Ms Lobe was the former Chief Operations Officer of the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO), South Africa. She was also the President of the African Women Leaders Network, the Convener of the Gertrude Shope Women Mediators Network, and the Co-Convener of the South African Women’s Peace Table. She is an author of the book, My Father: My Hero, My Zero and co-author of the Charlotte Mannya-Maxeke Institute’s book: Women Before Us. She holds a Master’s Degree in Politics, majoring in Governance and Political Transformation from the University of the Free State, South Africa. She was awarded an opportunity to study at the University of Manchester, UK (2001) under a Professional Development Programme called “Africa Future Leaders Programme” where among others she was introduced to the field of International Relations and Gender Studies. Prior to her posting, Ms Lobe represented South Africa in various capacities globally. She served in the Global Network of National Focal Points on Women, Peace and Security, where she co-chaired the Network on behalf of South Africa. She was also on the Global Steering Committee of the Generation Equality Forum, a multi-generational initiative aimed at dismantling gender inequalities and achieving a gender-equal world by 2030.

 

1. Excellency, how would you summarise your first year as the South African Head of Mission to Singapore?
I have been in Singapore since the 26 June 2022, and it has been a wonderful experience both at a professional and personal level. It is a privilege to serve my country at this level, to work with the South African community in Singapore and collaborate with citizens of my host country. It has also been a beautiful experience to learn about the diverse cultures of Singapore at a depth that cannot be attained by merely visiting as a tourist. The summary of my work is best captured by my 7Cs or what I call my mantra in life: 

a) Compass: Being a Head of Mission, I serve at the behest of the President of the Republic of South Africa, HE Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa. Ahead of my posting, the President addressed all Heads of Missions and identified his priorities and expectations from all of us. This address became my metaphorical compass. The rallying point for the President is tackling the triple challenge of poverty, inequality, and unemployment. In this context, the overall work of the High Commission in Singapore is contributing towards the government programme built on 3 foundational pillars: Building a strong and inclusive economy, improving capabilities of South Africans, and building a capable, ethical, and developmental state. In a nutshell, using our presence in Singapore to existential domestic challenges. In the first 100 days we had succeeded in developing a clear vision and identifying priorities of South Africa in Singapore. In this period, we have been working hard to strengthen bilateral relations; promote South Africas trade with Singapore; vigorously engaging Singapore companies to invest into various sectors of the South African economy; marketing South Africa as a tourism destination; and strengthening people to people mechanisms beyond formal government protocols in areas such as womens empowerment, youth development, cultural exchange programs as well as research and development. 

b) Collaborate: I believe that when we work together, we are powerful and better able to effect change. As a result, we have been working with stakeholders within government, private sector, and civil society in Singapore and at home to achieve our priorities. Considering our domestic challenges, collaborations have assisted us to do more with less and embrace the Pareto Principle (The 80/20 rule). Through this principle we are able to determine and prioritise collective highest impact tasks and increase productivity thereby achieving priorities we have set for ourselves. With minimum resources we have, we have collaborated with others who share our vision like the Government Agencies and Departments both at home and here in Singapore, the South African Chamber in Singapore, Character and Leadership Academy, NYDA, AWLN, IWFSA, other sister Embassies accredited to Singapore, Embassy Direct Magazine, Sun Media Singapore, She Brilliance, Enterprise Singapore, Singapore Business Federation, INSEAD, Duke CE, FASSET, just to mention a few. We do this because through collaborations we can do more with less!

c) Connect: We have connected South Africa with Singapore beyond established formal government relations. Through people-to-people mechanisms we were able to link South Africans with Singaporeans in areas of export trade, investment, tourism, skills transfer, science, and cultural exchanges.

d) Co-create: We have developed new and innovative ideas and have exciting new programs that among others include the South Africa Singapore Youth Dialogue that will henceforth be an annual event, the South Africa Singapore Womens Round table that will also happen annually. Through this work we are making sure that our foreign policy is not foreign to women and youth. Creating streams in a desert or something from nothing requires impactful and bold action. To achieve this, we continue to engage with our diverse stakeholders whose diverse experiences continue to change the face of diplomacy by amplifying voices of grass root women and youth thereby shaping the future together with them.

e) Communicate: We are using social media too as an instrument to showcase our work in Singapore and open a window for people to learn what Diplomats do, thereby ensuring that our foreign policy is not foreign to our people. We are also running quarterly virtual Master classes on export trade. We have used communication to build new frontiers even when we sometimes arrive at rivers without shores, we know that communication can be an instrument to create shores where they may not exist.

f) Compassion: I come from a country that is a beneficiary of many acts of selfless solidarity and human compassion. As a result, South Africa strongly accepts as true that what it wishes for its people should be what it wishes for the citizens of the world. The ultimate outcome should be to contribute towards the building of a better South Africa, a better Africa, and a better world. This implies that as its representatives abroad, we need to be involved in programmes where we do good together with others. This has propelled our High Commission to work with organisations such as the Character and Leadership Academy particularly supporting youth initiatives on mental health. We have also worked with other organisations in Singapore like She Brilliance that mentor young women and support initiatives like Daughters of Tomorrow.

g) Celebrate: At a personal level, I have never failed to shine a spotlight on some of the incredible work and achievements of others. I celebrate the success of others; I recognise and celebrate milestones in my professional environments. This is very important in building a formidable team. As Andy Parker, Head of Marketing at Leapsome opines: Success can beget success, and celebrating at work helps to build momentum, improve morale, and make the hard times feel all the more worth it. 

 

2. High Commissioner Lobe, before being posted to Singapore you were based at your Departments Head Quarters. How is that responsibility different and similar, in a way, to your current one?
In Pretoria I was an all-rounder as a person responsible for the operations of the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO). This meant managing the implementation of corporate governance processes and provided strategic support to the Accounting Officer, the Director-General. In addition to this, I managed the coordination of inter- and intra- departmental planning and reporting of the Medium-Term Strategic Framework (MTSF) to the International Cooperation, Trade and Security (ICTS) Cluster. At the heart of this work was ensuring DIRCO compliance with the legislative frameworks in terms of planning, monitoring, evaluation, and reporting obligations. As part of operations at head office, I was responsible for the provision of a safe and secure work environment.                                         

At a more substantive level, I managed the implementation of transformation and transversal programmes including implementation of gender and diversity management programmes such as gender mainstreaming. As a result of this work, I was South Africas Focal Person on Women, Peace, and Security and served in the Focal Points Global Network on Women, Peace, and Security. I also served on the Global Multi stakeholder Steering Committee on Generation Equality on behalf of South Africa. The ultimate outcome of the work of the GEF Steering Committee was the development of the Global Accelerated Plan on Gender Equality. I also facilitated disability management, implementation of employment equity and youth development. I was also responsible for the implementation of change management and service delivery improvements programme as well as the provision of organisational development and institutional support services. Lastly, I managed the development and Implementation of Economic Diplomacy Strategic Framework and ensured implementation of the Roll-out Plan for the Mainstreaming of Economic Diplomacy in DIRCO. So, my portfolio was huge, and I interfaced with almost all sections in the Department.

Looking at what I do now, I am doing a lot of work like what I was doing at head office even though my scope is limited to my country of accreditation. I believe the work I was doing at head office prepared me a great deal for my current job. 

 

3. High Commissioner, amongst the objectives that you have set out to accomplish during your term, are there any of them close to your heart?
All our objectives are close to my heart, and I cannot pick one at the exclusion of others. They are all important and define the reason why I find myself in Singapore. My role is to give practical expression to South Africas Foreign Policy, otherwise known as the Diplomacy of Ubuntu, Ubuntu through which we affirm our humanity when we affirm the humanity of others. Our business is Singapore has the following five pillars as mentioned before:

  • Strengthening bilateral relations between South Africa and Singapore
  • Promotion of South Africas trade with Singapore
  • Promotion of investments into various sectors of the South African economy
  • Promotion of South Africa as a tourism destination of choice
  • Strengthen people to people mechanisms

 

4. What are South Africas specific business interests and economic involvement with Singapore? Kindly highlight those projects currently being developed amongst both nations.
Singapore is both a maritime and aviation hub in Southeast Asia. It is the gateway into Asia with major South African companies doing business in Asia Head-Quartered in Singapore. Among these companies is Anglo American (a leading global mining company listed in both South Africa and the UK). It has its largest commercial-hub in Singapore. The significance of this is that Anglo-American is using Singapore as a logistic hub of commodities mined in South Africa. In terms of the impact of this work, Singapore is a place from which South Africa distributes its commodities into various parts of the world.

Singapore offers infinite opportunities for South Africa in various industries including the food and beverages industry, the automotive industry, ICT, health etc. The South Africas fresh fruit industry is currently the largest exporter of agricultural products in the world, contributing 52% of the value of South Africas agriculture export trade. South Africa is already a recognised player in global fruit exports, especially citrus. After Spain, South Africa is the worlds second largest exporter of citrus fruit. Even though South Africas fruit is on the shelves in Singapore more still needs to be done to have more South African fresh fruit in this country. The High Commission is engaging relevant stakeholders to increase the share of South Africas fruit in the Singapore market. 

On the ICT, South African companies such as Westcon Group have already invested in the Singapore software & IT services sector. They deliver artificial intelligence solutions and seek to serve markets within the ASEAN region. Also, Cartrack South Africa is investing in Singapore in the software & IT service sector in a research and development project. They are already planning to expand and open a new R&D and innovation centre in Singapore.

 

5. After the striking effects of the recent pandemic to the worlds economy, what efforts are you making and what is your strategy to place South Africa as a destination on Singaporeans traveling plans?
The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic had a significant impact on the economy of South Africa, with the tourism industry hit hard by the outbreak of the global pandemic. According to the 2020 Tourism report released by Statistics South Africa, foreign arrivals dropped by 71% from just over 15, 8 million in 2019 to less than 5 million in 2020. The South African tourism industry improved following the relaxation of COVID-19 regulations in March 2022. Today, all sectors of the economy have been opened and the tourism numbers have increased a great deal.

Having said that, as the South African High Commission in Singapore we know that tourism is fundamentally a collaborative effort that involves government, private sector, citizens etc. For the destination businesses, tourists experience a destination in its entirety and the success of their experience depends on all parts of the value chain working together seamlessly including ordinary people on the street. Working with various stakeholders in Singapore, we know that a highly competitive tourism destination is one in which all services and inputs are linked, integrated and combined if we are to succeed in increasing tourism numbers and provide a positive tourism experience. This requires all stakeholders to work together to plan, execute, assess, and constantly improve the tourism offer. 

The Mission has thus developed a tourism plan working closely with our Tourism Hub based in Mumbai. The plan includes quarterly tourism promotion and marketing events, collaboration with stakeholders in sectors such as Dynasty Travel to present a tourism case for South Africa. We are also engaging private citizens in Singapore who are prepared to share their experiences touring South Africa. This year we are planning two trade missions composed of potential Singapore investors. The visit will have two components, namely, business and tourism. Through this we are hoping to have more Singaporeans telling positive stories about a South African tourism experience. We also use the different Expos such as the Food and Beverages Expo and other events to promote South Africa as a tourism destination of choice.

 

6. As someone known to stand for the rights of all members of your gender, how do you foresee the role of women, leading Africas future?
African women are innovators and creators of wealth, they constitute 52% of the population, yet their participation in decision-making processes where key decisions regarding their lives are made, remains peripheral. A 2005 UN report on Equal Participation of Women and Men in Decision-Making Processes, with Particular Emphasis on Political Participation and Leadership enumerates the following salient points on why it is important for women to be part of decision-making processes:

  • The justice argument women account for approximately half the population and therefore have the right to be represented as such.
  • The experience argument womens experiences are different from mens and need to be represented in discussions that result in policy making and implementation. These different experiences mean that women do politicsdifferently from men.
  • The interest argument the interests of men and women are different and even conflicting and therefore women are needed in representative institutions to articulate the interests of women. 
  • The critical mass argument women are able to achieve solidarity of purpose to represent womens interests when they achieve certain levels of representation. 
  • The symbolic argument women are attracted to political life if they have role models in the arena. 
  • The democracy argument the equal representation of women and men enhances democratisation of governance in both transitional and consolidated democracies.

Gender equality and womens empowerment remain central tenets for development in the country, the continent and across the world. However, the nagging claws of gender inequality in the continent continue to impede women from contributing to the development agenda and lending their voice as they are precluded from many development-oriented conversations.

This situation is changing albeit at a very slow pace. The future of the African continent is young and female. The reason for this is that 60% of the population of the African continent consists of young people, the majority of whom are young women. The average population age of Africa is 24 years, and the average leadership age is 64 years. All things being equal, the 40-year leadership gap presents an opportunity for young African women of today to showcase their talents and enter the leadership space. This will not be easy because throughout the world, the socio-economic and political exclusion and discrimination of women and girls remains pervasive, systemic, and structural.  Our interventions require the strategic dismantling of the systemic barriers that marginalise women and girls; and continue to perpetuate inequality. These barriers include structural inequalities, the disproportionate burden of care and domestic work on women and girls, gender discriminatory laws and policies, lack of access and control over productive resources including land, as well as lack of accountability.