Nursing diplomacy in Egypt

2012-03-03 15:34

Noluthando Mayende-Sibiya was relieved of her post as minister for women, children and people with disabilities in President Jacob Zuma’s 2010 Cabinet reshuffle. She was sent to Egypt as South Africa’s ambassador, a post she’s held since April last year. Theresa Mallinson caught up with her in Cairo to discuss the challenges of her new role.

Why do you think you were chosen as South Africa’s ambassador to Egypt?

It was a decision made by the president, as well as the ANC.

As you know, I was the minister for women, children and people with disabilities. A reshuffle was decided upon and I was deployed to Egypt.

I think the president is the best person to articulate the reasons, but for me it is a good opportunity during this time of Egypt’s transition towards a new democratic dispensation.

Basically, I don’t really know why, but I think I am expected to represent South Africa to the best of my ability and ensure that the relations between the two countries are strengthened.

How has your past life and professional experience prepared you for this role?
There has been no direct training in diplomatic work, but I’ve always worked with people.

For 24 years I was a nurse, and I always represented workers in Nehawu in different positions, culminating in president of the union, until I was appointed to Cabinet as a minister.

So all the roles I’ve played have enhanced my capacity to work with people. Diplomacy is about people, getting a message across and ensuring that the other party is happy to work with you.

It is really about communication, strengthening relations, working together for the good of the country.

Whatever humble contribution I am making would generally be building on the previous experience I have had of working with people.

What training were you given in Pretoria before you took up your new appointment?
All new ambassadors are given training to help deal with the diplomatic field.

I’m also doing some private studies through Unisa, which I started a few years back.

I’m studying for a BA in political science, which includes international relations and diplomacy. It was a coincidence that I found myself in this position.

What are the challenges of being a female ambassador in Egypt?
It is very challenging in that it’s a conservative society. If I’m with my husband, they think he’s the ambassador instead.

How are you working with Egypt to ensure that the country sees itself as part of Africa, as well as the Middle East?
We’ve really heard positive statements from the Egyptian government. They want to look into helping Africa more in terms of development, trade, economic development – all that.

It’s a nice, positive development after the January 25th revolution.

What are your relations with the Freedom and Justice Party (Muslim Brotherhood)?
We met them as a courtesy call and we are preparing for them to go to South Africa in the next month or so to meet role players in South Africa.

The Freedom and Justice Party will engage with them on the constitution-making processes, on the experiences of our own transition, on the TRC processes and the kind of legislation that has helped us build our country.

We hope it is going to be a good exchange for them and they take what they need from their experience.

Trade between Egypt and South Africa is relatively low.

At the end of 2011, exports by South Africa were R533 million, while imports from Egypt were R354 million.

How will you improve these volumes?
The revolution had a negative effect on the memorandums of understanding signed by both countries two years ago.

That has been the biggest challenge because everyone has adopted the position that we’ll wait until the final outcome of elections when the president is elected.

We hope to set up a business association this year with businessmen from South Africa and Egypt.

It’s been difficult to introduce new programmes, but we have started a process with the ministry of foreign affairs to look into the existing agreements and to see what we will prioritise.

At the end of your four-year tenure as ambassador, what do you hope to have achieved?
My hope is that the relations between the two countries will be at a higher level.

The focus will be to see Egypt leaning towards Africa and South Africa, and trade should have increased by then.

We should be seeing more activity between the two countries; more South Africans coming to Egypt as tourists and more Egyptians going to South Africa.

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