The High Commission of South Africa in London is the diplomatic and public face of South Africa in the UK and has one of the best addresses in town – right on Trafalgar Square.
I have visited many times, and it certainly feels like stepping into a time capsule that takes me back to a South Africa of austere gloomy government buildings resplendent in dark wood panelling, a warren of corridors and staircases leading off who knows where, and massive paintings depicting scenes from a chequered history alongside the portraits of the main players who look disapprovingly at you from the walls. This explains why former Prime Minister Jan Smuts seems to be everywhere; he lived here during World War ll.
The main reception rooms include a small theatre where I have had the pleasure of listening to some wonderful performances from South African choirs and artists who bring their energy and love of the country into these dreary spaces as if they want to burst through the walls with their voices and music.
South Africa House was built in the 1930s on the site of a derelict hotel – how ironic is that?The building was designed by Sir Herbert Baker, who amongst many other buildings, designed the Union Buildings in South Africa, with architectural sculpture by Coert Steynberg and Sir Charles Wheeler.
During the 1980s, the building, which was the only South African diplomatic building in a public area, proved an easy target for Anti-Apartheid protestors from around the world with a permanent group based just outside.
Now a cultural hub with a big ‘welcome’ mat at the front door, the High Commission hosts a vast number of events that celebrate success and promotes South African business and investment.
I was there as a guest at a reception hosted by the Executive Mayor of Cape Town to celebrate the centenary of multiple Gold Medal winners Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens who have been exhibiting again at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, who were also celebrating their centenary.
A better tourism asset South Africa could not have and for a nation of gardeners, the Brits like nothing better than visiting the gardens and I suspect showing off their subsequent horticultural knowledge. SANBI staff on the stand at Chelsea where amazed (and secretly delighted), at the huge brand awareness and affinity visitors have with the gardens – true brand ambassadors!
But what I always enjoy (and miss), is experiencing modern South Africa at work. Gathered to celebrate and salute this success amongst other guests were; His Excellency the High Commissioner Dr. Zola Skweyiya and Deputy High Commissioner Bongiwe Qwabe, Executive Mayor of Cape Town Patricia de Lille, Alderman Anthea Serritslev, Parliamentary Leader of the Democratic Alliance Lindiwe Mazibuko, David Davidson and Raymond Hudson who have been responsible for designing and creating the Kirstenbosch-South Africa exhibit for the RHS Chelsea Flower Show for 19 consecutive years, and Alan Demby, MD of the Scion Shop, key sponsor of this international botanical effort.
I’m not name-dropping, but here are South African’s from every walk of life and ethnic group; entrepreneurs, central and local government, conservationists, travel and tourism, media and private sector, all nibbling on local refreshments that had a Portuguese, Malay and Afrikaans influence.
This is what the world sees and you can’t get more international than that!