When he returns to the country, Leon will pursue some interesting proposals in the private sector. He’s also working on a book commissioned by Pan Macmillan, provisionally titled The Accidental Ambassador: From Parliament to Patagonia, which he hopes to launch next year. He chats to us below.
What have been your greatest achievements during your term of office?
My colleagues and I at the embassy have had a very engaged and fulfilling three years here. The biggest achievement has been improving the flow of South African exports here and radically improving the bilateral terms of trade. Last year the volume and value of South African exports to Argentina increased by 80% compared with 2010 and registered at over R1,3 billion. On the tourism side, we’ve increased the flow of Argentines to SA by 122% compared with 2009.
We were also able to help facilitate R100 million worth of foreign direct investments from a major Argentine citrus company into the farmlands of the Eastern Cape, and have successfully arranged twining agreements between the provinces of Western Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and two provinces of Argentina.
Cultural and political ties have also been significantly enhanced. In November 2010, we arranged the highest-profile South African event in Argentina – a month-long South African Festival. I literally showcased every element of our very rich and diverse offering. Opera stars Pretty Yende and Given Nkosi performed, we hosted a contemporary film festival, former President FW de Klerk and Presidential Spokesperson Mac Maharaj engaged in a public dialogue on our road to democracy.
Finally, we brought over the entire team of the Springbok Rugby Legends to play an exhibition match against the Pumas Classicos, which enthralled a pumped-up crowd of 5 000 Argentines.
Appropriately (in view of our close rugby ties), my swan-song event as Ambassador will be to host the Springbok rugby team in Mendoza in late August to herald the accession of Argentina into the Four Nations Rugby Championship. Like all our events, we’ll leverage this festival of sporting excellence into trade and business advantage for SA. I’ve arranged many sponsors and partners to ensure we put our best foot forward.
What challenges have you encountered during this period?
The biggest challenge in Argentina (and neighbouring Uruguay and Paraguay) is the primacy of Spanish, so language was the biggest barrier to forming closer relationships. I certainly speak bad Spanish, but I speak it, as a mark of respect to the local culture, at every public event.
There’s also a degree of insularity over here in the sense that while, in principle, there’s support for the agenda of the south and other common issues, South and Latin America are self-contained hemispheres, with enormous populations and significant levels of inter-continental trade and exchanges. This means that outside entities, like SA, have to be prepared to walk the extra mile to ensure our voice and views resonate in this part of the world.
There’s widespread speculation that your successor at the embassy will be Zenani Mandela-Dlamini, daughter of former President Nelson Mandela. What advice would you give her?
When I retired as leader of the DA in 2007, I refrained from offering my successor, Helen Zille, my views on how she should do her job. I think this is a good principle in terms of succession and it should be applied to my successor as Ambassador.
I’d only suggest that she learns Spanish and takes full advantage of the centre of excellence which the South African Embassy in Buenos Aires is, in objective terms. Whatever ails the public services on both sides of the South Atlantic, our staff here – both South Africans and Argentines – represent everything that’s right with the civil service.