An Afternoon with the South African Ambassador to Malaysia

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This post was written by Baiq Dewi Yuningsih.

An afternoon with the South African High Commissioner to Malaysia, His Excellency Thami Mseleku, proved to be extremely pleasant, mainly due to his warm and friendly personality.

Growing up in a vibrant but poor area of his native country, Mseleku draws similarities between the kampungs in Malaysia, and his own village in South Africa, called Edendale: “Parts of Malaysia remind me of home. Some villages back home still face the challenges of a lack of clean water and limited road access.” For Mseleku, the most enjoyable aspect of his job is visiting these kampungs and experiencing life as it happens in rural communities. if I go to the countryside, and they see black short hair like mine, they get really excited and want to touch it” he explains. “I know for many people like myself this may be offensive, but that sense of innocent curiosity, of wanting to know where I come from, is really heartwarming.”

Despite the climate in South Africa sharing some similarities with Malaysia, Mseleku found it a stark contrast to what he was used to: “My first impression was that was hot and humid. I do come from a rather hot country, but the heat is different.” Once settling in, however, Mseleku has come to enjoy his time in a country he refers to as “wonderful.” He says, “I visited Malaysia before being posted here, but it was only for a two-day conference. The cuisine is a mixture of many cultures, and is very similar to South Africa’s too. I enjoy the people. I find that people in Malaysia are open and very social. What a wonderful place to live!”

When I ask about his earliest ambitions and interests, Mseleku answers with a thoughtful smile: “My ambitions and interest were always modified by the circumstances while I was growing up. When I was in the school I thought I was going to be a doctor. Then I ended up becoming a teacher, and spent a lot of my time lecturing in universities, until I joined the government in 1994. Since then, I’ve felt like I want to serve my country and the people, so perhaps I’ve lost my individual ambition – and I’m happy about it.” When pressed about an unforgettable experience, Mseleku responds with a tale every South African is familiar with. “That moment when I saw the doors of the Victor Verster prison open, and I saw Nelson Mandela’s face for the first time. That’s the most outstanding moment. For me, to say that I lived through that experience and that I was there is amazing. That will never be replaced by any other memory,” he says with pride. “Another memory that makes me smile is remembering the first time when everyone in South Africa was queuing up to vote for the first time. There was an old lady who intended on voting, but could not read or write. She was voting in a constituent that didn’t really support Nelson Mandela much, but she insisted on voting for him anyway. It was a great moment for me to witness that.”

Having been away from his home country for 3 years and 2 months now, Mseleku does feel homesick for South Africa at times. “I do miss the people back home. I miss the ordinary gogo, or ‘granny’. The gogos in South Africa give you advice that you don’t ask for, and treat you like you are their  own grandson, all the time. In South Africa, everyone is like family. Of course, I also miss South African food,” he says, laughing.

The High Commissioner expresses pride about some of the significant things he has done for his country during his tenure in Malaysia. “The visit of our president, Jacob Zuma was a definite highlight. It has strengthened that the relationship between Malaysia and South Africa and that is what I was working on – to build relationships between governments and people,” he adds. Mseleku was meant to host the Agong [Malaysian king] on a visit to South Africa. However, due to the passing of the great Nelson Mandela, he was unable to do so, but he still hopes the Agong will make a trip soon.

Being a rather social diplomat, the High Commissioner has high praise for Malaysian hospitality. “One of the things about Malaysian people is that they love to socialise and attend events, with a spot of music and dancing,” he says, smiling. Not surprisingly, Mseleku counts music as a lifelong passion. “I love music. In my free time I’m almost always immersed in music – I listen to it, play it or even get together with my family for a jam session. Music is food for the soul.”

Source: The Expat January 2014

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