State visit to South Africa: a tribute to the struggle against apartheid and a commitment to sustainable development

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Photo of Queen Mathilde and King Philip together with South African President Ramaphosa and his wife

Our royal couple meets President Ramaphosa and his wife (© FPS Foreign Affairs).

Belgium's first-ever state visit to South Africa, in March 2023, highlighted our shared values and the topic of sustainable development. The struggle against apartheid and for freedom was also honoured.

During a state visit, our royal couple meets the heads of state of the country being visited. The visit itself therefore takes place at the highest diplomatic level between the two countries involved. A state visit also represents a unique opportunity to strengthen ties on a political, economic, academic and cultural level.

After all, it is not only our King and Queen who travel to the country concerned, but an entire delegation also travels with them. They are invariably accompanied by the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the prime ministers of the communities and regions, among others, in addition to representatives of Belgian companies and universities.

A robust partner

Following the state visit to Lithuania last year, it was South Africa's turn in March 2023, a robust partner which, like Belgium, is an advocate of multilateralism and of peace and security on the European and African continents. Moreover, South Africa has grown in stature to become a regional superpower and an important global player that can play a distinguished role, such as in securing peace in eastern Congo, for example.

For instance, South Africa is the only African country that is a member of the G20 – the world's 20 largest economic powers – but also of the BRICS – the club of emerging countries that includes Brazil, Russia, India and China. The country is also endeavouring to foster good relations with Western countries in order to give the economic recovery every chance of success.

Belgium is one of South Africa's main commercial partners. In 2021, our country was its 10th largest customer and even the 3rd largest within the EU. For Belgium, South Africa is its 37th customer and its 24th supplier. We mainly import diamonds, cars and tractors, while we mainly export pharmaceuticals and energy. Belgium intends to significantly increase its investments in South Africa because, as Africa's most industrialised country and most diversified economy, it has great potential.

The wall with the names of apartheid victims in the Freedom Park memorial.

The wall with the names of apartheid victims in the Freedom Park memorial (© FPS Foreign Affairs).

Honouring victims of apartheid

While the state visit resolutely turned its gaze toward the future, it was also crucial to pay attention to the past. After all, South Africa suffered for years under a system of ‘apartheid’, a brutal segregation of races – white, black, mixed – which only officially ended when Nelson Mandela became President in 1994. By laying a wreath at the Freedom Park memorial, our royal couple wanted to remember the victims of apartheid and, more generally, all South Africans who gave their lives for freedom and democracy. 

The King and Queen also visited the Hector Pieterson Museum, which commemorates the uprising of schoolchildren who resisted the mandatory use of Afrikaans in the classroom, a language associated with the ruling white minority. During those protests, Hector Pieterson, a 12-year-old boy, was shot by apartheid police.

Photo of King Philip talking to two female diamond cutters in South Africa

Diamond cutters show how diamonds are cut (© FPS Foreign Affairs).

The transition towards green energy

While showing reverence for the past, the focus of the visit was upon the future. And that future brings pressing challenges, such as the green energy transition, amongst others. In Johannesburg, one of the locations visited was the BEKA Schréder company, a fine showcase of a successful Belgian investment in South Africa that even radiates outwards into all of Sub-Saharan Africa. BEKA Schréder produces solar-powered public lighting.

Also included on the programme was a visit to Battery Test Bed. Funded by Flanders, this recently established laboratory is testing out innovative technologies to adapt batteries more effectively to the local climatic and technical conditions that exist in South Africa.

Photo of Queen Mathilde and King Philip in a lab coat

Our royal couple while visiting Afrigen (© FPS Foreign Affairs).

Producing vaccines autonomously

During the coronavirus pandemic, our country strongly advocated enabling poorer countries to produce their own vaccines as well. Because that way, they will be less dependent on the West. Together with the World Health Organization (WHO) and the EU, among others, Belgium has supported an ‘mRNA tech transfer hub’ in South Africa in order to make this a reality. The intention is to subsequently export the locally developed vaccine expertise to other countries in Africa and even around the world.

Our royal couple visited that vaccine hub which is the fruit of a collaboration between the South African companies Afrigen and Biovax and the Belgian companies Univercells and eTheRNA. South Africa and the other countries involved will now be in a position to respond quickly and more effectively themselves, should a new harmful virus emerge.

As a premier diamond exporting country, the state visit simply had to include the country's diamond industry. The King met employees of a diamond company who showed him how diamonds are cut.

Photo of King Philip on a skateboard

King Philip during his successful attempt to stand on a skateboard (© FPS Foreign Affairs).

Youth at the forefront

Several of the visits undertaken put young people at the forefront. For example, the delegation stopped by at Johannesburg's Skate Park, a local skate school dedicated to the creative education of young people mainly from disadvantaged backgrounds. The King even ventured out on a skateboard, encouraged by the numerous young people present. The skate school is funded by the Brussels start-up, Skateroom. 

King Philippe also participated in a round table on youth empowerment. The aim: to boost the local diamond industry, amongst other things, by means of training and the exchanging of best practices. On the programme for Queen Mathilde was a visit to the Emuseni Day Care Centre for children, located in the well-known working-class neighbourhood of Soweto. The Belgian non-profit organisation VVOB, a partner of Belgian Development Cooperation, organises staff training there.

The state visit also provided ample opportunities for the academics in the delegation to meet their South African counterparts. For example, the royal couple visited the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town, which for many years has worked closely with the Ghent University and the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. The focus was on digital inclusion, which enables young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to get an education and find work.

Necessary and useful

This busy, 4-day visit left plenty of room to highlight the various aspects of the cooperation and the relationship that exist between our two countries. On the ground, it clearly showed that the ties between Belgium and South Africa are very strong.

This was our country's very first state visit to South Africa and was also the first time our royal couple had made a state visit to Africa, so it was therefore more than simply necessary and useful. The next economic mission involving a member of the Belgian royal family will take place in May 2023, when Princess Astrid will lead an economic mission to Africa, specifically Senegal.

Photo collage with four pictures showing King Philip playing football, painting the Belgian flag on a wall, walking with a group of children and sitting on a bench among children

Some atmospheric images (© FPS Foreign Affairs).