Apr 2012

International relations: SA's worldwide voice

International relations

South Africa maintains diplomatic relations with countries and organisations through 124 missions in 107 countries throughout the world. This is hard work, done by representatives of our country who promote South Africa, its beauty, values and economic potential; and make our country's voice heard in the international arena.

What is an embassy?

An embassy is the larger and more important than a consulate and is described as a permanent diplomatic mission which is generally located in a country's capital city. The embassy is responsible for representing the home country abroad and handling major diplomatic issues, such as preserving the rights of citizens abroad.

What is an ambassador?

The ambassador is the highest official in the embassy acting as the chief diplomat and spokesperson for the home government. Ambassadors are typically appointed by the highest level of the home government. 

What is a consulate?

A consulate is a smaller version of an embassy and is generally located in the larger tourist cities of a country but not the capital. Consulates (and their chief diplomat, the consul) handle minor diplomatic issues like issuing visas, aiding in trade relationships, and taking care of migrants, tourists, and expatriates.

Living and learning in Lagos

To find out first-hand what it is like to be a representative for South Africa in a foreign country, Vuk'uzenzele spoke to Thandi 
Mgxwati, who heads the South African High Commission in Lagos, Nigeria.

What do you enjoy most about living in Lagos?

Although Lagos is the smallest state in Nigeria, it has the highest urban population, estimated at 27,4 per cent of the national population. Lagos is a socio-cultural melting pot, with about 18,5 million people living here. The city contributes more than 30 per cent of Nigeria's gross domestic product. 

My favourite thing about living in Lagos is that one gets to experience what makes Nigeria tick in terms of culture, entrepreneurial activity and markets. In addition, Nigerian people, specifically those in Lagos, make you feel welcome in their city by their warmth and politeness. What fascinates me is that, despite the hardships ranging from irregular power supply to horrendous traffic congestions and communication network challenges, Nigerians always find a way of making it work. 

What do you enjoy most about living in Lagos?

One major adjustment I had to grapple with was changing my mind-set and resisting the temptation of comparing the way things are here and at home. For instance, I had to get used to the fact that having electricity for about five hours in a day without power outage is a luxury here, so I had to get used to the overpowering noise of generators wherever I went. I also had to get used to the fact that meetings and functions can never start on time; they can easily start an hour or more late.

What do you like most about the Nigerian people, and what can we learn from them?

The most striking thing for me is that they are hard workers who try to make ends meet with their creativity and dedication. Informal traders range from tailors carrying sewing machines on their shoulders in the streets looking for customers; and people running mobile offices from the boots of their cars in street corners using small generators for services such as photocopying, printing, and laminating of documents; to street vendors who sell anything usable until the middle of the night. 

The attitude is "Walala Wasala", which roughly translates to "If you snooze, you lose".

What are your duties at the South African Embassy?

My duties include strategic management and playing a leadership role. This involves building lasting relationships with the Lagos State Government as well as governments of the eight other Nigerian states, Ogun, Oyo, Osun, Ondo, Delta, Rivers and Bayelsa.

More importantly, Lagos is the economic hub of Nigeria and West Africa. It serves as a gateway for business, including a number of South African companies aiming to expand their business interests into Nigeria and West Africa. Therefore, it is my responsibility to assist our companies to identify business opportunities, study the economic environment in Nigeria and advise them accordingly. There are currently about 100 South African companies operating in Nigeria, with interest growing in this big potential market.

The Mission often gets requests to address forums such as the Nigeria-South Africa Chamber of Commerce, universities and civil society groups. It is my job to use these platforms to promote South Africa's interests and discuss the country's position on topical issues. 
In a nutshell, my job is to contribute towards strengthening of bilateral relations between South Africa and Nigeria, and to promote South Africa in all her facets.

What do you miss most about South Africa?

Our open wide roads and weekend coffee sessions with my friends at the House of Coffees or Mugg & Bean. I also miss my favourite cheesecake and the big shopping malls that we have in South Africa.

-Samona Murugan

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