1. How would you summarise your tour as the South African High Commissioner in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia?
It has been an enormous privilege to serve in Malaysia on behalf of the people and government of South Africa. I have been here for two years now, with two years remaining of my term of office. The first year was largely characterised by having to find innovative ways of working, establishing a network of contacts and living under the various regulations designed to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. A particular frustration in this regard was not being able to travel to other parts of Malaysia and not being able to conduct many physical meetings.
The second year has seen a return to normal and my programme has certainly been a lot fuller. The work has been extremely rewarding thus far and I have enjoyed meeting a range of Malaysians in all fields and sectors of society from government, business, civil society, the arts and on a personal level.
I first visited Malaysia as part of President Mbeki’s delegation to the NAM Summit in 2003, at which time we also held a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir. Over the years, I have enjoyed a good working relationship with Malaysian diplomats in various projects that I was involved in, such as the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and the New Africa-Asia Strategic Partnership (NAASP). I was also aware of how we had looked at Bumiputera policies in Malaysia as we developed our own Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment policies. As a result, it was with great excitement that I learned of my posting to Malaysia and I have in no way been disappointed since my arrival here.
Much like people in South Africa, I have found Malaysians to be extremely warm and friendly. It has also been fascinating to explore the many similarities that exist between our two countries politically, economically and socially. Both of our countries find unity in a diversity of races, religions, languages, and cultures. It has also been a pleasure exploring the wonderful variety of cuisines available and to learn about the different cultures and practices.
We both see each other as providing a gateway to our respective regions of Africa and ASEAN. We share similar positions and approaches to important global issues, such as climate change, the SDGs and the rights of the Palestinian people. Therefore, there is much room for extending our cooperation and the opportunities present in the relationship, including in multilateral organisations such as the United Nations, NAM, the Commonwealth and IORA.
2. What are South Africa’s specific business interests and its economic involvement in this Southeast Asian nation? Kindly highlight the projects currently being developed amongst both nations.
South Africa currently exports a wide range of products to Malaysia, with the biggest export item being manganese ore and concentrates, followed by various food items, particularly fruit. Malaysia’s exports to South Africa are also varied, but the main items are petroleum products and palm oil. As a result of these two items, the trade balance is very much in Malaysia’s favour.
It is encouraging that we have seen significant growth in our exports to Malaysia over the last two years, for example fruit exports grew 12% in 2021 and processed food exports grew 83% in 2022. Trade overall almost doubled last year.
Having said that, there is much trade potential that remains untapped. We believe that South Africa can provide the quality products at affordable prices that Malaysia requires (as a net food importer) to address issues of food security, rising food prices and inflation, and the need for diversified supply chains.
In this regard, we have been emphasising cooperation in the Halal sector. South Africa is in the top seven global Halal producers, 60% of our retail products are Halal certified, and three of our Halal certification bodies are recognised by Jakim (the Malaysian Halal certification body). There are two aspects in this regard. Firstly, there is the issue of extending access to the Malaysian market for Halal products and ingredients from South Africa, particularly for meat. Currently only one company, Karan Beef, has been granted access to Malaysia. Secondly, is to work with Malaysia to consider investing in South Africa as a Halal Hub to service the large and profitable African and Middle East market. More than 600 million Muslims live in Africa and the continent is integrating and uniting under the African Continental Free Trade Area, showing massive trade potential. There is a-lot of mutual benefit in cooperating on this project.
Investment is an area requiring further attention, as the two-way investment rates are low despite the opportunities available. Malaysian manufacturers should consider investing in facilities in South Africa to bring their products closer to the African consumer, thus overcoming logistical constraints following the pandemic and the Ukraine/Russia conflict.
Other areas for cooperation are to be found in the defence sector; in science, technology and innovation; with regard to the 4th Industrial Revolution and the digital economy; and in terms of promoting the growth of SMMEs in South Africa.
3. Which objectives have you accomplished so far during your duty as the South African representative in Malaysia?
Fundamentally, my task has been to work towards a revival and strengthening of the bilateral relationship, as well as to advocate that both sides regain a sense of strategic focus on each other. We enjoyed an extremely vibrant and active relationship in the 1990’s and early 2000’s. At that point in time, Malaysia was one of the biggest investors in South Africa. The relationship was characterised by the close relations that existed between Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir, President Mandela and President Mbeki respectively at the time, as well as the focus that Malaysia had on South-South cooperation, including relations with Africa and South Africa through such initiatives as the Langkawi Dialogue. Since the global financial crisis in 2008, however, the bilateral relationship has not grown and strengthened as we had hoped for a variety of reasons.
As a first step in achieving a renewed strategic focus, it has been important to send a strong political message at the highest levels. Therefore, President Ramaphosa has invited His Majesty, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, to pay a State Visit to South Africa in 2023. Contact between Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and President Ramaphosa has been arranged, and our Minister of International Relations and Cooperation is scheduled to visit Malaysia, following the postponement of her visit last year. The bilateral Foreign Office Consultation was held again after some years on 16 March 2023. For my part, I have been showcasing South Africa by giving a number of interviews, arranging meetings with important stakeholders and giving speeches, where I consistently highlight why we remain important partners for each other, especially after the havoc and constraints caused by the pandemic and the current geopolitical situation.
Having said that, as I stated earlier, much remains to be done in terms of promoting cooperation in the Halal sector and in gaining further access to the Malaysian market, as well as in promoting two-way investment. The spread of South African franchises into Malaysia is another opportunity that we are exploring, following on the successful example of Nando’s.
I am confident that our joint efforts will bear fruit to our mutual benefit and that the economic opportunities will be reflected in rising trade and investment figures. Proton’s return to South Africa recently is a positive sign in this regard. In this way, we can make an impact on our triple challenges of unemployment, inequality and poverty.
4. After the striking effects of COVID-19 on our planet’s economy and way of life, what efforts are being made and what is the strategy to place South Africa as a destination on Malaysian’s travel plans?
The tourism figures from Malaysia to South Africa are low unfortunately. The pandemic has played a role, but this is a problem that has existed for some years. Malaysia Airlines used to fly direct routes from Kuala Lumpur to Johannesburg and Cape Town, with an onward leg to Buenos Aires. However, this was ended in 2012, which has greatly impacted on business and tourism contacts between our two countries. Having said that, we are picking up signs of renewed interest in visiting South Africa and hope to offer Malaysians new and unique experiences.
As a result, we held a meeting with the leadership of Malaysia Airlines last year to explore the reopening of the direct South Africa route, onward to South America (Brazil). While not possible in the immediate future, it was agreed to pursue some measures to grow the potential market from Malaysia, ASEAN and China through Kuala Lumpur to South Africa. For example, Malaysia Airlines agreed to promote South Africa as a destination in conjunction with international airline partners, such as Qatar.
Further, we have held meetings with Malaysian tour operators to explore ways of marketing South Africa as an attractive destination for Malaysians, including by providing information on exciting new tourism products. We send a monthly tourism newsletter to the tour operators and utilise the social media platforms of the High Commission to promote the diversity of tourism offerings, including Halal Tourism and exploring the historical and cultural linkages reflected in the Cape Malay community in South Africa.
5. 2023 marks thirty years of uninterrupted relations between these two nations. What are your plans to celebrate this milestone and what would you say is the way forward for the future diplomatic relations between them?
Diplomatic relations between our two nations were established on 8 November 1993. Therefore, we are planning an event on that day this year to celebrate the 30th Anniversary of Diplomatic Relations. We will also be conducting a range of activities during the year, starting with a launch of the celebrations on 27 April, our national Freedom Day.
These events include a Trade and Investment Seminar and Trade Mission to coincide with the Malaysian International Halal Showcase (MIHAS) in Kuala Lumpur in September; a project to coincide with International Nelson Mandela Day with the Kuala Lumpur authorities in July; a hybrid event to promote South African food and products, with celebrity chefs from both sides focusing on Cape Malay cuisine in particular, in June; a Tourism Roadshow in Malaysia in October; and a Trade Mission to South Africa. We are also looking at holding a Halal Workshop in South Africa during the year and participating in the Africa-Malaysia Business Forum in November. These events will be complemented and highlighted by the high level political contacts described above, and I will continue with a programme of speeches and interviews. Lastly, we are exploring other events with organisations in Malaysia, such as Huazong.