GETTING TO KNOW: H. E. Mr Richard Mann, New Zealand’s High Commissioner to South Africa.

His Excellency Mr. Richard Mann is someone who radiates passion. Passion for sport. Passion for politics. And an undeniable passion for his country. Stationed in Pretoria and serving as the New Zealand High Commissioner to 13 African countries (across South Africa to Angola, Botswana, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe), we sat down with him to find out a little more about these passions, and how he’s finding his duty here.

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

Well, I am covering 13 countries in Africa, based from here in Pretoria. I go as far north as Kenya, Tanzanian, Angola, Mozambique, Lesotho, Swaziland, and across to Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. So it’s a very diverse role that I have, a lot of different countries and different people that I deal with. I would say that in South Africa, the moment that stood out for me was the memorial service for Nelson Mandela, the former president. And the reason that stands out is twofold. One is because Mandela was a global icon, a figure who the world could empathize with in terms of reconciliation and perseverance in the struggle towards democracy in the rainbow nation of South Africa. I’d say the second reason why that stands out in my mind is that we had a very high-level delegation from New Zealand come to that service – we had our Prime Minister, the leader of our opposition, our Minister of Foreign Affairs, and several other formal leaders of New Zealand. It was very short notice putting together and organizing a high-level visit of that nature and it was a challenge, but one that we met. And to be there in the mix at Soweto Stadium and to listen to the music, the singing, the passion of South Africans as they mourned the passing of this great man, I think that is the moment over my three years that really stands out.

As a family man, have you and your family enjoyed the experience of your job in this country?

There are aspects to living in South Africa that are not dissimilar to living in New Zealand. I think in both countries we love the outdoors; we have a fairly informal style of living; the food here is great; the climate is probably the best climate I’ve lived in – I come from the capital city of New Zealand called ‘windy Wellington’, where it blows! So we have thoroughly enjoyed our time here. My wife, who is here with me, has created a very interesting life herself – she has been involved in the International Diplomatic Spouses Association, she’s done quite a bit of charity work, and in particular she and a group of other Ambassadors’ wives have made regular visits to Lesotho to run art classes in a place called Morija. Over in Lesotho, art is not part of the school curriculum and so these children are absolutely fascinated and excited about the opportunity to do something creative, to do artistic work. So she has found it very fulfilling.

And precisely that part of the tour, when the family gets involved or gets in touch with the community, I think is one of the more rewarding moments in a diplomatic career.

I think so. When you’re an ambassador you can be a little confined. Being an ambassador is a public role and you are expected to do certain things, but I think that through your family you can broaden out your contact. If you have children, then thorough schools et cetera. And I think what my wife does adds to my understanding of South Africa and its culture.

How would you describe the relationship between your country and South Africa?

It is very good. It’s probably the deepest bilateral relationship that we have in Africa, because it goes back through history – both through good times and bad times. The reality is that the first New Zealand soldiers to fight overseas fought in the South African wars. Through the Apartheid era, there was a very strong anti-Apartheid movement in my country. The protests there, in 1981 in particular, were some of the biggest protests I’ve seen in New Zealand. So we were quite staunch about the need for South Africa to move towards freedom and democracy. And since then we have developed relations in many fields: we have a lot of people-to-people meets, there are about 50- to 60,000 South Africans living in New Zealand – about one and a half percent of our population; we obviously have a lot of sporting meets; and we are going forward in trade and investment as well, so it’s a good relationship.

Is there a presence of South African corporate business in New Zealand, and vice versa?

Yes, in fact at this moment we are seeing some South African investment in New Zealand. Woolworths has made some big investments there, particularly in the retail and property area. And there are some other South African companies on a smaller scale who are operating there. On this side of the ocean, we have a number of New Zealand companies in areas like manufacturing and food products who have invested here, who are operating here – so it’s going. We are a long way away from each other geographically, but I think there is growing interest. We are now getting into Science and Technology collaboration which is quite an exciting new field where we are collaborating in various areas.

What would you say attracts New Zealand companies to come to South Africa to invest?

Firstly, I think New Zealand companies, or New Zealanders who run companies, know South Africa, generally, through their people-to-people links. Secondly, I think that they see this as a country where the rule of law is reasonably open for foreign investment and business. Thirdly, South Africa itself is quite a large market. New Zealand is very much an export-oriented economy because we only have four and a half million people ourselves. If you take food, for example, we export something like 90% of the agricultural products that we produce, so in effect, we feed the world. And I think that South Africa offers a very good market. And then lastly, New Zealand companies often look to South Africa as a platform for leveraging and extending or expanding into other markets in Africa.

Your Excellency, to touch a sensitive topic: Rugby.

(Laughs) Well, it’s not sensitive because we are the World Champions at the moment.

(Laughs) Yes, indeed! 1995 played an important role in the political history and sporting activity of South Africa, when the Springboks won the final of the Rugby World Cup on home ground. As the current holders of the Rugby World Cup title, how would you say sporting events, or any cultural events for that matter, aid in uniting or bringing together of countries?

Well, in a very simple way. There is a great flow of people through and between our two countries simply between the sporting teams, virtually every week coming back and forwards. To start with rugby, New Zealand and South Africa, I would say, have the same passion for the sport and have both been World Champions. I can remember in 1995 when I was on assignment in Thailand, sitting in a hotel room watching the Final of that Rugby World Cup which South Africa won, won against a tremendous New Zealand side, one of the great All Black sides. But, I think it was destiny that South Africa would win that World Cup, and obviously it was a transcendental moment in terms of fortune in the new rainbow nation in this country. So we share the same passion. I’ve talked to a lot of the top South African players in the Springboks and they say that they love touring New Zealand, they like meeting up with old New Zealand mates, going out to the farms or out spending some time together. And I know that the New Zealand players enjoy touring South Africa, so there is a level of respect between the two sides of the highest level, the all Blacks and the Springboks, a level of respect for each other and the skill and strength that they bring to the game. It is amazing how many different sports we compete in together and interact with. In just the past year I can think of polo, I can think of runners and Ironman competitions, field hockey, netball. Our soccer team was here when South Africa hosted the 2010 FIFA soccer World Cup. In cricket, New Zealand has, fortunately for me, beaten South Africa in two semifinals in recent World Cups. That famous one in New Zealand; a one-day game in which the batsmen, actually, who hit the winning runs was a boy born in Johannesburg. And in the rugby team that I follow, the Hurricanes, in the Super Rugby Competition, two of the leading players are South African born, one of the props and one of the wingers. So it’s a wonderful interaction we have in sport.

You are very passionate about sport.

Well, when you go to Ellis Park, and I’ve been there each year when the All-Blacks have played against the Springboks since I’ve been here (I think we’ve won three and lost one) or if you go to Loftus stadium in Pretoria, you can feel the passion of the South African sporting fans as well.

Now, Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings, but its movie version was filmed in New Zealand. New Zealand is considered one of the most important film producers of the world at this stage. South Africa has a share of the industry as well. Do you foresee any further collaboration between the two countries in any of these cultural or sporting related fields, beyond that which exists already? And in what ways?

We signed a film co-production agreement about three or four years ago and that was an expression of the desire of the two governments to facilitate film-making and collaboration between our two countries. You’re right, there’s even a South African connection with the Lord of the rings, made by Sir Peter Jackson, because Tolkien was born down the road in Bloemfontein. We have had co-productions like District 9 which have been very successful. I’m aware of at least one film co-production which is being made at the moment. And I think there is a great deal more we can do in that field. New Zealand has made a name for itself, internationally, for film making, I think for three reasons. Firstly, we have incredible locations. We have great and very diverse landscapes and settings which are ideal for making movies. Secondly, we have bred some great film-makers – Sir Peter Jackson probably the most famous, but think of directors like Jane Campion. In Hollywood, there is a whole host of New Zealand directors and actors. And I think thirdly, and the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies show this, we have fantastic postproduction technologies and studios. So, the visual effects that we all saw in the Lord of the Rings, I think, kind of stumped the world; this was a new sophistication, a new reality in terms of film visual effects. So we have very much to offer in that field. I’ve watched a number of South African films and there are strong stories here that come through the movies, some fantastic actors and acting. I think there is a natural fit between our two countries in terms of filmmaking.

Well, we hope to see more co-productions in the future. Thank you for your time, Mr Ambassador.

Thank you.