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A ceremony, a basket and creative diplomacy

Presenting credentials in Pretoria, and giving an unconventional gift signifying hope for a healthy diplomatic friendship
Israeli flag flies at Presidential Guest House in Pretoria, South Africa (Photo: Ilana Lenk)

It is sometimes jokingly said that diplomacy is the world’s second oldest profession. The truth is much of what we diplomats do these days is very modern and even cutting edge – we put deals together, open new markets and opportunities and many of us even have facebook and twitter feeds. Nevertheless, there is still a place once in a while for old fashioned pomp and ceremony. When a new ambassador arrives at his or her post, there is a ceremony called presenting “letters of credence” from his head of state to the host’s head of state, notifying that the ambassador represents his or her country.

As Israel’s new Ambassador to South Africa, I waited over two months for my ceremony. I was able to do most of my job – I met with the Jewish communities in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban, visited and promoted Israeli business projects and wrote two articles that were published in The Citizen and The Cape Times. We hosted a great Israeli jazz quartet and are making plans for two filmmakers to visit a film festival here next month. I even got a very cool mention in South Africa’s Rolling Stone magazine. But, according to South African protocol, reaching out to government officials was not permitted until the official ceremony took place.

So, a few weeks ago when an official note arrived from South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation letting me know that the ceremony would take place on 16 October, I was excited to be able move forward with my responsibilities. The note said I could bring one guest (no debate there – it would be my wife, Ruth) and an official photographer. I decided that the photographer would be my 17-year-old daughter, Ilana. This would give her one last opportunity to take part in a “fun” part of picking up her life to follow nomad parents around the world before she heads back home at the end of the year to take her high school matriculation exams and then to join the Israeli Army.

One other aspect of the note that caught my eye was the opportunity to give a gift. I came prepared with some lovely presents from the Israel Museum and assorted judaica shops but nothing seemed to fit the bill. When meeting with a journalist in Cape Town last month, wondering aloud what to say to the President, she said, somewhat jokingly, that I should give him some Israeli fruit or veggies – as she remembered them fondly from a recent trip to Israel. I realized quickly that she had a great idea – Israeli agricultural experts work with small scale farmers around South Africa. The idea developed into gathering a basket of vegetables, grown on farms in South Africa using Israeli technology and expertise.

It was perhaps a bit different but the idea of Israeli experience aiding rural development in Africa is certainly not new or strange. Mashav – Israel’s international cooperation agency has been working throughout the continent and around the world since the 1950’s. We have had a Mashav agricultural expert in South Africa for nearly a decade sharing our experience here. Currently there are nearly a dozen small farms in diverse areas of South Africa using drip irrigation and advanced greenhouse technologies and techniques such as solar soil sterilization, crop rotation and use of soilless media bags. Promoting small scale farming and careful water management are key aspects of South Africa’s recent National Development Plan.

So after testing the idea on some colleagues and friends, I decided to go for it. Farmers from Hazyview in the province of Mpumalanga (near the world famous Kruger Park) drove halfway to Pretoria to meet a friend of mine with peppers, green beans and butternuts. Another group from Bethanie in Northwest province sent us beetroots. Last week, I visited a wonderful new greenhouse in the village of Umbumbulu in Kwa-Zulu Natal (near Durban) where I was given the very first tomatoes they had grown to share with President Zuma. The basket was put together beautifully by Ruth. And I added a short letter to the President to explain myself.

(Photo: Ruth Lenk)

The short ceremony itself was not incredibly exciting. We were collected at the Embassy in a posh car and Ied by motorcycles to the Presidential Guesthouse. After a brief honor guard and flying of the Israeli flag we met up with 11 other new Ambassadors (Algeria, Austria, Greece, Mongolia, Senegal, Uganda, United Kingdom, United States, Uruguay, Vietnam and Venezuela). We each got a minute or so with the President. I greeted Mr. Zuma in far less than fluent Zulu (“Sawubona” – he smiled and greeted me in Zulu). I then mentioned the human bridge that connected our countries – the wonderful Jewish community in South Africa and our olim from South Africa living in Israel and the potential that exists in cooperation for both our countries (he smiled again and said we’d meet soon).

(Photo: Ilana Lenk)
(Photo: Ilana Lenk) 

I then brought greetings from President Peres and handed him my letter. As we posed for an official photo, I pointed out my daughter-photographer and he smiled again and welcomed her to join us for one more photo. A small break of protocol but it was a nice moment that will be a great family memory.

A fuzzy cellphone photo of the Lenks with President Zuma. Photographer and daughter Ilana is on the right.
A fuzzy cellphone photo of the Lenks with President Zuma. Photographer and daughter Ilana is on the right.

Everyone else got their turn and then President Zuma gave a short speech.

I wasn’t able to give the basket personally but the President’s protocol staff were all lovely and assured me that the gift will reach him. I like to think that he had a wonderful chopped Israeli salad, some butternut soup and some sautéed green beans with his dinner that night.

Obviously, there is lots of tough work ahead of me and my team at our embassy. The relationship between Israel and South Africa is complicated, to put it diplomatically. There are voices in South Africa that want no ties between our countries. But we have friends, too. In just two months it is already clear that Israel has lots more friends here than some people might think. There are many Jews, Christians and Muslims who believe that Israel and South Africa have much to share together as we move forward in our complex democracies. People who know that Israel has cutting edge solutions in innovation, healthcare and water management that are so relevant to the challenges of South Africa in 2013. And Israelis and Palestinians might learn more about how South Africa negotiated and negotiated and negotiated until it resolved its unresolvable problems.

And maybe I’ll get a call from the Minister of Agriculture, the Minister of Water or the Minister of Rural Development. Actually, I will not wait for them – I can call them now as I am officially Israel’s Ambassador to South Africa.

About the Author
Arthur Lenk is Ambassador of Israel to South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. He is a career diplomat who has previously served in India, the United States and as Israel’s Ambassador to Azerbaijan. He was born in the US and made aliyah to Israel in 1983. Follow him on twitter: @ArthurLenk