H.E. Thabo Thage: South Africa and Bulgaria share a Long and Strong History Together #AmbassadorTalks

Novinite Insider | Author: Nikola Danailov |December 14, 2022, Wednesday // 09:33
Bulgaria: H.E. Thabo Thage: South Africa and Bulgaria share a Long and Strong History Together #AmbassadorTalks

It's the holiday season! And we're happy and honored to have His Excellency Mr. Thabo Thage as one of our last guests for 2022 in the series Ambassador Talks. Grab a warm drink on this snowy day and enjoy the interview.

1. What is your opinion on the bilateral political and business relations between Bulgaria and your country?

Bilateral relations between the two historical partners can best be described as warm, with determination by both sides to ensure that they continue to expand and deepen. With regards to bilateral business relations, they still have a good prospect to realize their true potential.

South Africa and Bulgaria share a long and strong history together which was forged during difficult times and that will continue to grow through building on, improving and expanding bilateral political, economic, and people-to-people relations. 

From 1992 when official diplomatic relations were established between South Africa and Bulgaria bilateral relations between South Africa and Bulgaria were developed and strengthened through several high-level visits and the signing of a total of 14 bilateral agreements.

The first Senior Official’s meeting between South Africa and Bulgaria was held virtually on 4 October 2021 and was followed almost immediately by Bilateral Political and Economic Consultations at Deputy Ministerial level on 14 October 2021, during a visit to Bulgaria of Deputy Minister Alvin Botes. 

This important development heralded the beginning of structured bilateral relations with annual or biannual consultations envisioned as a constant feature.  The main objectives of the consultations are the strengthening of bilateral political and economic relations, the promotion of culture, tourism and people-to-people relations and to promote academic cooperation between higher institutions of learning. 

Bilateral trade between South Africa and Bulgaria grew from USD128.3 million to USD153.1 between January and May this year.  These figures suggest that mutual trade during the whole of 2022 could surpass USD 300 million, higher than the top values of USD 247.3 million in 2013 and USD 223.5 million in 2018 respectively.

The main drivers of SA exports to Bulgaria are coal, wool, motor vehicles for transportation of goods, integrated circuits and the main drivers of SA imports from Bulgaria are sunflower oil, kraft paper and electrical batteries. We are confident that more products could be added to boost the current basket of trade. When you look at the diverse product offerings from South Africa be it in terms of manufactured goods, agro-produce, meat exports and many more, you will realize that there is scope for increasing current trade figures manifold. It is for this reason that we have now finalized processes towards the appointment of the Honorary Consul of South Africa to be based in Varna but with a consular district that encompasses both Varna and Burgas.

2. What kind of improvement of these relations do you see in the near future and also long term?

Both bilateral political and economic relations show potential for further expansion and growth.  We are looking at the consolidation of the bilateral consultations, which are currently at Deputy Minister level, with the accompanying Senior Officials’ Meetings. Consolidation would among others include increased regularity and institutionalization of these engagements as well as increased physical and virtual trade engagements to unlock business opportunities between both sides.

Furthermore, economic relations can be improved, with specific focus on trade expansion.  As mentioned above, current trade figures suggest that there is scope to increase same to higher levels than ever before.  Here the Embassy will be focussing on sectors such as food products; ICT; bio products; electronics; cosmetics; textiles and Fintech. The Embassy will also continue to promote cultural and people-to-people relations with an emphasis on the exchange of students and expertise.  Regarding tourism, South Africa is well known in Bulgaria and it is highly regarded by many Bulgarians as an exotic destination that offers excellent value for money.  Seasonal differences between Bulgaria and South Africa present good opportunities for the expansion of tourism relations. The Bulgarian currency, the Lev (BGN), is much stronger than the Rand at 1 to 8, which makes South Africa a cost-effective destination of choice for Bulgarian citizens.

3. In your humble opinion, what is the place of Bulgaria in the modern world?

One of the central tenets of a modern world system is the notion of a global village which essentially talks to the interconnectedness of countries of the world. I believe that Bulgaria subscribes to the principle of the centrality of the United Nations within the global governance system supported of course by regional blocs. Amongst others, Bulgaria is a member of the World Trade Organisation which as you ought to know is an intergovernmental organization that is the standard bearer of global trade. On the other hand, Bulgaria acceded to the European Union, a “supranational political and economic union” made up of 27 member states. Both institutions seek to promote global stability and prosperity. Engaging at this level is an attestation that Bulgaria has and continues to take up its rightful place within the modern world and is expected to comply with all relevant rules and accompanying regulations. The aforesaid are views that are in sync with South Africa’s own posture towards the global architecture anchored on the creation of a just and peaceful world for all its inhabitants.

4. If you want to promote Bulgaria to investors from your country, what would be the 5 most important advantages you would mention?

Firstly, Bulgaria is located at the heart of the Balkans and is a strategic logistics hub. Ease of transportation of cargo is provided via five pan-European corridors that pass through the country. Bulgaria could become a cheaper and alternative route for South African and other non-EU exporters to the Balkans, the European Union, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Turkey and the Middle East. The expectation that Bulgaria will join the Schengen area and the Eurozone further contributes to its geostrategic attractiveness;

Secondly, ease of doing business in Bulgaria contributes to its attractiveness which is underscored by civil, commercial and economic laws in respect of trade and investment which in turn guarantees comparatively low tax burdens and a relatively easily manageable tax system;

Thirdly Bulgaria offers a well-educated, relatively low-cost work force; and

Fourthly, Bulgaria is a member of the EU which provides stability and need for ensuring checks and balances are adhered to.

5. Do you think Bulgaria could improve its image or branding and if so, could you share an idea or advice?

Bulgaria has a lot of unique features and advantages to offer the world such as its tourism, which in addition to its holiday resorts on the Black Sea, includes its hot springs and spa’s, its ski resorts, its flower industry combined with its essential oils that include its rose and lavender oil industries. Bulgaria also has a wine industry that is generally acknowledged as one of the oldest worldwide and gradually making strides in the commercial space. Hand-in-hand with this goes Bulgaria’s rich history and culture. “Brand Bulgaria” should be carried much stronger and proactively internationally through well-researched and targeted communication strategies to ensure that Bulgaria and all that the country encompasses becomes much better known and appreciated internationally.

6. What will be the three most important events that the embassy will organize by the end of the year?

The year 2022 marks the 30th year since the establishment of bilateral diplomatic relations between South Africa and Bulgaria.  As a practical expression of a public/private partnership in the promotion of bilateral relations between South Africa and Bulgaria and to contribute to preserving the legacy of the global icon, Mr. Nelson Mandela, the Embassy, in partnership with Lion's Head and Polygraphia Office Centre held the official unveiling of the first Nelson Mandela monument in Bulgaria in honor of this extraordinary advocate for human dignity, equality and prosperity. 

Another bold step taken by the Embassy during this 30th year of bilateral relations between South Africa and Bulgaria is the conclusion of the appointment of a new Honorary Consul for South Africa in the Varna and Burgas regions. The objective is to further develop and promote commercial, economic and cultural relations between South Africa and the regions of Varna and Burgas. 

Additionally, the Embassy is in the process of identifying sector-specific companies in South Africa and Bulgaria to further promote bilateral trade through a possible virtual meeting to be followed by a trade mission to South Africa during 2023. We are also experiencing high-level inter-institutional contact mainly between research institutions in both South Africa and Bulgaria. A case in point being the visit to South Africa by delegations from several institutions of higher learning in Bulgaria and vice versa.

7. To what extent did the Covid-19 pandemic affect Bulgaria-South African relations?

The pandemic resulted in a pause on activities that could have yielded more economic spinoffs. You will recall that in Bulgaria things came to a halt in March 2020, which was just 8 months into my tour of duty as Ambassador. Most unfortunately and like everyone else, our plans were disrupted. Business delegations and other high-level visits had to be canceled. South Africa was temporarily put on Bulgaria’s Covid-19 list in the “red zone” because of the designation of a COVID-19 variant discovered by South Africa as a variant of concern. Bilateral trade almost halved between 2018 (USD 223.5 million) and 2021 (USD 128.3 million). During this period, tourism between South Africa and Bulgaria came to a virtual standstill as did most all people-to-people direct contact. The use of virtual meetings did soften these blows but it is only this year that the situation is reversing and bilateral trade and tourism is growing again.

8. What advice would you give to Bulgarians who want to do business with South African citizens?

South Africa is always open for business:

  • The South African currency, the Rand, is internationally a good performer;
  • South Africa’s monetary policy is advanced and stable; 
  • South Africa has a number of special economic zones where companies receive tax benefits of 15%;
  • The independence of South Africa’s three branches of government: the judiciary, the executive and legislature is protected by its Constitution;
  • South Africa is the biggest exporter in Africa but also the biggest importer;
  • South Africa remains the most industrialized country on the African continent and provides a gateway to the rest of the 53 countries in Africa;
  • The African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA ) provides access to a consumer base of 1.2 billion people across the continent with an estimated combined GDP of USD 3 trillion.  Trading under the AfCFTA began on 1 January 2021;
  • The AfCFTA Investment Protocol applies to intra-Africa investments. Non-African investors and investments may benefit indirectly from the Protocol through the most-favoured nation principles in investment treaties and improved governance in the AfCFTA.  This means that a bilateral Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between South Africa and Bulgaria ensuring “a preferred economic partnership” between the two countries would be required unless Bulgaria acts under the South African-EU strategic partnership agreement of 2016; and
  • Should Bulgaria invest in the industrialization of South Africa and promote industrial development through diversification and/or on infrastructure development, Bulgaria would qualify to benefit from the AfCFTA.

9. Tell us about yourself - what was your professional diplomatic career, how long have you been in Bulgaria and what are the most interesting places or even dishes in Bulgaria for you?

I have had the honor and privilege of serving my country as a career diplomat for 23 years. It is a service that has taken me to various corners of the world in the pursuit of mutually beneficial bilateral relations and cooperation within various multilateral institutions. I have had the distinct honor of serving my country in our Missions in the UAE, Belgium, China, Chile and now Bulgaria. In all of the aforesaid tasks that I have been privileged to undertake on behalf of our country and government, I have served twice as a Head of Mission, these being in Shanghai, as Consul General, and in Chile as Ambassador, and currently in Bulgaria, also as Ambassador. I have now served in Bulgaria for a fruitful and exciting 3 and a half years.

The pandemic denied us the opportunity to appreciate the picturesque Bulgaria and most importantly the heart and soul of this beautiful country, its people. The heartbeat of diplomatic relations are people to people to people relations. You will recall that the onset of the pandemic in Bulgaria coincided with the beginning of my sojourn as the Ambassador. Now that the pandemic is hopefully behind us, we are trying our best to make up for lost time and have been spoilt for choice with regard to the scenic historical and cultural sites across Bulgaria, from the Danube river to the Vitosha Mountain. Without any order of priority and to mention just a few, the most interesting places I have been to and or would be visiting with family and friends in due course are:

  • Amazing and infinite touristic sites across Sofia and including the majestic Vitosha mountain;
  • The Rila monastery;
  • God’s eyescave;
  • The Seven Rila Lakes and
  • The coastal city of Varna

The choice is equally vast when it comes to the delightful Bulgarian cuisine, amongst others my family and I enjoy these delicacies:

  • Banitsa
  • Shopska salata
  • Kebapche
  • Turshia
  • Tsatsa
  • Parlenka
  • Iyutenitsa

10. If you had to describe Bulgarian in just three words, what would they be?

Cultural heritage; Potential; Opportunity

Ambassador Thabo Thage is an experienced career diplomat with a demonstrated 20 year history of working at senior government administration level with corporate industries in South Africa, the Gulf Region, Europe, China and lately Latin America. Skilled in Foreign Affairs, Political Economy and Policy Analysis. Provided credible advice to high level enterprises regarding South Africa as an ideal trade and investment partner as well as a tourism destination of choice. He has a Master's degree in International Relations/ Political Economy from Coventry University, UK.

Novinite.com presents its new series titled: “Ambassador Talks”. It consists of interviews with Ambassadors or Heads of Missions accredited to Bulgaria in order to see their point of view on current developments - both domestic, bilateral and international. Each interview will have the same 10 questions.

Our Honorable guests so far:

Ambassador of China, His Excellency Mr. Dong Xiaojun. You can read his interview here.

Ambassador of Denmark, His Excellency Mr. Jes Brogaard Nielsen. You can read his interview here.

Chargée d'Affaires ad interim of Germany Irene Maria Plank. You can read her interview here.

Ambassador of Spain, His Excellency Mr. Alejandro Polanco Mata. You can read his interview here.

Ambassador of Italy, Her Excellency Mrs. Giuseppina Zarra. You can read her interview here.

Ambassador of Brazil, Her Excellency Mrs. Maria Edileuza Fontenele Reis. You can read her interview here.

Ambassador of the Czech Republic, His Excellency Mr. Lukas Kaucky. You can read his interview here.

Ambassador of Albania, Her Excellency Mrs. Donika Hoxha. You can read her interview here.

Ambassador of Romania, Her Excellency Mrs. Brandusa Predescu. You can read her interview here.

Ambassador of Portugal, Her Excellency Mrs. Ana Maria Ribeiro da Silva. You can read her interview here.

Representatives of Embassies based in Bulgaria can contact Novinite for more information at Office@novinitegroup.com

Novinite.com (Sofia News Agency) is the largest English-language news provider in Bulgaria, with coverage of domestic and international news for more than 20 years.  The agency is read in more than 120 countries all over the world. A news archive is kept for years in many governmental and business institutions and the website is quoted globally on a daily basis.

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