Interview by: Cynthia L. Blandford, iF Magazine, Publisher and CFO (ATL)
His Excellency Ambassador Dr. Reuben E. Brigety II, was nominated by President Joseph R. Biden on February 10, 2022, to be the U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of South Africa. He served as the 17th Vice Chancellor of the University of the South in Tennessee and Mayor of Sewanee from June 2020 until December 2021. Previously he served as the Dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.
Ambassador Brigety’s most recent diplomatic assignment was serving as the U.S. Representative to the African Union and U.S. Permanent Representative to the UN Economic Commission for Africa from September 2013 to September 2015. Previously, Ambassador Brigety served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of African Affairs and also as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.
Good day Your Excellency, Ambassador Dr. Reuben Brigety. Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today while I am here in South Africa with the Houston International Trade Development Council (HITDC) exploring ways to increase trade between the U.S. and South Africa.
As the Publisher and CFO of International Focus (iF) Magazine, I wish to congratulate you on your nomination and confirmation as the new U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of South Africa. I am also delighted to be in the residence of the Consul General for the U.S. Consulate in Johannesburg, Honorable Vincent Spera, to conduct this interview and who kindly agreed to host the HITDC trade delegation for a South African Braai. We are looking forward to the Braai later this evening and appreciate the invitation.
Ambassador Brigety, please share with us your background and how you believe your experiences as a Vice Chancellor at the University of the South, former U.S. Ambassador to the African Union and other high-level positions, prepared you for this prominent diplomatic post.
My father, who is a physician and who was the first African American to graduate from the University of Florida Medical School, graduated in 1970. My father says I can’t seem to keep a job in the sense that I’ve been blessed to have a career that takes me all over the world in a variety of different sectors, but always in service to our country and in service to our values, both abroad and at home.
I am a native of Jacksonville, Florida, where I was born and raised. I am a child of the eighties which means both my taste in music and my worldview was formed during that critical period. You know, in South Africa, we talk about the “Born Free Generation,” the generation who was born after the end of apartheid. I like to say that I am part of America’s “Born Free Generation” because I was born in 1973, which means I’m part of the first generation of African Americans who were born fully free. Even my parents were not fully free or people who were born as late as 1965, 1966, or 1967 cannot say the same thing because of laws that were still on the books. I was very much raised in the milieu of working to seize the opportunities of fully free to the full promise of America.
I also held appointments as an assistant professor of government and politics at George Mason University and at the School of International Service at American University between August 2003 and April 2009. In addition, I was a researcher with the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch (HRW) from August 2001 to May 2003, where I conducted research missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Before joining HRW, I was an active-duty U.S. naval officer and held several staff positions in the Pentagon and in fleet support units.
In 1995, I became a Distinguished Midshipman Graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, where I earned a B.S. in Political Science (with merit), served as the Brigade Commander and received the Thomas G. Pownall Scholarship. I also hold a Master of Philosophy and a Ph.D. in International Relations from the University of Cambridge, England, as well as a Doctor of Humane Letters (honoris causa) from Old Dominion University.
I worked in NGOs, in Think Tanks and served under former President Obama initially as a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, the Refugees Bureau working on refugee issues all across Africa. Subsequently, I also worked as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for southern Africa to include South Africa and then as the U.S. Ambassador to the African Union, which was my first Ambassadorship. After that, I served as the Dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs for five years and was recruited from there to be the first African American Vice Chancellor at the University of the South. Subsequently, I received a call from the White House, and they said the President needs you to go to South Africa as the next U.S. Ambassador. Here we are!
Excellency, as the new Ambassador to South Africa, you pledged to promote “Ubuntu Diplomacy.” Tell us more about your philosophy and the principles of this type of diplomacy and how it will work.
The concept of “Ubuntu” is one of the great gifts that South Africa has given to the world. “Ubuntu” is basically a Zulu word that translated basically means “I am because we are.” What it calls us all to do is to recognize our common humanity and commit ourselves to our shared human dignity. So, in my commitment to practice “Ubuntu” diplomacy, I have committed both myself and the U.S. Mission to South Africa and everything we do in our engagement with our South African government counterparts and our engagements with our South African colleagues in the general population. To summon that spirit of common dignity, of shared recognition of our common humanity, and also to say this is how we are going to treat each other inside our Mission as well, is “Ubuntu Diplomacy.”
Mr. Ambassador went on to say, “when you start from that basic premise that we are here to uplift our common human dignity, that therefore becomes the framework by which you address all matters, all other issues in our bilateral relationships from questions to improving trade access for the United States, to creating jobs inside South Africa so that people can find their own future, their own dignity here with well-paying jobs. We delivered to families our continued commitment to work on issues of healthcare with our emergency plan for AIDS relief or the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (PEPFAR), which has saved millions of South African lives for the last almost 20 years, to everything else that we do. So, “Ubuntu” is our starting principle, and I am very grateful to South Africans for giving this “Ubuntu” gift to us and to the rest of the world.
As South Africa is the largest U.S. trade partner in Africa with a total two-way trade of almost $21 billion in 2021, and approximately six hundred American businesses, what strategies do you have in mind to help strengthen economic ties between the two countries.
Sure. Well, first of all, the first thing to note is that there are more than six hundred U.S. companies here. And so, the first thing to note is that the future is Africa. By 2030, one-fourth of the world’s population is expected to be from Africa. South Africa, where we are sitting right here right now, in Gauteng Province, represents almost 6% of GDP for the entire Continent by itself. As we look to the future of the Continent, I say to my South African colleagues, the future is forward. Notwithstanding, many of the challenges, and historical challenges of our past, we are fully invested in the future of Africa’s young people.
Ambassador went on to say, “the future is led in large part by private sector economic growth because there is no other economic model that has lifted more people out of poverty in the entire history of humanity than capitalism, appropriately applied. Led by industrious individuals at all levels, whether it be the industrial marketplace women who are working very hard to help her family in the townships, to Fortune 100 companies that are looking to expand and grow from here in South Africa and elsewhere. And so, part of what we do here at the U.S. Mission is both to help American companies understand the enormous market opportunities here in South Africa, to help work with the South African government to aid American companies to engage here and to make the case for our South African colleagues why a partnership with America is such a fantastic two way.”
Excellency, I was excited to learn that President Biden will be hosting leaders in Washington, D.C. from across Africa December 13-15, 2022, for the US-Africa Leader’s Summit to discuss Democracy and Human Rights, COVID-19 and future pandemics, Food Security, Peace and Security, Climate Change and Diaspora ties. Mr. Ambassador, please share your thoughts on how this Summit will help promote your work in South Africa as you plan your diplomatic agenda for the next few years.
Sure. Well, first of all, there is not a major issue that is at play anywhere in the world that is not of a great significance here in Africa. Whether it is the importance of continuing to press the case for democracy as a governing mechanism, but proof that democracy delivers for its people.
Food Security is important where the Continent of Africa has approximately 60% of the world’s available arable land and where Africa should not only be able to feed itself, but also to continue to feed the rest of the world. One of the things that we have learned from both Ebola and COVID is that viruses do not respect borders and therefore, we have to be closely tied to each other to promote health security, just as much as we promote economic and national security.
The United States and South Africa are two of the world’s great constitutional democracies and as such, we should be constantly in contact with each other as we are both important to the rest of the Continent, and to the rest of the world. Because South Africa is a major leader in Africa, and a major leader throughout the entire globe, and we are two countries that should have ever increasing ties, by virtue of our constitutional principles and commitments to democracy.
And so, the economy plays a vital role in that because the economy touches everything. You cannot have a thriving economic environment without all the democratic principles and institutions that go with it, rule of law, transparency, strong labor rights etc., all of which we are both committed to in principle and also in law, which is why we need to continue to cooperate together. We cannot do that unless the private sector of American entrepreneurs continues to engage here in South Africa on the principle of “More.”
Mr. Ambassador, with the Delta Air Lines inaugural flight launching in December 2022 from Atlanta to Cape Town, our firms, Blandford Thompson International Consulting, LLC and iF Magazine, are already planning another trade mission and look forward to collaborating with you and your team to help promote travel, trade and tourism in South Africa.
Excellency, can you advise what your hopes are with these direct flights and how we can be of assistance to you? The U.S. Consulates in South Africa have been outstanding in their efforts to assist us on this trade mission, and we look forward to collaborating with you and your team as well as local South African government officials, the Chambers, and the business and academic communities in the near future.
Sure. Well diplomacy, the economy, and culture, all these things are fundamentally human endeavors that require people to engage each other and to engage, preferably in person. While you can read about something in print or you can watch something on television, there simply is no substitute for actually being here and engaging.
South Africa is a beautiful country with lots of amazing opportunities for all sorts of engagement across the spectrum and the inaugural flights from Atlanta to Cape Town and potentially from other places, are pathways, modern routes for people to travel for that basic engagement. The world is increasingly shrinking in terms of physical proximity by virtue of air routes. Obviously, the world is shrinking in terms of digital proximity and so my strong hope is that people who have never come to Africa before, who have never experienced South Africa before, will hop on the plane and come see one of the coolest cities in the world in Cape Town and come to Joburg which is a hive of bustling activity and also see some of the natural beauty of this glorious country.
Excellency, do you have any final comments you would like to make at this time?
Sure. So, my favorite South African word is “Yebo.” It is a Zulu word which roughly translated means “Heck Yeah!” It is a great all-purpose word that I apply every day, and I say to iF Magazine “Yebo” — come to South Africa.
As we conclude our interview with you today, on behalf of Mr. Val Thompson, CEO and Publisher of iF Magazine and me, many thanks again Excellency, Mr. Ambassador, for this interview, and we wish you the best of luck as the new U.S. Ambassador to South Africa. iF Magazine will be back! “Yebo!”