There is great pride and passion in the voice of H.E. Dave Malcomson – the South African High Commissioner to Malaysia – when he speaks of his home country. And for good reason too. South Africa is a land of great diversity, with a multi-ethnic society, three capital cities, and 11 official languages, as well as awe-inspiring landscapes as reflected in its 21 National Parks and 10 UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
“Africa is the future of food security. 60 percent of arable land is found in Africa. So, Malaysian should put its strategic focus on South Africa as a gateway to Africa”
– H.E. Dave Malcomson,
Ambassador of the South Africa in Malaysia
But more than just its stunning aesthetics, South Africa is also an economic powerhouse – boasting among the highest GDP and GDP per capita in Africa, as well as being part of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) grouping of the five leading economies of the world.
In line with the 30th anniversary of diplomatic ties between Malaysia and South Africa, H.E. Malcomson speaks with International Business Review about his aspirations to further strengthen bilateral ties and how stronger Malaysia – South Africa relations could lead to greater synergy between ASEAN and Africa.
A Bond Formed Centuries Ago
Although official relations between Malaysia and South Africa started on 8 November 1993, H.E. Malcomson delighted in informing us that mutual ties stretch back centuries ago. “Back in the 1600s, Dutch traders brought people from the Malay peninsula to what is now South Africa to work as labourers. Today there is a Malay community in Cape Town, who are descendants of those people, and their language have also influenced several Afrikaan words, such as ‘ghong’ from ‘gong’ and ‘baadjie’ from ‘baju’,” he reveals.
“Another example would be how South Africa is home to the largest Indian population in Africa, and just like the Indians in Malaysia, they are descended from people who were brought there by the British in the 1800s,” he continues.
For H.E. Malcomson, these are just some of the natural ties and similarities that exist between Malaysia and South Africa, which has made his stay here (he was appointed in March 2021) like being in a home away from home.
“I find the culture and spirit of the people here very much like South Africa. Just like South Africa, you have a diverse ethnic make-up. Also, in Malaysia, you have forged a national identity as Malaysians instead of by your ethnic groups, and that is what we have done in South Africa. Also, both our peoples are very warm and welcoming,” he says with a smile.
A Friend Indeed
The closeness between the two countries can also be attributed to a special bond which developed as Malaysia was an ardent opponent of the racist Apartheid regime in South Africa from the 1960s to the 1990s, which treated black South Africans as second-class citizens, or even worse. In fact, Malaysia’s first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, played a pivotal role in the expulsion of South Africa from the Commonwealth of Nations in 1961.
When white minority rule came to an end in South Africa, and human rights were restored, Malaysia decided to start diplomatic relations. And South Africa, now a fully-fledged democratic state, was quick to recognise its friends.
“We had very close and dynamic relations in the beginning,” H.E. Malcomson explains. “Our first two post-Apartheid Presidents, Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, made official visits here, while Malaysia also actively presided over the Langkawi International Dialogue (LID) and participated in the Southern Africa international Dialogue (SIPRI) to facilitate cooperation between our two countries.”
The High Commissioner further reveals that South Africa has invited the Yang-di-Pertuan Agong to visit the country in 2023, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of diplomatic ties, while the South African Foreign Minister is also expected to make a reciprocal visit. “These visits will help consolidate and enhance bilateral relations,” he states.
H.E. Malcomson admits though that since 2005, the once warm relations between Malaysia and South Africa have cooled, as both sides started focusing on other priorities. And he is
determined to revitalise that partnership.
“One way I am aiming to do that is by promoting bilateral trade. South Africa is, of course, known for our gold and diamonds. However, we are also the second largest exporter of citrus fruits. In fact, citrus fruits make up 20 percent of our food exports to Malaysia,” he says proudly.
“Another thing that we are famous for in South Africa is that we are among the top five halal product producers in the world. This is something that many Malaysians are unaware of. Presently, Malaysia primarily imports halal meat from Australia, India and New Zealand, but we can offer quality products at more competitive prices,” H.E. Malcomson reveals.
The High Commissioner also identifies the digital economy as another area, in which both countries can collaborate. “South Africa is at the forefront of the digital economy in Africa. For instance, we have partnered with Australia on the ‘Square Kilometer Arrary’ construct the world’s largest radio telescope,” he tells International Business Review.
“Similarly, Malaysia has also been making enormous investments in the digital economy especially through programmes such as the Malaysia Digital Catalytic Programmes (Pemangkin). As digital economy constitutes a key pillar in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, it is undeniable that collaboration in this area will bring about significant mutual benefits,” he states.
The Gateway to Africa
For H.E. Malcomson, another advantage that South Africa can offer to Malaysia is access to the African continent. “South Africa has formed the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) with other members of the African Union. It covers most of Africa, and is an integrated market with 1.4 billion people. And this something which Malaysia and other ASEAN countries can tap into,” he strong iterates.
H.E. Malcomson also astutely points out, “COVID-19 has taught us that you can’t have a limited supply chain. Recent turbulence in international markets, which have resulted in protectionism as well as food price inflation, means that there is a stronger need than ever to diversify supply chains. Africa has much potential as future food supplier and South Africa can serve as a strategic gateway to the continent.”
There is indeed much commonality between Malaysia and South Africa –
past, present, and future. For one thing, both are developing nations with great
potential, and both will benefit from closer bilateral economic ties. But more than
that, both serve as stepping stones to wider regions that hold much promise –
Malaysia to ASEAN and South Africa to Africa. And so, as H.E. Dave Malcomson
firmly emphasises, “Malaysia and South Africa need to re-engage with one another
and work together to reap mutual benefits. This should not be seen as
an option, but an absolute necessity. There is a saying in South Africa –
Ubuntu. It means I am because we are, that we are together as human beings,
that we are united in diversity. And that symbolises the spirit of South Africa.”