Schoeman Du Plessis was born in a small city in South Africa called Bloemfontein, which is also the judicial capital of the country. A diplomat who has served in Baghdad and the Palestinian Territories, Du Plessis spent four years in Beijing as a political counselor before taking up his post directing the South African pavilion. He spoke to CHINA ECONOMIC REVIEW about the Sino-South African trade relationship, and why his pavilion is the best place to watch the World Cup this summer.
Q: How is pavilion construction progressing?
A: It’s okay. We are slated to open on April 25, and everything is going according to schedule. We started quite late actually; we only started in January this year and of course we had Chinese New Year in between. But I think we have a fabulous pavilion, the largest stand-alone pavilion of all the African countries, with a unique design.
Q: Who designed the pavilion?
A: An expo design company in South Africa called Oasys Innovations was responsible for it, but their work is mostly on the inside of the pavilion. The design element is taken from the new Durban football stadium, a concrete arch that spans the length of the pavilion. The core of the pavilion is in the shape of a ball, which also resembles a traditional hut in South Africa. This is taken from a design in Freedom Park in Pretoria, which was built to commemorate the end of apartheid. It’s a very modern design but still has a lot of African character. Our intention was to present the modern face of South Africa, so the furniture, for example, is also very cutting edge. One of other main elements of the pavilion is a wine lounge, which is going to be occupied by companies showing off South African wine culture and our wine industry.
Q: There is also a pan-African pavilion, designed by a Chinese firm but rented out to a long list of African countries. From the online description, it seems heavily focused on presenting stereotypical "dark continent" images of Africa: elephants, archaeology, and singing and dancing tribes-people. Isn’t that what Africa is trying to move away from?
A: Absolutely. That’s exactly why we have constructed our own pavilion; to show that Africa is not so one-dimensional. Although we were blessed with abundant natural resources and we have wonderful scenery and nature, South Africa is also a place where one can do serious business in an environment as modern and sophisticated as any other. The theme of this Expo is "Better City; Better Life," which suits us very well. It gives us a chance to focus on the urban culture of South Africa, which actually forms the heart of our economy. South Africa has extremely modern cities with modern infrastructure, on par with any other city in Europe or Asia. We really want to encourage a new perspective toward Africa. We want to show that African countries can be more than just places from which you source raw materials.
Q: Have there been perception surveys measuring how Chinese people view South Africa?
A: We’ve done several surveys, and the same old misperceptions always show up. We score low on anything with technology and high on anything to do with animals and nature, which is something we really need to change. To give an example, on the World Economic Forum’s competitive index, South Africa scored 45th out of 133 countries overall. On things like business sophistication we ranked 36th; on reporting and auditing, we are second in the world, right after Hong Kong. In terms of scientific research institutes we are number 29. These are things people in China don’t know about South Africa. With our participation in the Expo, we hope to present a more modern, sophisticated side of South Africa and our economy, and hopefully surprise visitors to our pavilion.
Q: What about wine?
A: That’s a good example. South Africa this year is celebrating 350 years of winemaking; our wine is older than any of the other New World wines. And it’s not reflected in China. South African wines are featured here, but not prominently, and there’s also a perception that they are inferior to other countries’ wines. Just last month, South African wine sales in the UK surpassed French wines. That’s definitely an indication of the quality of the South African wines.
Q: But apart from wine, what is the real cost of this perception gap? What difference does it make if the average Chinese person thinks South Africa is backwards?
A: The point is, South Africa wants to form partnerships with China in higher value industries, and if people believe South Africa is about animals and nature … For example, South Africa is the world leader in the processing of coal to liquid, and we have the biggest commercial coal-to-liquid refinery in the world. We derive 40% of our liquid fuel needs from coal. China has some of the world’s biggest coal reserves, but if Chinese people still subscribe to this old image of South Africa, companies like SASOL [a South African oil and petrochemicals company] will always struggle to penetrate the market here.
Q: China is now South Africa’s largest trading partner, and a lot of that is raw materials. How is your country trying to diversify its trade with China?
A: The South African foreign minister visited Beijing last month and discussed signing a strategic partnership agreement with China. This is just the framework of a strategy we will put into place in the next few years. A large part of that strategy is about encouraging a policy of "beneficiation," which means adding value to raw materials in South Africa before they are exported. This doesn’t necessarily involve processing them into their final form, but at least some processing should be done in South Africa. Processing is very environmentally unfriendly, so it is good for China to outsource it. In South Africa we are very sensitive to the environment and have already developed technology in our mining industry to process these raw materials in a greener way. We would also like to see more Chinese investment in our manufacturing sector, particularly in agro-processing and in organic farming. However, we are very pleased with the scope and type of investment by Chinese companies in South Africa in the past few years. Our trade deficit with China has fallen in recent years while total trade is showing annual growth of 54%.
Q: Expo participation is expensive, and South Africa presumably has other things it could spend its money on domestically. Even if you talk about nation-branding, why not just buy thousands of bus ads? How does South Africa justify the cost of this pavilion?
A: To be honest with you, I think world expos have to an extent lost their relevance in this age of instant communication and information. But this expo is different – it is taking place in China, and China is not only our number one trading partner but also a key strategic partner. You are right to say it’s not cheap; South Africa is spending more than 120 million rand [US$16.59 million]. Given there is a recession, this clearly this reflects the importance we place on our relationship with China.
Q: Are you looking to use the Expo as a way to promote the World Cup?
A: In the first month in the pavilion, we are focusing on South Africa’s hosting of the World Cup, specifically on the infrastructure we have put in place. During the Expo, we’ll have quite a lot of football-related activities in the pavilion. We have table football competitions and goal-kicking competitions. In June when the World Cup begins, we’ll be screening matches live via a special satellite linkup, and we’ll be hosting parties for the opening ceremony and for the semifinal and final matches. I think we will become the hub of activity during that period, especially since we are near the Brazilians. I think South Africa will deliver a truly African tournament and the most memorable World Cup to date!