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My Japanology / Fascinated by bowing culture, punctuality

Miho Ikeya/The Yomiuri Shimbun

Ambassador Beryl Sisulu speaks during an interview.

The Japan NewsAs a business gateway to Africa, South Africa has attracted many Japanese companies, including major automobile manufacturers and trading companies. The country is also rich in natural resources, such as platinum, which is used as a catalyst for fuel cell systems. South African Ambassador Beryl Sisulu spoke about the prospect of widening relations between Japan and South Africa.

Q: What was your first impression when you were told you would be stationed in Japan?

Beryl Sisulu: I thought, wow, what an opportunity. I’d never been to Asia before and to be asked to serve my country in Japan would surely be one of the most wonderful experiences that I could wish for. So I was very excited. I thought about the sakura, which I equate to our wonderful [purple flowering] jacaranda. And I thought, we have [the iconic landmark of] Table Mountain and you have Mt. Fuji. I’d never thought of the earthquakes until my granddaughter said, “What about the earthquakes?” I said: “You know what, people in Japan live with earthquakes on a daily basis. It doesn’t stop them from living. Wherever you are, there may be different things that could happen to you.”

Q: What did you think of Japan after actually living there?

A: I have noticed that Japan is a very resilient nation. You fall and you rise. You don’t just fall and stay down there. You make all effort to rise again. What I thought was very different was Japanese have long working hours. I haven’t seen that in many countries in the world, and I think you’re one of the few countries where you put in so many hours to work.

Q: What element in Japanese culture did you find interesting?

A: Um, the bow. The deep bow and the small bow. I think that is really a thing that fascinates me. I just think also the way you do things, you know, punctual, always on time. You are almost like military, in a sense, that it’s single file. You don’t see people rushing up the stairs. You don’t see people rushing into the train or into the lift. People stand and wait for their turn. Now for me that’s hard, because in South Africa we jostle and we move. I think those are the things that one can learn from. Somebody was saying you must be there 10 minutes, at least five minutes before a meeting. So whenever I have a meeting with Japanese I look at the time. Well, it’s five minutes or it’s 10 minutes or seven minutes before the time, they are here on time. Yes, it takes a little bit of learning from our side.

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  • Miho Ikeya/The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Ambassador Beryl Sisulu at the South African Embassy in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo

Growing economic relations

Q: How would you describe the significance of the relationship between South Africa and Japan?

A: Japanese established a consulate in 1918 in South Africa. Japan is South Africa’s largest trade partner after China and the United States, and a major provider of development finance and official development assistance to South Africa.

Africa is rising and Japan does not want to be left behind.

So I think that’s very good, having good insight to seeing that the future does lie in Africa. I think that there’ll be many opportunities, not only for us in Africa, but for countries like Japan who are willing to take the challenge. There are still some areas where it will be difficult, but I think you are prepared to invest in a way that is acceptable to Africa.

We are looking at having a peaceful Africa at some point in our lives. And we know that there are some countries in the continent that moved faster than others, but I think we need to move along as a continent. I think more importantly, the world is becoming a global village. We find that one cannot live without the other. We also have what we can offer to Japan as much as what Japan can offer us. We have resources that you don’t have.

Q: More than 100 Japanese companies have offices in South Africa. How have they contributed to the development of the South African economy?

A: We actually have over 140 Japanese companies now. They provide skills development, they train the employees, so there’s a lot of transfer of technology to South Africans. Right now we are looking at a very big project that Hitachi, Ltd. wants to do — a desalination project in [the eastern province of] KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, for over 600 million [rand, or about $42 million].

It’s also going to have a lot of energy saving, like 40 percent of energy will be saved. And I am personally happy that it’s starting in KwaZulu-Natal because that seems to be where we have the major water shortage at the moment. Hitachi has said if it’s successful they will then be happy to do it in other provinces. We are looking forward to this big project starting very soon.

In late June, I visited Toyota [Motor Corp.] in Nagoya. [An official of] Toyota was telling me about all the different kinds of business that they do in South Africa. It’s not just about a car, and they are saying that they are actually looking for more premises and more property so that they can expand their business. So for me that is a sign of comfort that Toyota is prepared to grow.

We also know that recently, on the 24th of May, in the presence of our president, Toyota launched a 6.1 billion [rand assembly plant] project. I think Japan is seeing that it’s good to invest in South Africa. In June, we launched our grapefruit season, so at the moment if you go to the shops you will be eating South African grapefruit in Japan.

Japan, we know, holds the largest share of global patents in the area of hydrogen fuel cell energy technologies, while South Africa is endowed with considerable platinum deposits. So that is another area where we can work well together. Scientific cooperation and mutual beneficiary, business partnerships in the hydrogen economy, could lead to additional Japanese direct investment into South Africa. And the beneficiation of our platinum group of metals will further contribute to the industrialization in South Africa and it’ll create more jobs.

Q: In terms of GDP, Nigeria is becoming the largest economy in Africa, and Egypt is also expanding its economy. What makes South Africa the gateway to Africa?

A: I think we’re very strategically positioned. Remember we’re positioned between the oceans. As a result we also have what [South Africa’s] President [Jacob] Zuma launched in 2014, as operation Phakisa, which is looking at the blue economy [which puts much value on marine resources for sustainable development]. And I think that’s another area where Japan can be strong, in terms of fishing, and building boats and things like that.

The era of apartheid

Q: You said that Japan is a resilient nation. I think South Africa is also resilient as anti-apartheid activists including your father, Walter Sisulu, never gave up their fight. Your father is one of the founding fathers of South Africa, who spent decades in [a prison on] Robben Island [where white rulers tried to isolate political prisoners]. It must have been difficult for your family members during apartheid. What was it like?

A: Apartheid was very difficult. During that time it was even difficult to say, “I am Sisulu” because you could be arrested. You’d be sleeping, at every window and every door [police would] be knocking, knocking you up, open the doors, shining torches in your face, waking you up, searching the house, arresting. At one time it was my father, my mother, my brother and my brother’s son who were all imprisoned at the same time.

My mother was banned. She couldn’t speak to certain people. She had to be home by six in the evening. She couldn’t leave before six in the morning. Ironically, one of my brothers was also banned at the time, and they were staying at the same house. Now, according to the banning order, banned people are not supposed to speak to each other. But how do you live in one house with your mother and a son and you don’t speak to each other. Sometimes it was a bit foolish, I think.

But we survived through all of this, with my parents not giving up, even with my father being imprisoned. In every letter that he wrote he was very confident that he would come back home. He encouraged us to go back to school, and I did listen at the time, I went back to school. I am married with three children, went to study and I studied law and completed it.

Q: Have you had chances to travel around Japan?

A: Yes, I went to Fukushima, [it was] very touching. When we went there we had to put on these outfits, three pairs of gloves, three pairs of socks. You could see all these houses that people had just left. People had to just leave their houses, their cars, everything. And it was sad, because you could actually see how far the water went and the damage that was done. But I think you’re a very resilient nation. I think what we can learn from the Japanese is that you rebuild, you wake up, you get up. I was listening when they were saying that it would take about 40 years to rebuild Fukushima.

I recently spent two days in Nagoya, met the mayor, the governor. We saw the Chamber of Commerce. I’ve been invited back for the rugby in July, South Africa versus Japan [at an international friendly match held in Toyota, Aichi Prefecture on July 23]. The governor’s invited me. He said I must be there. But I think the nice thing about rugby is that, I was saying that it may not have been a bad thing for Japan to beat us at the Rugby World Cup in September last year because we’ve raised the bar for rugby in Japan. Nobody looked at Japan as a rugby nation, but I think the world looks at you differently now. So yes, even though we lost, we’ll see in 2019 when you host the World Cup.

This interview was conducted by Japan News Staff Writer Takeshi Kuroiwa.

■ Profile

Beryl Sisulu was born in Soweto, Johannesburg. During the apartheid years, she and her siblings attended a school in Swaziland. She later attained a law degree. She joined the Department of Justice, and was responsible for all the courts in the Gauteng Province. She joined the National Prosecuting Authority in 2002 as deputy chief executive officer. She served as ambassador to Norway and Iceland from 2009 to 2012. She took up her present post in January 2016. Her hobbies include reading, traveling and learning about other cultures.

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