In an extensive interview for Diplomacy & Trade's Africa Focus, the South African Ambassador to Hungary, Johann Marx talks about the development of bilateral political, economic and cultural relations, highlighting the opportunities in cooperation between companies of the two countries to the benefit of the entire African continent.
“Prior to the establishment of full diplomatic relations in the early 1990s, Hungary and South Africa had very similar experiences during the preceding forty year period. Whereas Hungary was to a large extent isolated from the international community behind the physical Soviet ‘Iron Curtain’, South Africa was similarly isolated, due to its ideological ‘Iron Curtain’ of apartheid. Following the collapse of both ‘Iron Curtains’, Hungary and South Africa had to re-integrate their countries and their economies into the global community, which presented similar challenges to both countries. In the years that followed, diplomatic ties enabled both countries to learn from each other’s experiences in dealing with these issues,” the South African Ambassador to Hungary, Johann Marx recalls of these almost two and a half decades to Diplomacy & Trade.
He adds that this brought about a growing realization that a more structured mechanism was needed to engage in a focused manner with each other. This resulted in the establishment of a Joint Economic Commission, following Hungary’s earlier accession to the 1999 European Union-South African Trade and Development Cooperation Agreement after it joined the EU in 2004.
As for political relations, recent bilateral high-level visits included a visit to Hungary by a South African Deputy Minister of International Relations and Cooperation in 2012 and two visits by Hungarian Deputy Prime Minister Semjén to South Africa the following year, the second of which was to attend the state funeral of former President Mandela, the Ambassador adds.
The Hungarian diaspora community, which settled in South Africa mainly after 1956, also play a significant role in bilateral relations. The Ambassador points out that “as a result of Hungary’s world renowned reputation for academic excellence and technological achievement, some members of the Hungarian diaspora who emigrated to South Africa after 1956, rose to high academic positions in our country, contributing to a much needed skills transfer to South African citizens and also creating awareness of Hungary and its challenges at the time.”
Ambassador Marx notes that South Africa is said to be Hungary’s largest trading partner on the African continent, “although, bilateral trade volumes are not as extensive as we at the Embassy would like to see. At present, some 60% of Hungary’s exports consist of vehicles and associated transport equipment, machinery and mechanical appliances, but the closure of the local Nokia manufacturing plant, which had previously exported a considerable quantity of mobile phones manufactured in Hungary to South Africa, unfortunately resulted in a substantial drop in Hungarian export figures to our country.”
South Africa’s current exports to Hungary include mainly machinery and mechanical appliances, electrical equipment, as well as leather, raw hides and skins, which together make up 92% of our exports. “What emerges from these statistics is that our bilateral trade is quite diversified,” he stresses.
As to bilateral investments, one of the most prominent South African companies which has a notable presence in Hungary is South African Breweries/Miller, one of the largest brewery enterprises in the world, of which the Dreher Beer Company is its local subsidiary. Other South African companies present are involved in road development and management; paper manufacturing; courier services; as well as furniture manufacturing and retail sales. Hungarian investments in South Africa, on the other hand – as far as the Embassy in Budapest is aware – are limited at present to a motor vehicle tire recycling company.
Two years ago, a Hungarian-South-African Economic Joint Committee held its inaugural session. “As already indicated, the establishment of a Joint Economic Committee, which had its first session in South Africa during May 2013, helped create a structured framework for future engagement between Hungary and South Africa, which, no doubt, contributed to Hungary’s decision to establish a Trading House in our country in December last year,” the Ambassador says.
Opening to the South
The latest direction of the current Hungarian government’s economic opening is to the South. As to how much progress he expects from this initiative in African relations with Hungary, Ambassador Marx points out that “as an Embassy representing an African country, we greatly appreciate the renewed attention by the current Hungarian government to, among others, the African continent, in terms of its announced policy of an ‘Opening to the South’.
This follows the holding of the June 2013 Budapest Africa Forum, which did much to develop closer ties between Hungary and our continent, notably in the field of education. Through its generous scholarship offers for African countries, Hungary continues to make a significant contribution to essential skill transfers to citizens of various African countries, which can greatly contribute to the creation of decent employment opportunities on the continent, at a time when Africa’s leaders are giving priority attention to infrastructure development and industrialization as a means of ensuring a better life for all their peoples.”
Culture and expertise
The Ambassador says his Embassy is very much involved in encouraging increased contact and exchanges between Hungarian universities and their South African counterparts, inter alia, “in order to bring about closer interaction between the youth of our two countries, who represent our future, which will in turn insure a better understanding of our respective cultures.”
As for the future of bilateral relations, he believes that increased cooperation and even joint ventures between Hungarian and South African companies, especially on the African continent, could be very advantageous to both our countries.
“Over the last 21 years, since South Africa’s democratic transformation, our companies have established an extensive presence across the rest of the African continent, from areas such as mobile telecommunication to mining and food outlets. The market expertise relating to other African countries which these companies have developed over two decades, might be very useful to Hungarian enterprises wishing to operate in Africa and who – in turn – could perhaps provide much needed technological expertise in various fields, thus making a significant contribution to continued economic growth in both our countries, as well as elsewhere on the African continent.”
Homey feeling and language challenge
Ambassador Johann Marx presented his credentials to the Hungarian President in May 2013. He says that over these past two years he has been traveling quite a lot in the country, “especially when my wife – who spends a lot of time back in South Africa with our daughter who goes to university there – comes to visit me. She works for our Department (Ministry) of International Relations and Cooperation back home. Last year, I took her on visits to Pécs and Szeged and we also went to Sopron. I think Hungary is a beautiful country, it has a lot to offer tourists and we always greatly enjoy our visits across the country.”
He adds that his favorite place is Lake Balaton “because I like water. That is also one reason why I’m very attached to Budapest. When my daughter comes here on university holidays, she and I go walking for kilometers along the banks of the River Danube and across the bridges to see the beauty of the river.”
The Ambassador finds people here very friendly, very welcoming. “From the first day I arrived here, I really felt at home in Hungary. Of course, your language is quite a challenge for non-Hungarians, but it is a fascinating one because it is very logical. I think that is one reason why Hungarians are so good at mathematics and why so many people of Hungarian origin have received Nobel prizes over the years. I keep studying the language and I constantly try to improve my ability to express myself in Hungarian as much as possible.”
His favorite local drink is Hungarian wine. “At home, when I’m not entertaining official guests, I drink Hungarian wine most of the time: red or white – both are really excellent. I also like pálinka in small quantities as an aperitif. As for Hungarian food, I’m very, fond of paprika, the not so spicy type – I like to have it in a salad every day, it is very healthy, very enjoyable. Of course, you have all sorts of excellent restaurants available in Budapest: I enjoy a wide variety of local cuisine, from pizzas to duckling.”
Posted to a peaceful place
As an experienced diplomat, Ambassador Marx notes that each posting offers its unique experience. “To me, being a diplomat in a country is to really experience that country in every sense of the word. So, while I’m here, I want to enjoy Hungarian food and Hungarian wine.” He says that he has also greatly enjoyed reading extensively about the thousand years very fascinating history of the country.
His previous posting was in Israel during the second Palestinian uprising in the first few years of the current millennium, “when suicide bombings were unfortunately quite a regular occurrence.” Fortunately, in Hungary, we don’t face that kind of situation. I find this one of the nicest places any diplomat could wish for. Hungary is a very enjoyable working environment. We have easy access to important office holders, both in and outside the government. So, for diplomats, operating in Hungary is real pleasure,” he concludes.