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The continent’s largest economy, South Africa, is known in Ethiopia not only for its myriad  products, ranging from food items to construction equipment but also as the one of the main destinations for Ethiopian migrants. 
Still, Chris L. Pepani (Maj. Gen), South African Ambassador to Ethiopia, Permanent Representative to the African Union Commission (AUC) and Non-Resident Ambassador to Djibouti, who recently completed his six year diplomatic tenure, says South Africa’s relations and interaction with Africa and in particular Ethiopia, is largely untapped, especially in light of its position as a rising African economic and political heavyweight.
In an exclusive interview with Capital’s Elias Gebreselassie Chris L. Pepani was also conversant on issues of Ethiopia’s role as Africa’s advocate in the international arena and the Republic of South Africa’s (RSA) hosting of the Africa Cup of Nations. Excerpts:

Capital: In your six-year stay as the Ambassador of the Republic of South Africa to Ethiopia, what would you say were your accomplishments?
Pepani:
The first priority for an ambassador is to build robust relations; that’s the fundamental requirement of the job. Therefore, my primary assignment was to do that between Ethiopia and the Republic of South Africa. I can safely say that, to a large extent, this has been achieved and our relations have reached a level that we hadn’t achieved before. At the political level they have been enhanced and the cooperation between us is very good, while at the economic level it is a work in progress and we’re striving for greater heights. There has been great enthusiasm on the part of South African companies to open up shop and do business in Ethiopia.

Capital: What is the significance of Dr. Nkosazana Clarice Dlamini-Zuma’s appointment as the African Union Commission (AUC) Chairperson and its importance for the African continent?
Pepani:
Well, Dr. Zuma is the first woman candidate to be at the helm of our premier and foremost organization, the AUC, which is a vehicle for the implementation of all the decisions of the General Assembly. Having said that, she’s also the first candidate to be elected from the southern region, the continent being divided into five regions by the AUC; the north, south, east, west and central regions.  I think for me this is very critical and very important, taking into account the caliber of the kind of person she is, and the background she comes from. She’s no stranger to international affairs because she was the Foreign Minister of South Africa for the last ten years. She was at the Sirte Declaration of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in Libya when the decision was made to establish the African Union (AU), when the Pan African Parliament (PAP) was launched and when the peace and security protocol was set up in 2002. She was also in attendance when the New Economic Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) was initiated; therefore, her capability is unquestionable, backed up with a wealth of experience that she will bring to bear in serving the continent. Of course her commitment, drawn from the anti-apartheid liberation movement and the struggle for the emancipation of women plus her commitment to the development of women and the continent of Africa is absolute. Let’s just say, she’s got a fantastic track record. Capital: How would you describe the current economic relationship between Ethiopia and South Africa?
Pepani:
As I indicated early on, I’m sure there’s room for improvement in terms of our economic relationship. To reiterate, expressions of interest have been evinced by South African businesses to invest in Ethiopia. Already, the Pretoria Cement Company (PCC) has found a local Ethiopian company to partner with, and they are doing quite well. Then there’s Tiger Brands, they’ve started from the east African group based in Nairobi, and have found a partner here in Ethiopia. We have also different groups that are interested in the agricultural sector, specifically in coffee and in setting up abattoirs. Also MTN (Mobile Telephone Network), which is a global brand with a reach beyond the continent and a turnover of USD 15 billion per annum have obtained the license to operate here in April. They’re also part of the official sponsors of the Ethiopian National football team, which will participate in the African Cup of Nations, on January 18.
So in a way, we are strengthening ties on the economic front and will continue to do so in the future. Along this line, in April 2012, a joint ministerial meeting was held between the two countries. At this meeting, the important issues that came up were to take stock of our relations. It’s important and opportune that the current Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, who was Foreign Minister at the time, and the South African Minister of the Department of International Relations and Cooperation, Maitre Nkoana Mashabane, co-chaired this meeting and decided that a new Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was unnecessary and that it was better to strengthen the implementation of  current areas of cooperation, which had been decided upon previously. To do this, they had decided to set up teams from both sides which will be travelling between Addis Ababa and Pretoria to make this evaluation every six months, and so in November, a select Ethiopian delegation went to South Africa for this purpose.
Capital: South Africa is a member of the group of emerging nations called BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). What are your investment plans, in regards to the continent, like opening up an EXIM bank?
Pepani:
South Africa isn’t just a member of BRICS; it is also a member of the G-20 as well, because of the size of the country, its robust economy and GDP. The important thing is South Africa is not representing itself as an individual country at the G-20 and BRICS but is also the voice of our continent. Because of this fact, at the meeting of BRICS that will be held in Durban South Africa in March 2013, President Zuma has decided that there will be a retreat wherein African leaders and the heads of Regional Economic Communities (RECs) will be invited to. It is a special retreat to look at certain aspects that relates to infrastructure development on the continent and intra African trade, and how to boost it.
Coming out of that meeting, President Zuma also raised the idea that there must be a bank set up by the BRICs and that bank will be looking at all bank related aspects, for the African continent, perhaps along the lines of your IMF or WB. So these are important inroads that have been made already, and I’m glad to tell you that I had a meeting with PM Hailemariam; he’s acknowledged the invitation and confirmed that he will be attending this meeting and he’s very excited about it in the interest of the continent.
Capital: What would you say are the figures for South African investments in Ethiopia, and the trade balance between the two countries?
Pepani:
At the moment, I don’t remember the figures, but I can certainly refer you to the trade official at the South African embassy who can elaborate on that, but I think it’s growing at a brisk pace. If you go to most supermarkets here, you will find South African products on the shelves and stands, and beyond that we are looking into critical areas of significance. Both of these economies have substantial agricultural sectors and we are working with the government to address the issue of food security here. We’re also moving into the field of mining and possibly the potential Ethiopia has in the areas of gas and energy. I’m glad to tell you that in November a business delegation from South Africa had come here, and met with officials of the Ethiopian Chamber of Commerce and Sectoral Association (ECCSA), and the ex- CEO of ECX, Eleni Gabre-Madhin. I understand that she will be visiting South Africa to pursue some of these discussions and take them to a higher level.
Capital: Ethiopia is currently embarking on large infrastructure projects across the country and it is looking for financing from multilateral institutions as well as bilaterally from alternative financial sources such as emerging economies. In this regard, what would you say could be the South African government’s role?
Pepani:
We would be available for such ventures, if the opportunities avail themselves; certainly, South Africa has huge construction companies with excellent track records globally, especially in places like Dubai and Qatar. If you remember the story of the Chilean miners two years ago, who were trapped underground for months and rescued, South African construction companies were part of a team of companies that accomplished that feat. Therefore, I reiterate, we would be available if and when opportunities present themselves. I can also say that there’s certainly an interest by South African firms to participate in railway projects and there are contacts and discussions regarding this.
Capital: South Africa is set to host the Africa Cup of Nations tournament which, is set to begin on January 18, less than three years after successfully organizing the 2010 World Cup. What additional innovations can we expect on this tournament?
Pepani:
Well, I think in general it has become accepted that we are in a position, in terms of capability, to host huge global international events, and of course it is not going to be the first time that we will host the African Cup of Nations. We hosted it back in 1996 where we won the Cup, and our hosting the World Cup itself speaks volumes. Sepp Blatter, the President of FIFA, said at the end of the tournament that it was one of the greatest venues for the event that has been conducted quite successfully. It gave Africans the chance to see African players who play on the continent and elsewhere, like in Europe, to play on home turf for the first time in such an event. The challenges were numerous and huge, and there were lots of prophets of doom, but it showed that we were up to it. Now, we are looking forward to going to Brazil in 2014. The Africa Cup of Nations is slated to take place in a week’s time and we’re looking forward to hosting the event. It’s also going to be a great event to prepare our footballers who will be going to Brazil in 2014, so it’s important that we have this as a prelude to the World Cup and I expect it to be another great spectacle. All preparations have been completed a few months ago, and the draw for the 16 teams was held in Durban which was presided over by President Jacob Zuma. In concluding the subject, I may say that we’re very happy that after around 30 years the Ethiopian National team will be represented, and my embassy is involved in those preparations with the Ethiopian Football Federation (EFF) and Ethiopian Airlines with tourist companies to facilitate this so that none amongst us are disappointed.
Capital: How many Ethiopians reside in South Africa, and what types of economic activities are they generally engaged in?
Pepani:
I don’t have the statistics in front of me as to how many Ethiopians are residing in the RSA at the moment. We have a lot of Africans living there, including Nigerians in big numbers, Congolese and Zimbabweans in the millions as they are one of our closest neighbors. We’ve got quite a lot of Ethiopians, and among them there are people seeking economic opportunities. Then there are those who don’t want to return for reasons I don’t want to go into. Therefore, we’ve got this kind of cocktail of Ethiopians engaged in various economic activities.
Capital: It has been almost 19 years since the end of the Apartheid system, which coincided with the centenary of the founding of the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC). What would you say is the milestone that the RSA has achieved since the end of this era and the challenges it faces in the future?
Pepani:
To answer these questions, I believe a separate interview is needed. So let me try to give you the highlights. The fact that our people came to power in 1994 was the first major milestone. It defined the road ahead and to move away from the past, for we definitely came from a difficult past, we went through the processes of truth and reconciliation. The important thing is that the ANC has on its agenda issues for the betterment of South Africa and for all South Africans. Today there are more South Africans that have access to clean water and electricity. More schools have been built in the last 18 years and for the first time in the country you can talk of and observe a middle class which is quite visible. The dignity of the South African people has been restored. These are all important achievements in the time the ANC has been in power. The other most important thing is South Africa’s role in our region and on our continent in regards to development, the alleviation of poverty, issues of peace and conflict resolution as well as security and stability.
Capital: What about the challenges?
Pepani:
In the World today, most of the challenges we face are common challenges. Basically, it’s to make life better for people, by giving quality education, creating stability and in general providing good service for our people. On another level, we still have to grapple with the challenges in the Sahel, especially in Mali, we have to deal with the new challenges in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the disputes of South Sudan and Sudan etc. All these affects those of us who live on the continent and take a lot of time and resources away from development, but it is important that we take stock of where we came from and where we are going, at the 50th anniversary of the OAU/AU.  We have liberated our continent from colonialism, and now we need to have a vision for the future, for the development of the continent which has got huge potential, because of its human resources and mineral wealth.  I, therefore, believe the future is very bright, and I’m optimistic that a lot of good things are going to happen in our lifetime.