In 2016, Stats SA revealed that the largest percentage of people migrating from South Africa chose Australia as their destination, at 26%. High Commissioner to South Africa, His Excellency Adam McCarthy, divulges some of the similarities between our two beautiful countries, from extraordinary landscapes to a rich, vibrant and diverse culture. That’s not to mention our friendly rivalry on the sporting ground.

Embassy Direct: Your Excellency, as the Australian High Commissioner accredited to seven countries in Southern Africa – Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Swaziland, as well as to the SADC (Southern African Development Community) – how would you define your diplomatic tour in the region thus far? Are there any moments or events that have stood out for you?

H. E. A McCarthy: There have been so many wonderful moments, a couple spring to mind. We had our former Foreign Minister, Gareth Evans, here, to receive the Order of the Companions of Oliver Tambo in December 2015, for his contribution to the anti-apartheid movement. Together, we had lunch with Deputy President Cyril Rhamaphosa, we also met former President FW De Klerk, and we met the current President at a roundtable lunch. It is tremendous to see the Australian contribution to the anti-apartheid movement being honoured in that fashion.

Some of the moments that have been most enjoyable have involved high schools that we work with, in various capacities. We have a terrific relationship with Moletsane High School in Soweto. Going to assemblies or to the various events they have held and seeing the enthusiasm of the children has been something truly remarkable. The work we’ve done with the TutuDesk Foundation, going out to high schools in rural North West province and in rural Limpopo, and again seeing the look on children’s faces when they receive their Tutudesk is really something remarkable. Smile Foundation, a charity that does facial reconstructive surgery, is another that we support through our direct aid program. I was lucky enough to have gone out to talk to various children who received life-changing surgery, by virtue of the work that Smile does. It is oftentimes the little things that I find tremendously valuable, in addition to the high-level meetings and everything else that goes with it.

How have you and your family adapted to living in South Africa, and have you enjoyed the experience of your job in this country?

Absolutely. It is a magnificent country. I remain of the view that tourism should be a main driver of the economy, even more so than what it currently is. Like Australia, it is incredibly varied. We’ve been lucky enough to have taken incredible holidays to a reasonable proportion of this country. We have done some of the obvious places, but also some of the less obvious places as well. All the time being on the road here is an absolute pleasure. A bit like home, you get big vistas, big open blue skies, long views that pan out in front of you, beautiful beaches, beautiful jungles; and of course, the safaris are something. We have unique wildlife in Australia, and there is unique wildlife here.

In terms of education and in terms of health services, my daughter has medical issues, and we have found both services to be excellent.

More than anything else, it has been the intangible, Rodrigo – we’ve enjoyed the vibrancy of life here. You always know you are alive, living in South Africa. There’s always colour, there’s always movement, and there’s always tremendous variety. So, yes. We are very happy here, and we are having a thoroughly enjoyable time.

South Africa and Australia share a long history of diplomacy together, having established diplomatic relations in 1947 and this year celebrating 70 years of cooperation. How would you describe the relationship between your country and South Africa? What are the areas of strength, together, and where can relations, in your opinion, continue to improve?

It’s an interesting question. When you look at that history, Australians first fought as Australians in an overseas war in the Boer War. It’s not a terribly well-known fact. We served on the British side, and because we federated in 1900, the first Australians to fight under an Australian flag did so here in South Africa.

You’re right about the diplomatic relations being established 70 years ago, but we really take the starting point of our modern relationship as 1994. It was obviously a fractious and difficult relationship during the apartheid years; we were one of the leaders in the anti-apartheid movement, globally. We supported sanctions very strongly; we banned sporting teams selected on the basis of race from 1971, so for the first part of the diplomatic relationship, I think it’s fair to say that it was strained.

From 1994 onwards, we’ve enjoyed a very close relationship with the democratic South Africa, a country that we are proud, along with a number of others, to have played a part in the creation of democracy.

Australia was fervently vocal about its opposition to the apartheid era in South Africa, supporting UN resolutions against apartheid and implementing embargos against South Africa. In what way do you think such international action can positively affect the governance of a country, and how important do you think similar international watchdogging is in today’s day and age?

I think a balance needs to be struck. We have to respect each country’s right to govern itself. But there are also certain fundamental values that the international community needs to speak out in support of. Non-Racialism is one of the most essential, and I think it is also important that the international community be vocal in defence of democracy. There will always be a role for the international community in the peaceful resolution of disputes. Australia has been very involved globally, but also in our own region, from the Cambodian Peace Process onwards, including the Bougainville Peace Process and the RAMSI deployment to the Solomon Islands. Like most things in life, it is a balancing act.

In the same breath, Australia was an important role-player in helping South Africa adapt to democracy since 1994. It is reported that Australian Aid provides assistance to South Africa to achieve goals set out in its Reconstruction and Development Program and its Growth, Employment and Redistribution macro-economic Strategy. Could you elaborate on these Aid schemes, and the way in which the two countries work together for positive, proactive and progressive growth?

Absolutely. In terms of our contribution to democratic South Africa, it goes a step further. In the CODESA period (Convention for a Democratic South Africa), senior ANC politicians, several of whom I’ve spoken to, went to Australia to study our Constitution. Issues like the division of power between the state and the federation, and the way our Constitution was set up were looked at. This provision of the South African Constitution is modelled on how it is in Australia. Of course, they were collecting the best practice from several countries, but Australia was one of them.

In terms of our development program, we have a number of ways in which we seek to contribute in South Africa. We have our Australia Awards program, a scholarship program where we take people to Australia, focusing on areas we feel we have a contribution to make. These are in agriculture and in sustainable water management. We have the Australian Volunteers for International Development program, where we bring Australians with relevant skills to contribute in many and varied ways. We have our Direct Aid program. I mentioned the TutuDesk Foundation and the Smile Foundation. We make contributions to those organisations through direct aid. It enables us to give grants, on a relatively small scale of about R600 000.

We have other agencies – the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, for instance, does a lot of work on sustainable water management in South Africa. We seek to take those areas where we have skills that are particularly relevant to South Africa, and utilize them here.

Australian exports to South Africa amount to over A$2.5 billion, and imports about A$1.3 billion. Could you elaborate on the economic and commercial bilateral relations that our countries share? Is there a strong presence of South African corporate business in Australia, and vice versa?

Historically, the relationship focused very much around extractives – because we are both resource-rich countries. It is pleasing to have recently seen growth in the retail and services fields. For the Australian retailer Cotton On, for instance, the South African market is their number one driver of growth in global business. Three of their top ten stores in the world are in South Africa, and they expect that their largest store globally, in the Mall of Africa, will make it four in the top ten. We have Australian telecommunication providers, Australian banks; a range of Australian companies see opportunities in this market. There’s been a long history of South African investment in Australia. Woolworths South Africa bought one of our major retailers, David Jones, not long ago; Mr Price opened up quite recently. You tend to find, particularly in the retail sphere because of the many cultural and climatic similarities, what goes well in Australia tends to go well in South Africa, and vice versa.

What would you say attracts Australia companies to invest in South Africa? Is there a trade attaché or chamber of commerce?

Both. We have the Australia-South Africa Business Chamber headquartered in Johannesburg. It is a strong and growing group, only established a few of years ago. In addition, the trade promotion responsibility for Australia rests with an organisation called AusTrade. Senior Trade Commissioner, Kim Fullgrabe, is responsible for promoting the commercial relationship between the two countries at their African headquarters in Sandton. Further, we have a First Secretary at the Embassy, David Eggleston, responsible for what we call economic diplomacy.

In terms of what Australian companies see in South Africa, they see a well-run and regulated stock market; they see a robust judiciary – they know that when they enter into contracts that they will go well. They see very similar structures in terms of the regulation of corporate law, and how companies operate. Common language and common cultural reference points all help as well.

Your Excellency, as is well known, South Africa and Australia share a friendly rivalry on the sports field, not only in Rugby, but in Cricket, Swimming and even motorsport too. How important do you think sport is in bringing countries together?

It is a tremendous common reference point. Being able to talk Rugby, Cricket, Netball, Swimming, Soccer is important. I can go to a Mamelodi Sundowns match, or a Blue Bulls match, and know very well what is going on, and be able to talk to all the people around me. Sporting-wise, we are very similar countries. We both like to win, we both play hard, but out of a love and passion for sport. South Africans just don’t seem to like Shane Warne as much as we do, that’s all (laughs). It’s a tremendous linking factor in our relationship.

Still with sport, Australia is at the top of many of the World Rankings at the moment. What’s the secret to success, would you say?

The question is quite generous, thank you Rodrigo. I don’t know that we’re at the top at the moment – South Africa recently put us to the saw in the Test series (cricket). We have a good outdoors climate for sport. We have a sporting culture. I think the key to success in sport is participation. You can’t really manufacture a sporting elite from investment at the top. You have to have numbers feeding in at the bottom. Like South Africa, we have an excellent sporting culture. You drive around any town on a Saturday morning and there will be girls and boys playing netball, rugby and cricket, both boys and girls playing schools soccer. It is a great commonality between us, and a connecting point between us, and long may it stay that way.

Thank you so much for your time, Your Excellency.