Melanie Verwoerd

How SA's embassies can become investment vehicles

2018-10-31 08:33

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Last week Friday we saw the private sector pledging to invest R290bn in South Africa over the next five years. 

This was a very positive step in the ongoing initiative to secure major investment into South Africa. However, as President Cyril Ramaphosa also indicated, this is only the beginning and a lot more needs to be done. 

One very important instrument available to the president is the foreign missions abroad. South Africa has 109 embassies and 100 consulates abroad. These embassies are a heavy burden on the country's fiscus and there has been talk of cutting them back. 

The problem is not so much the number of embassies we have but rather the manner in which they are being used. As ambassador to Ireland between 2001 and 2005, it was quickly apparent to me that the traditional way of diplomacy had become obsolete. With the internet it is almost never necessary for the diplomats to convey information to the host country. 

Yes, they will be called upon to explain certain events or convey certain messages between South Africa and the host country, but in most of the smaller missions this would rarely happen. Although some ambassadors and diplomats work hard, many don't and live up to the image of wining, dining and golfing for their country. 

During my tenure in Ireland, I decided to focus on tourism and trade. We had virtually no budget and at first I had no staff dedicated to this task. However, with a few adjustments, a lot of hard work and most importantly a different focus, we were able to increase trade with Ireland – and investment into South Africa by over 600% in four years. 

Of course, it was during a massive growth phase in Ireland, but South Africa would not have benefitted if we had not taken certain steps and made certain changes.  

Most importantly, it required a redefinition of the role of ambassador as well as embassy. I remain convinced that ambassadors and diplomats should be seen as investment and tourism promotors. The training prior to the deployment of diplomats should focus far more on developing these skills than on international treaties, how to fold face cloths (true story) or where to seat people during formal dinners.

Secondly, because budgets are shrinking certain traditional expenses such as formal dinners should be kept to a minimum or even scrapped. This much-loved ritual of diplomats to entertain one another with elaborate dinners in the residences is costly and, to my mind, unnecessary. 

I did not host a single formal dinner during my time as ambassador. I felt strongly that my colleagues in, for example, Russia, the UK or Rwanda could speak to the governments there if we had to improve the relationships with these countries. Instead, I used my entertainment allowance to invite business people, travel agents or business and travel press for breakfast or lunch at restaurants. 

It is also important to recruit some highly skilled LRPs (locally recruited personnel) from the private sector to fill, for example, the trade, tourism and media positions. It is important to note that it is far cheaper to recruit local staff members than sending and sustaining South African diplomats abroad. It also ensures an in-depth knowledge of the local market and a continuity beyond the four years that diplomats normally serve. 

The private sector in host countries could also assist greatly if used creatively. I invited, for example, all the major wine importers in Ireland to be part of a Wine Advisory Board. We met monthly to discuss how we could increase the sale of South African wines. The importers were happy to fund numerous wine tastings and wine fairs in conjunction with the embassy which led to a massive rise in the awareness and sale of South African wine.  

This was only one example of "thinking outside the (diplomatic) box". 

Embassy staff agreed to request South African wine whenever they were in a restaurant without letting on that they were from the embassy. More often than not restaurants did not stock South African wine. The staff would then complain politely and express their love for South African wine. The next day someone from the Wine Advisory Board would "coincidentally" call to showcase some South African wine. After four years it was rare not to see South African wines on a restaurant menu.

Another example was a number of tourism and wine roadshows the embassy undertook around Ireland. We had no budget, but the wine industry sold tickets through wine shops for wine tastings which covered the cost. My tourism staff members and I would then start the evening with a presentation about the attractiveness of travel to South Africa which included no jetlag, spectacular diversity and, most importantly, the fact that a pint of beer cost less than €1 at that stage. 

Within a year tourism from Ireland had increased by 300%.

On the business front we worked tirelessly to promote South Africa through the media, bilateral business organisations and trade trips. We also convinced key business people to "only" have a holiday in South Africa. 

We assisted with arrangements, but the business people paid for their own costs. We then arranged for possible business partners in South Africa to invite the Irish business (mostly) men for a round of golf – which almost always lead to business dealings. 

I'm raising these examples to illustrate what is possible if the focus of an embassy becomes more business and tourism orientated. We still had staff dedicated to consular work and I did the necessary formal diplomatic work and report writing. However, 90% of my and the embassy staff's time and energy were dedicated to selling South African tourism and trade. The results were visible in the massive growth numbers.  

Imagine then what could be possible if more than a hundred embassies around the world adopted a singular focus on tourism and business promotion. To quote a not-so-diplomatic world leader: "It will be huge."

However, it would require a different outlook from the Department of International Relations and Cooperation as well as an urgent retraining of diplomats. 

- Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    ireland  |  investment  |  embassy  |  tourism
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