Embassy Direct: When I talk of Spain, I refer to it as ‘la madre patria’, the motherland. Today, I have the great pleasure of being in the company of my good friend, Juan Sells, Ambassador of Spain to South Africa. Ambassador, how are you?
H. E. J Sells: Hola Rodrigo. I am fine, thank you.
Excellency, as the Spanish ambassador accredited to five countries in Southern Africa (Comoros, Lesotho, Madagascar, Mauritius and South Africa), how would you describe your diplomatic tour in the region? What specific moments or events have stood out?
I’ve been here for close to 5 years, so I would convey the overall feeling of my tour in South Africa as being very interesting. I knew it would be before I came, and it lived up to my expectations. South Africa is a beautiful country – most interesting, with lovely people. Its recent history reflects a number of very relevant questions about how societies should work, about how the economy should move forward.
A particular moment that comes to mind is the passing of former President Nelson Mandela. I attended his state funeral with many of my colleagues, but I also went to Qunu to be part of the burial service. Most foreigners coming to South Africa come with Madiba in mind, not only because he is such a huge personality but also because throughout his political life he has shown the way that things could work in any part of the world.
I was not here when Spain won the football World Cup hosted by South Africa in 2010, which is one of the best memories any Spaniard could have. I won’t forget, as I’m sure is the case for many compatriots, that goal by (Andrés) Iniesta. I was privileged to welcome our National team back to South Africa in 2013, when they came to offer the cup they had won in South Africa to the South African team, to say thank you for the support they go out during the tournament. As I say, rather than particular moments, is a sense of having enjoyed myself together with my family in this country. I’m also accredited to other important countries of the region. It is difficult for an ambassador to be accredited to several countries at the same time, but I try visit as many of them as much as I can.
Apart from bilateral diplomatic relations, what other fields has the Spanish-South African relationship pursued and accomplished so far?
I would like to mention three things. First, in different moments of their histories, both countries went through very particular transitions, peaceful political transitions based on a broader consensus of political parties and society at large. This was the case for us in the mid-1970s and for South Africa in the 1990s. These transitions presented a call to help conflict resolution all over the world. Secondly, both countries are promoting multilateralism as a means to provide answers to our problems. I was privileged to be ambassador in this country while Spain was a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council from 2014 to 2016. That allowed me to share a number of important initiatives with the South African government that were taken within the UN Security Council.
I tell my South African friends that we are South Africa’s closest European neighbour. You can actually see Africa from the Spanish coast on a clear day – only 14km separates Spain from Africa. Africa is a priority for the foreign policy of my country, be it in peacekeeping missions in which we participate all over the continent, be it in cooperation, be it in trade or political relations. It’s known that when dealing with Africa, South Africa is an obvious partner because it is very present in the continent, and the exchange of views and initiatives with South Africa on African questions has been very relevant. We support the idea of African solutions to African problems, but even African solutions may need the help from good partners and friends. (I emphasize that this is outside the strictly bilateral relations area).
Other than your diplomatic mission, Spain has also established its Chamber of Commerce in South Africa. Has this positively influenced trade figures and what are the future plans in that area?
We have an embassy in Pretoria, together with a large trade and economic office in Johannesburg. We also have a Consulate General in Cape Town. Into 2013/14 our bilateral Spain-South Africa Chamber of Commerce was established. If my numbers are correct, it has over fifty members. Establishing the chamber shows the strength of the relationship – you would not have a chamber if you did not previously have a strong basis of trade and investment relations – while at the same time it is a useful instrument to promote both relations. What is important about chambers is that they are member-owned. I’m President of the chamber, as ambassadors normally are, but it is company-owned. It is an instrument for Spanish companies to look together at the South African market, analyse it, do their own lobbying with authorities, and show the strength of our presence here. It is also important to note that besides the Spanish Spain-South Africa Chamber of Commerce, there is a European-South African Chamber of Commerce to which our own national chamber is a member, and by that you multiply the effect of the outreach that is done. But yes, I’m very happy that we have that instrument.
In that line of thought, what investments have Spanish companies placed in South Africa and what attracts them to do so? How does it contributed to local economic growth?
South Africa is our closest economic partner in the sub-Saharan African region. Bilateral trade has more than doubled from 1996 to 2016. The latest figures from 2016 indicate more or less R15 billion in exports from Spain to South Africa, and R10 billion imports from South Africa to Spain. That brings the total to R25 billion a year, and this has been the case for the last five or six years. We suffered a bit with the crisis, both the international one and one in particular in Spain, but the numbers are stable.
Authorities in South Africa are often concerned that South Africa, and of course the continent, is just an exporter of raw materials for us to manufacture. This is not the case, and I don’t think we say it often enough. The main export from South Africa to Spain is cars. The structure of our bilateral trade is very diversified, but mostly based in the manufacturing sector. The impact of the trade relation in terms of jobs is also very important for me. Being close trade partners, investment shows to what extent a country is committed to the economy of another country. The investment of Spanish companies in South Africa has grown exponentially in the last few years, for example, not many people know that Columbus Steel is a Spanish-owned company.
A game changer for us in terms of investment and branding has been the South African Renewable Energy Program which has attracted a huge amount of investment, and in which Spanish companies have been extremely successful. We were the first foreign investors in South Africa in the renewable energy sector, and we also have investments in other technologies, be it concentrated solar power or be it wind energy. We praise the South African government on how it has run the program, and we are interested to see it move forward.
A number that I prefer to use to better understand the relevance of our investment is that of South African assets controlled by Spanish companies, amounting more or less between 50 and R60 billion in stock. The number of Spanish companies that are active in the country is close to 100 Spanish, and in terms of the impact on growth, about 12,000 permanent jobs come from these investments. Spain is one of the leading foreign investors in the world, but at the same time, we are also at the receiving end, so we know very well how important investment is for those who do invest and for those who receive investment.
In terms of Spanish-speaking communities based in South Africa, Spain is the most densified. Why would you say that is?
We have a large Spanish-speaking community, it is true, but the community isn’t very large when compared to other European foreign communities. We are around 3000 people. There has been a very important increase in the last years, directly related to the investments in the renewable energy sector that I referred to.
We have a very young active-community here, and I would like to thank South Africa publicly for hosting our people.
What would you recommend to South Africans looking to travel to Spain as reasons to go and things not to miss?
How much time do you have? (Laughs).
Last year, we reached over 70 million international tourists, so I guess there are over 70 million reasons to visit Spain. We have been able to diversify what the country has to offer. For many years we had good weather, beaches, and a quality of life that attracted most European tourists during the summer, but now it is a year-long operation. In particular, there are a lot of people who go for “Camino de Santiago”, a wonderful life experience taking a month to walk across and through Spain. There is a South African association of those who have walked the Camino. We have an interesting exchange of views with South African Tourism and it’s very competent CEO. I know, for instance, that Barcelona is an attractive city to South Africans, others want to go to Madrid. Sometimes it is football related, a lot of South Africans follow Spanish football. They try make the trip alongside one of the big matches, like El Clásico. Other visitors like to get in a car and just drive on their own doing very many different things. Spanish people are very welcoming to visitors and tourists.
As your tour nears its end, how have you and your family adapted to living in South Africa? I know your wife Genoveva is an artist, and she has shared that talent with others, going beyond her call in doing workshops at communities in Lesotho. Overall, has the tour been an enjoyable experience for you, and what are its highlights?
It’s been a most enjoyable experience. But allow me to talk about my wife, and thank you for asking about Genoveva, my wife of close to 30 years now. She is an artist, and an art teacher. When you build a life in a different country, you bring your profession with you. Artists very much believe in exploring these new places, incorporating a new artistic expression. Genoveva has been a happy artist in South Africa. She has had the opportunity of exhibiting, showing her work both in Johannesburg and Cape Town. She has had the privilege of working with relevant South African artists. But she is also a happy art teacher, where she teaches a number of people in Pretoria.
I’m grateful that you refer to the project in Lesotho. Together with some of her students, she had been working on a project in Morija, Lesotho, that would help bring art into the school curriculum. She travelled there quite often to offer workshops for children and for teachers. I’m sure it would be one of her highlights of our tour in South Africa.
For me, I have the greatest admiration for the South African institution, SANParks. I’m a proud white card holder and a frequent visitor to South African National Parks. We’ve travelled all around the country. We drive to Cape Town every year for the opening of Parliament, and each time we choose a different route, so I can say that I have tried to travel as much as I can in this beautiful country.
Excellency, thank you so much for sharing your experience in this country with us. I’m sure that South Africa will miss you. Hasta luego, Amigo.