PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA — For the first time ever, Somalia has sent an ambassador to South Africa, the continent’s economic powerhouse. New Ambassador Sayid Sheriff said he’s optimistic about planting Somalia’s diplomatic flag after decades of instability, and said he plans to reach out to the thousands of Somali refugees living in South Africa. South African President Jacob Zuma said his nation also plans to embark on ambitious projects to help the Horn of Africa nation get back on its feet after decades of war.
Sheriff is the first ambassador from Somalia to be sent to South Africa, the continent’s magnet for refugees, which attracts more asylum seekers than any other nation.
The arrival of new diplomats typically is a pomp-filled affair, and Tuesday night’s event in Pretoria was no different in that respect. The other 10 diplomats dutifully shook hands with South African President Jacob Zuma, handed over their credential letters and posed for photos.
Somalia’s presence at this ceremony, however, was special. That’s because for much of the last two decades, Somalia hasn’t had a functioning central government. The Horn of Africa nation is Africa’s poster child for disaster: It’s been wracked by civil war, it harbors al-Qaida-affiliated insurgents, it recently was ravaged by drought and famine, and it is the continent’s piracy hub.
Overcoming myriad challenges
Zuma recognized those hurdles in a speech addressed in part to the new ambassador.
“Their suffering through war and famine has been our suffering, and now that they are on the road to recovery and prosperity, we wish to walk beside them and to assist wherever we can with rebuilding your country," he said. "But I believe that what comes first is what Somalian people themselves do to be assisted. I was with the president in the [African Union] who made a very good speech in thanking Africa but at the same time, guaranteeing that Somalia will never go wrong again, but asking the support for us to help.”
Zuma said his nation has allocated 100 million rand - about $11 million - to help rebuild Somalia’s infrastructure and institutions.
After the ceremony, Sheriff said in an exclusive interview with VOA that Somalia has long had close ties to South Africa. The country supported the African National Congress during its fight against the apartheid government. But by the time South Africa became a full-fledged democracy in 1994, Somalia was mired in a civil war after the overthrow of its longtime dictator.
Sheriff said the two nations have a lot of catching up to do.
“We want to strengthen and consolidate the relation as much as we can. At the same time we have a very large community here in South Africa. The South Africans are absolutely assisting them. We are here now to serve them... so they can go back to their country and come back here, that’s why we are here now,” he said.
Sheriff warned that change would not come to Somalia immediately, and cited a setback - a Tuesday morning suicide blast near the presidential palace.
“You know when you are having a kind of civil war for 21 years, 22 years, you cannot turn it overnight. The peace cannot just come as a miracle from the sky. So, relatively, it’s quite peace[ful] and when we just compare with the past,” he said.
The Somali Embassy in Pretoria is now open for business. And in show of traditional Somali hospitality, Sheriff said "you are all welcome."