Embassy Direct: Excellency, as Ambassador of Israel accredited to three countries in Southern Africa (South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland), how would you describe your diplomatic tour in the region? Are there any specific moments or events that have stood out?

H. E. A Lenk: I’m lucky, I’m blessed. I get paid to live in Southern Africa, to experience what is going on here, to meet nice people, talk about my country, and help build relations, whether in business or people-to-people ties. When I have to go to Cape Town, other people have to get Visas and travel far to get there, but I’m doing my job.

How have the Lenks adapted to living in South Africa? Has it been an enjoyable experience for you and your family in this country?

We’re so blessed, we have access to the best in the world. We get to go on Safari, we get to travel long distances to see beautiful sights all across Africa. And everywhere I go, I meet people who know places from my country from the Bible. They know about Nazareth, about Jerusalem, they know about King David and Moses. The biggest Church in South Africa is the Zion Christian Church, in Limpopo province. The God of the Mount of Zion is in Jerusalem. So it’s an amazing connection to the people of South Africa that goes far beyond trade or usual government-to-government ties. It’s a real connection, about heart and soul.

South Africa was among the 33 countries to vote in favor of the UN Resolution of 1947, recommending the establishment of a Jewish State in Palestine. In 1961, Israel backed the UN General Assembly’s censure of Eric Louw’s speech defending apartheid. Both are moments of solidarity between Israelis and South Africans. Seventy years later, where does the relationship between these two nations stand today?

You’re right, it is the 70th anniversary of that incredible resolution of the United Nations General Assembly that created the idea that there can be a Jewish state, forming the State if Israel only three years after the Holocaust, where 6 million of my people were killed in Europe. Both South Africa and Israel, in our modern forms, came from great tragedy and suffering. And here we are 70 years later. Trade between South Africa and Israel is over US$1 billion per year. 30,000 Israeli tourists come to South Africa every year, about 25,000 South Africans visit Israel. We have a large, vibrant Jewish community here in South Africa, and many South Africans in Israel. We are connected on a range of different levels, and what is interesting is that both these countries were born out of great tragedy. Israel coming out of the Holocaust and South Africa out of apartheid, so the world is inspired by our two countries. They watch us carefully, and they know that you can inspire and change, that great leaders like Nelson Mandela, or Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, can lead their people to better days and success.

Israel was one of the first nations to have a woman as its Head of State in Golda Meir. What is your country’s stance in regard to equal gender opportunity?

As a father of three daughters, I can tell you that we take the issue of gender relations very seriously. My two eldest daughters have just finished their time in the Israeli military. Women, like men, do military service in Israel. And when I tell them that, South Africans sometimes say “shame”, one of those South African terms that everybody says for everything. But it is an incredible opportunity. My eldest daughter became an Officer, and worked as an investigator in what is similar to the Ombudsman’s Office of the military. By the end of her time in the military, she had more people working for her than I have, and she controlled a bigger budget. At aged 22. So where is the guy, or woman, who is going to tell my daughter, or any young Israeli woman, that she can’t do anything? They can do anything.

Your Country is well known for its dynamic capability in the agricultural field. How is this experience and knowledge utilized as a mechanism of aid to South Africa and the rest of the continent in regards to food security?

The truth is that Israel is desperate. If you know your Bible, during the time of Genesis, Jacob had to send his son to Africa, to Egypt, because there was famine, there was drought, there was no water, there was no food in the holy land. But today, in 2017, we are a world leader in agriculture and in water management. A number of Israeli companies are really active here in South Africa. A company like Netafim, which is the world leader in drip-irrigation, has a factory just outside of Cape Town where they manufacture drip-irrigation pipes that you see in winery’s and farms all over southern Africa. It is job creation, it is high-tech, it is knowledge transfer, and it is export profit. The same is true – and this is a really cool one, also in the Western Cape – for an Israeli company called Mor, who grow persimmon fruits (in South Africa they’re called Sharon fruit). In Israel, or everywhere really, they grow in the autumn. Israel grew them and sold about half to France and Germany, and the importers in France and Germany said to the Israelis, “if you can grow more, we’ll buy more”. But Israel’s a little country and the season is short. Someone realized that the weather is the same in the Western Cape as in Israel, but the seasons are opposite. About 12 years ago, somebody from Mor had the idea of building orchards in South Africa, and “we’ll export all of it” – from Swellendam in the Western Cape to the same buyers in France and Germany. And they do. Last year, about 85% were exported, and they employ about 2000 people in season. By May, about 2000 people will work in Swellendam.

In line with the idea that Israel is considered a world leader, if not the world leader, when it comes to water management, are South Africa and other countries in the continent using Israeli expertise in this area?

There is more and more talk in South Africa about water management. Over the last year there has been a terrible drought over South Africa, Swaziland, and other places in the region. So last year we decided as an Embassy to cancel our National Day. We didn’t have a reception – as you know, embassies have huge parties and receptions for their national days. We cancelled ours and instead brought experts from Israel in desalination, in recycling, in drip-irrigation, to come to South Africa for a week, and we did a roadshow. We did three events, one in Johannesburg, one in Cape Town, and one in Durban, sharing some of our lessons and our experiences, hopefully to help South Africa and Southern Africa get better at water management because water is life. If we don’t have enough water in our reservoirs then the municipalities are going to go dry and it’s a scary prospect. I was really proud to be able to share some of that experience of Israel with South Africa.

I’d like to congratulate you on that event. As important as a national day is to an embassy, to dedicate that budget to something as meaningful as sharing knowledge and experience is remarkable.

Thank you, it’s nice of you to say. It was really meaningful to all of us, and I think people will remember it as a sign of friendship between our two countries.

The worldwide presence of the Jewish business community is acknowledged. How does that presence reflect in South Africa and what is its social impact?

Jews have been a part of South Africa for over 175 years. Many had to run away from Eastern Europe, mostly from Lithuania and Latvia, in the early parts of the 20th century. South Africa saved their lives. The community repaid South Africa for this blessing by taking a leadership role in business, and by many of them playing a key role in fighting apartheid. Iconic names from the Jewish community were involved in Struggle. I don’t know if you know, but at the ANC headquarters at Liliesleaf Farm in the Rivonia area of Johannesburg that was raided in the famous Rivonia Trial, the four white people that were arrested with them were all Jews. Mandela hid out there, and there’s a famous story of his gun being hidden, but the person who owned the land and the people who were involved in that part of history were Jews.

Your better half (“much better”, the ambassador interjects), your wife Ruth is very involved in helping others and has engaged with different organizations, including the International Diplomatic Spouses Association, which she headed a year ago. How does her social contribution in South Africa benefit your mission as ambassador here?

There’s an expression in Jewish culture, the word in Hebrew is ‘Tikkun Olam’. It means “of repairing the world”, “of making the world a better place”, and I think that, better than some of the nonsense that we diplomats do and the fancy titles we have, we’re lucky that our spouses are really active in finding ways to connect at grassroots level in South Africa. Not with fancy titles and not with champagne being served, but there were lives that were being saved and impacted. And we are here in South Africa to do just that, to find ways to touch people’s lives and send a message that we are one people and we are the same people. In many ways what the ladies have done through the kinds of events that they’ve held is going to last longer and may prove more important than some of the things that we diplomats do.

Regardless of difference, how do you foresee the development of Israeli-South African relations towards the future?

The possibilities are endless. Israel is a world leader in technology these days. Lots of people call Israel ‘Start-up Nation’, because we have more start-ups and ultimately more companies traded on NASDAQ in absolute numbers than any country in the world other than the US and China. Israeli companies are involved in cyber, in intel…

Silicon Valley?

…well, we call it ‘Silicon Wadi’ in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. An Israeli company called Mobileye was just bought by Intel this week for US$15 billion. That’s over R200 billion in today’s exchange rate. Mobileye has the technology for automated cars. In 10 year time, my friend, luckily for the world, we are not going to drive anymore. We humans, we think we’re good drivers, but we’re not. Technology is going in the direction of automated cars and Israel is at the forefront. Israel is at the forefront of cyber, of homeland security kinds of technologies, of applications that are busy changing the way we live our lives. More and more in South Africa and across the world Israel is engaging in sharing our experience in technology, in innovation, and in entrepreneurship, and I think that idea of creating services, of adding value and not just selling products, is the direction of our world, and Israel is really well placed in Africa, in general as a neighbor, and in South Africa specifically.

Ambassador Lenk, thank you so much for your time, and for sharing your experiences and interactions with us today.