomey kingdom, and you can visit the city where you can also see the old castle of the King. It’s a little sad but it’s part of our history: people can also visit Ouidah – which is a well-known port where slaves used to leave for America. There is a strong historical legacy regarding that trade in the city. As an African, it is a good place to visit. That’s what I would recommend, but if you like places that are lively, or if you like places that are quiet any cultural events, I would recommend that you go to Benin.

Your Excellency, merci beaucoup.

Merci beaucoup.