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The Warsaw Voice » Other » April 19, 2006
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A Close Comparison
April 19, 2006   
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Fébé Potgieter-Gqubule, Ambassador of South Africa to Poland talks to Leslie Sheldon.

How did you come to join the foreign service? Also, is it common for a woman to become a diplomat in South Africa?
The foreign service found me. In South Africa we have a policy of recruiting a large percentage of our ambassadors from outside the service. Ambassadors may come from professional services or from the business community.

I myself worked most of my life in the non-governmental sector. But, one day I received a telephone call from director general of the department of foreign affairs asking whether I was prepared to represent the interests of my country overseas. It was not something to which I could say no. So a week later I was told to pack my bags and relocate to Poland.

The department has a conscious policy on recruiting women. At the moment around 25 percent of our ambassadors are women but the plan is to increase this number to 50 percent.

Did you choose Poland?
The department tends to look at the country where an ambassador will be posted, the challenges of that country and the candidate. They then match the right candidate to each country. South Africa has long history of relations with Western Europe but the relationship with countries in Eastern Europe is not as clear-cut. South Africa is in the process of defining its relationship with countries in this region, it wished to have ambassadors in place who understand the transition taking place in countries such as Poland, and are able to share a common experience and make positive suggestions.

People sometimes compare South Africa and Poland in their struggle for freedom, since both countries have passed through major changes. Does this lead to a better understanding between the two countries?
Both countries have had to come to terms with totalitarian regimes in their recent past, with broad based mass movements in opposition. Poland first and then South Africa had roundtable negotiations, which eventually resulted in elections. Since then, both countries had to deal with very profound changes in their societies, including transforming their economies and intergrating into a globalized world.
But our situations are also different. Poland has had a much troubled history, being an independent country and then not, suffering during the last war and then under communism. It has had a more complicated history with which to come to terms. In the case of South Africa, apartheid was clear-cut, as was the solution.

In both countries people did terrible things and history is something that we must continually look at but, that does not mean it is impossible to build a new society which everybody has a stake in.

This might be easier for young people who were born and are finding their place in conditions of freedom. But it is important that they have an awareness of their history and where they come from. My sense is, that it is as important for young people in Poland to have an awareness of their country, as a divided nation under foreign powers, as it is for young South Africans to know about colonialism and apartheid.

What business ties exist between South Africa and Poland?
There used be a large trade balance in favor of South Africa a few years ago but this gap has been narrowing. A good deal of trade between the two countries is in complementary sectors. For example, South Africa has a large mining industry as does Poland, and we export mining equipment to Poland. Both countries also have a growing automotive sector, and Poland exports car parts to South Africa.

South Africa also exports citrus fruit, grapes and, of course, wine to Poland. However, Polish produce would benefit from greater exposure in South Africa and greater emphasis, not only on its very good quality, but competitive prices. For example, most South African farms tend to be extremely large and industrial in comparison with Polish farms. On the other hand, Poland is planning to move towards more large-scale farming. There is a lot the two countries can learn from each other in just this one area.

There is also some investment in Poland, although not a lot. The South African brewery SAB/Miller invested in the beverages and beer sector, trading as Kompania Piwowarska, with its leading brand Tyskie. JD Group, the largest furniture retailer in South Africa bought the Polish retailer, Abbra. Also, Mondi, a paper pulp and packaging company has invested in the forestry and packaging sector in Poland.

What would you like to achieve before your term ends in Poland?
First of all, I would like to help strengthen economic ties between the two countries. Bilateral trade between the two countries has grown steadily over the past few years, but there is still is a lot of unexplored potential.

Second, I would like to use the shared experiences of Poland and South Africa to bring people together to discuss and learn more about our respective transitions. In the mid-1990s, there was an exchange of visits between parliamentarians and academics from both countries, looking at how the political landscape and practices were changing. At the time, it was thought to be too early to see many changes. But in 2009 it will be 20 years of transition for Poland and 15 years for South Africa. It would be a good time to consider what has happened during this time, to see what has changed and what we thought would change but has not.
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