Following South Africa’s democratic transition, diplomatic relations with Latin American states have experienced significant developments. Colombian and South African diplomatic relations officially commenced in 1994, and were further strengthened by the opening of the Colombian Embassy in Pretoria in 1995. Since the commencement of diplomatic relations between South Africa and Colombia, the South African government had not yet established an Embassy in Colombia; instead they had a non-resident Ambassador based in Brazil in 1996. The anticipated establishment of the South African Embassy in Colombia demonstrates the growing ties between the two states and the significance of Colombia to South Africa. Consequently our attention turns to how the possible establishment of a South African Embassy in Colombia could be mutually beneficial to these countries interests, particularly in the areas of investment and infrastructure development.
As in the case of many developing countries, South Africa and Colombia face the challenge of high unemployment rates. In hopes of curbing this challenge the Colombian government formulated the Productive Transformation Program (PTP) in 2007, partnering with 8 industries within the Private sector. The partnership would ensure that the business community and the government trains and educates the labour-force in pertinent skills and improves the regulatory environment in order to assist in the promotion of industries in foreign markets and lastly to develop the required infrastructure. Through the PTP 2.5 million jobs were created in the last four years, and the economic growth rate is at 5% per annum.
Colombia is the third biggest economy in Latin America, having a strong share of export markets with other Latin American states. The Colombian economy has diversified over the years, shifting from exporting coffee to manufacturing automotives and leading in the petroleum industry in Latin America. This diversification of trade and shift from a commodity based economy is attributed to the newly signed free trade agreement between Latin American states, allowing Colombia to export manufactured goods to other Latin American countries.
Colombia’s economic strategy emphasises the need for infrastructure development, through the expansion of transport infrastructure aimed at reducing travel time and cost. Therefore the Colombian government seeks to invest $25 billion in road infrastructure by 2021; building new highways that will reduce transport costs between mountainous cities and ports on the Caribbean and Pacific coasts. As a strategy to diversify its economy, Colombia is looking to establish itself as a gateway to Asia through the Pacifica Alliance bloc, therefore investments in ports as well as other forms of transportation are of great importance to the Colombian economy.
In addition to improving trade, the Colombian transport developments sought to improve the accessibility of public services to previously isolated areas. In Medellin the newly constructed Metro-cable, has ended the isolation of those living in the mountainside from the city-centres; breaking down the economic and social barriers between informal settlements and city-centres. The Colombian transport system has thus assisted in controlling the rise of the urban population. Given that South Africa is rapidly urbanizing a few lessons could be learnt from Colombia’s transport developments. The South African Rea Vaya rapid bus system which links Johannesburg and Braamfontein with Soweto was modelled from the Colombian transport system; nevertheless transport development still lags in South Africa.
The main objective of the recent visit by South African Deputy Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Luwellyn Landers, to Bogota, Colombia was to further strengthen relations between the two countries. South Africa and Colombia share commonalities, especially in terms of their development agendas, evident in the Rea Vaya Bus system modelled from the Colombian transport system as previously mentioned. Furthermore, relations between South Africa and Colombia are boosted by the presence of South African investments in Colombian industries such as Mining, Insurance and Beer Brewing. The South African visit to Colombia concluded with the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding on Political Consultations between the two states, this memorandum will play a momentous role in structuring the bilateral relations.
Ultimately, the expected establishment of a South African Embassy in Colombia may lead to closer and deeper cooperation from which economic lessons can be learnt, including in areas such as public development projects. This can be implemented, particularly in the areas of investment and infrastructure development within South Africa. Strengthened relations can also assist the South African government to find ways to curb the high unemployment rates, as partnering with the Private sector in Colombia has proven to be a success in creating more jobs and in turn improving the country’s economic transformation. Furthermore the adoption of the Rea Vaya Bus system could be expanded to other forms of transportation, connecting those in rural areas to urban centres. Through these initiatives, inhabitants of rural and isolated areas could access basic services and participate in economic activities in cities. On the contrary, Colombia could be further exposed to South African companies looking to invest in the growing jewel and gem industry in Latin America; transferring mining machinery and skills.