GETTING TO KNOW: Austrian Ambassador to South Africa Her Excellency Ms Brigitte Öppinger-Walchshofer.
Upon our arrival at the Austrian Ambassador’s residency, Her Excellency Ms. Brigitte Öppinger-Walchshofer treated the entire Embassy Direct crew to a tea in the sunny gardens of her residence. She eased the morning into a thread of thriving conversation and sparked fascinating discussions about culture, about history and about diversity. She discussed her intrigue with African continent, with its people, with its philosophies, its histories and its transformation. Here’s what she had to say about her posting here, and about the strong and ever-growing relationship between South Africa and Austria.
Embassy Direct: Today we are in the pleasant company of her Excellency Brigitte Öppinger-Walchshofer from the beautifully interesting country, Austria. Your Excellency, how would you define your diplomatic tours in South Africa? Are there any moments or events that stand out this far?
H. E. Ms Brigitte Öppinger-Walchshofer: My second diplomatic tour in South Africa has been as interesting as the first one was. What stands out from the first tour, when I was Deputy Head of Mission between 1989 and 1992, was that Nelson Mandela came out of prison and the ANC was unbanned. These where big topics at the time, and negotiations as to how to transform, and transfer power from one government to the other, had started. This time around I’ve come back 25 years later to see the changes that have happened between 1994 and 2013. And then of course it is also in this time that former president Nelson Mandela has died, and now political life goes on without the founder of the nation.
Do you have any family accompanying you here South Africa and how has their stay in the country been?
My two sons were born here, in Johannesburg, in 1990 and 1991. They visit regularly. They come twice a year, sometimes joining me when I’m in Cape Town for the Parliamentary month, or sometimes they just come to spend a holiday in the region because I’m also ambassador to nine other countries. They have partly lived, throughout their childhood, in Africa, as they also grew up in Ethiopia. They love the African continent as much as I do.
How would you define the relationship between your country and South Africa? In what particular areas is the connection strongest and where could it be strengthened still?
Our relations are long-standing and friendly. Diplomatic relations started when the embassy was opened here in 1964. In the beginning we had to look after Austrians who, in the 60s and 70s of last century, immigrated in big numbers. Austria at that time was a small place, it was still destructed after the Second World War, and the young people just didn’t see any future so they spread out all over the world, many of them coming to South Africa. Since 1994, we have cooperation in the economic field, about €1 billion worth of trade in both directions. We have 55 companies here with investments, many of them in the manufacturing field. They guarantee about 3000 jobs. We have a close cooperation in the scientific field, with a Memorandum of Understanding between the two ministries of Science. We also have a close corporation between eight different Austrian and South African universities, and we do lots in the cultural field as well as in the area of tourism. Tourism for Austria is very important and so it is for South Africa too. We link tourism and hotel management schools and they exchange curricula, they exchange students, and they learn different ways of tourism. We have done so, for example, between a tourism school in Mafikeng in the North West province and with the tourism school Villablanca in our west, in the west of Austria. The first two youngsters of these tourism schools spend two months in July and August working in a South African hotel in the Cape and will then write their theses on South African topics. Culture, of course, is also very important. The embassy co-organizes and co-sponsors about 10 or 11 cultural events per year. One of them was a concert which we held last Saturday (in May) called The Rainbow Concert. There is so much musical talent in South Africa and we were able to give young people from Mamelodi, Shoshanguve, Hammanskraal, Stinkwater and Soweto the opportunity to perform in front of an international community. The event was also to raise money for these young people to enable them in their musical career.
Your country is often related to music; from classics by the likes of the Von Trap family who inspired the stage play and movie The Sound of Music. You were recently involved in the organization of this important cultural event, the Rainbow Concert. Could you elaborate a little on the event?
We had two ‘roll models’ for this concert. One is a concert which takes place in Vienna, called Diplomats in Concert, where diplomats play once a year for charity. The other – which shows how important music can be when you want to bridge differences, or when you want to forget about difficulties and differences – is an orchestra created by the conductor (Daniel) Barenboim. He brought together Isreali and Palestinian young musicians to play in one orchestra, showing again that music and dance can bridge differences – because you don’t need language. So we thought there is so much talent in this country but talent sometimes finds it difficult to raise enough money to further educate themselves and also to be able to make a living. In Austria, as in this house, we have concerts and cultural events from time to time, and I got into contact with people who work with these youngsters either at UNISA (University of South Africa) at their musical foundation or in the different townships. They told me the many difficulties these youngsters face in finding enough money to travel to get lessons or, later on once they finish their studies, to find enough money to buy their own instruments. UNISA lends the student an instrument but when they have finished their music education he or she has to give back the instrument. Now they have finished their education but they can’t start their musical career. This was one of the reasons for this concert. We raised money through the corporate sector, from the diplomatic association and by private donations to create a pool of instruments that these young people who have just finished their music education can borrow. We lend them an instrument for three years free of charge under the condition that they start making money with what they have learned. Which means they play in orchestras, they teach other young people – it’s also important to pass on the knowledge to somebody else. And then after three years they have to give back the instrument and it revolves to another young person. This was the first concert. Maybe we manage to create a second series of concerts like in Vienna, that we do it every year. We were booked out, we were actually overbooked. From the feedback we got the audience was happy, they thought it was an interesting mix. We represented the African continent, there was a drummer’s group from Ghana here, and also Europe and Asia, there was an Indian dance group and there was also a European duet. The most important thing here is that we diplomats played along with a local talent, not to show that there is also musical talent within the diplomatic community, but to do things together.
In terms of economic relations, there are about 50 Austrian companies represented in South Africa, but only four South African companies in Austria. What would you suggest be done to increase the corporate presence of South Africa in your country?
(Laughs). You know, these four South African companies in Austria have much more direct foreign investment than all the Austrian companies in South Africa together, because they are your big companies: Steinhoff, Mondi, Sappi are the three biggest. Steinhoff alone, I think in 2014, bought a private furniture chain for €500 million, so they are the big investors from South Africa in Austria. But of course, like any other country, Austria needs foreign direct investment and we welcome each and every investor who wants to have a look at our country. We are right in the middle of Europe so we are crisscrossed by big highways, we are very central when it comes to our airport, and we also have good train connections with our neighbouring countries. Because the country is small we have eight physical neighbours and with all of them, communication is very good and infrastructure very good. So whoever wants to come, welcome.
Is there an Austrian community in South Africa and how active as it? If foreign nationals from your country were to travel to South Africa either for work or for holiday is there a platform whereby they can get in touch with community?
We do have two Austrian clubs, one in Johannesburg and one in Cape Town. But these are clubs for people who reside here. They meet from time to time at cultural activities, and exchange ideas. Normally a tourist who comes to South Africa is not really interested in making contact with these clubs because they have a limited time at their disposal and they want to see as much of the country as possible. Austrians are active travellers, we really sneak into each and every corner of every country that we go to. Last year we had around 12,000 Austrians here as tourists and whenever I do talk to Austrians here, if they’ve had a holiday and I have the chance to speak to them, they are always fascinated by the beauty of the country and by the cultural diversity. Not only is the language different, but also the culture, the history, and that is what Austrians like very much about South Africa, this cultural diversity. There is country tourism; you can go to the beach; you can go to the cities; you can even go to the villages, which is just fascinating.
It is not very often that one comes across a female Ambassador. However in today’s day and age woman are achieving an ever-growing presence in role-playing positions of power – as Ambassadors, as Senators or Ministers, and as Presidents and Prime Ministers. What is your view on gender relations in diplomacy and politics, and what are the challenges, if any, that you have found personally in your position as a female in power?
South Africa is the posting where there is the biggest number of female ambassadors I have seen. They are 24 lady ambassadors here – from Latin America, from Africa, Europe and also Asia. We have a group that meets regularly and we’ve met with interesting woman in this country, Businesswoman of the Year and lady ministers. I’ve never had a problem as a woman in any posting at all. Diplomats always accept the rules and the cultures of the country we go to, and wherever we go we go well prepared. We try know a little bit about how their culture and their society works. Diplomats don’t break laws, we always adhere to the laws of the country. We are protected by the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, this is important, but otherwise we work within the system, and I’ve never had any problem wherever I go because of the fact that I’m female. I was always respected. It is also the function which counts. You don’t go there as Mrs XYZ, you go there as an Ambassador or as a junior diplomat and you have things to talk about, you have things to offer. What we work for is closer cooperation between countries – this is our job, in the economic field, in the scientific field, in the cultural field and in the policy field. And whatever we do we try to cooperate closer and this normally opens doors. We are also accredited, we cannot just enter a country if we are not accepted by the country beforehand, and because we are emissaries of the president, the accreditation is signed by the President of the country and it has to be accepted by the host country. It’s called agrément and without this agrément we cannot operate from this position.
Ambassador, any last words?
Let’s work together as closely as possible, let’s thrive on our diversity and let’s use each other’s centers of excellence to closely cooperate in areas like Science and Medicine, because we can always learn from each other. There is no country in the world were you cannot learn and in South Africa there are lots of pockets of excellence. This is the reason we offer our pockets of excellence to cooperate with those from South Africa.