I RECENTLY returned to Pretoria from my first visit to Cape Town. I was awed as I visited Table Mountain, took my daughters on Heritage Day to Robben Island to try to begin to understand the heavy price paid for freedom in South Africa, celebrated the Sukkot holiday with my Jewish brothers and sisters, saw Auwal Mosque, the oldest mosque in Bo-Kaap and participated in an interfaith breakfast discussion with Christian leaders.
But more than any of that, I felt the energy, openness and hospitality of Capetonians. They challenge statements and push back assertions – as is our way in democratic societies such as South Africa or Israel. I was impressed with the interest both in my region and a desire to learn about things we can achieve together.
There was a real enthusiasm to hear about Israel’s experience in the sciences such as hi-tech innovation, fighting infectious diseases, water management and developing drought-resistant plants. All of those spheres were identified by people I met here because they knew that Israel is a world leader and directly addresses issues that are local priorities looking forward from 2013 for South Africa in general and the Western Cape in particular.
A real highlight was visiting with Vuyisa Qabaka, director of the South African Black Entrepreneurs Forum, at The Bandwidth Barn technology incubator in Woodstock. He visited Israel early this year and knows that while his truly excellent centre is mostly alone in the Western Cape, we have dozens of predominately government-sponsored incubators.
He had seen how Israeli start-up companies are being bought for millions of dollars by giants such as Google and eBay, and global companies like Intel and Apple do cutting edge research and development in my country. He wants to have his partners work with Israeli colleagues to help build the entrepreneur capabilities of South Africa. We have agreed to plan events together in the coming months to do just that.
Israeli researchers have developed the first so-called “passive” vaccine against the West Nile virus, a flu-like virus which is potentially lethal in individuals with weak immune systems, such as the chronically ill, the elderly and young children. The West Nile virus is borne by mosquitoes and it is spreading around the world. It has claimed thousands of lives, and there is no available cure. As this and other infectious diseases are key healthcare issues here in South Africa, putting experts from the University of Cape Town together with counterparts from Hebrew University or Tel Aviv University can have tangible impact on the lives of people here and around this region.
At a meeting with researchers at the South African Institute of International Affairs, we spent much of our time sharing concerns about the national security implications of water dependence and how important it is for South Africa to develop its infrastructure to become self-sufficient and to better access the water that surrounds the Western Cape in the Atlantic and Indian oceans.
Israeli scientists have engineered drought-resistant plants that could be a game-changer in the global food crisis, requiring less water, yielding bigger harvests, and staying fresh longer. A biology professor at the Israel Institute of Technology has developed plants that can survive three weeks of no water whatsoever. These vegetables and fruits also stay fresh significantly longer.
In countries with food security issues, this has the potential to transform farming and offers significant market opportunities with a longer shelf life.
People also wanted, naturally, to talk about politics of the Middle East and shared my hope that the current talks between Israelis and Palestinians will offer a path to a negotiated two-state solution and peace and security for our peoples. Perhaps South Africa’s experience in negotiation and conflict resolution could offer a constructive example to leaders in my region.
We shared horror at recent events in Kenya that have an impact on our shared region. Many agreed with my concern for our neighbours in Syria and Egypt and Israel’s continued worry that the nuclear programme in Iran continues unabated, despite a “charm offensive” flurry. As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu observed the other day, events in Syria have confirmed that “when a recalcitrant state develops or acquires weapons of mass destruction, it is certainly likely to use them”.
What is perhaps surprising to some, but makes perfect sense, is that South Africans of all faiths are looking forward and want to find pragmatic partnerships with whoever can help develop opportunity in this country. I am confident that most South Africans are interested in such a dialogue with Israel knowing that it offers a relevant partner that has faced many dilemmas that are currently being considered within the discussion around South Africa’s National Development Plan.
As I get started in my new position as Ambassador of Israel to South Africa, I hope to deepen the conversations I began last week in Cape Town. Those dialogues will come with government, business and anyone interested in talking. In fact, I invite South Africans from all walks of life to interact with me online – on my page on Facebook (Ambassador Arthur Lenk) or on Twitter (@AmbassadorLenk).
All of those conversations, even when they include some disagreements or different ideas on paths to similar goals, enrich us, and open possibilities.
Lenk is the recently appointed Ambassador of Israel to South Africa.