In the first of a new series on ambassadors in New Zealand, we talk to South African High Commissioner Zodwa Lallie.

Could you give us a rundown of your career before coming to New Zealand in February last year as High Commissioner?

New Zealand is my third posting. My first was as High Commissioner to Ghana after which I transferred as ambassador to the Ivory Coast. Following post-election difficulties in that country in 2010, I returned to head office for some recovery, recuperation and general rearranging of the head. When I was informed I was coming to New Zealand my director-general called me in and said, "We are sending you to a place with a cool climate, both politically and weather-wise."

Did you know much about New Zealand before you came?

Yes, I have been with the department since August 2000 so this is my 13th year, and between 2005 and 2008 I was the chief director in the department responsible for this area so I've worked with this region. I visited here in 2006 with our Deputy President then who came as the guest of the former Prime Minister Helen Clark.


Where were you in 1981, a momentous time in New Zealand with the Springbok tour. How old were you?

In 1981 I was 14 going on 15 so I was in my second year of high school.

You would have had no awareness of what was going on here then?

Not about New Zealand specifically because we were busy battling apartheid and dealing with issues of growing up during hard times, but also, being young, there was always a sense of promise. Of course we had major student disruption in South Africa. Student boycotts and riots were the order of the day so we were not left untouched.

Could you talk about your own schooling and your upbringing?

I'm the last of six. I come from a fairly comfortable background so I can't claim rags to riches. My mother was a high school teacher and my father was a lawyer ... One of my strongest memories of childhood was of a very loving father and a hard-working mum who was doing the best she could to raise six kids ... I've always known if you want a better life or a good life you must work hard for it and it will pay off. The result of that was that during the time of grand apartheid, the Catholic Church decided it would defy the apartheid regime and apartheid laws and open up its schools to children of all races. I was one of the first beneficiaries.

Do you have any goals for 2014?

2014 is a year in which I just want to get on with it. I've cased out the lie of the land, I've made some studies of what's happening in New Zealand, socially, politically, economically, had meetings across the spectrum, Government, Opposition parties, business, business and more business, academia, Maoridom ... so it has been my year of learning, my year of acclimatising. So 2014 is going to be the year of take-off ... I am going to kick up our economic diplomacy a gear.

Have you formed a view about New Zealand characteristics since you have been here?

The one thing that strikes you about New Zealanders is how warm and friendly they are. I know that New Zealand embraces diversity, but there are very few black people in Wellington so the absence of other black people struck me. After that struck I would be walking around Lambton Quay and all the other sights in town, and if I kind of looked lost, people would stop and ask if I needed help. That doesn't happen in many capitals and I've been to many. Another one you can't miss unless you are really blind is this whole thing about being fair, fairness. Also in society the social compact is very, very strong. It is a society that trusts a lot and coming from my home and having experienced other countries as well, I just marvel at the level of trust that people generally show.

What advice would you give to Kiwis going to South Africa?

I'd firstly say if you take your regular New Zealand attitude, that would be a very good first prize, openness, friendliness. But I would say be wary. Open your eyes. All cities in the world, even Wellington, will have patches that you would not venture into alone or at night. I would encourage Kiwis to get off the main touristy areas and really be adventurous. South Africa is a gorgeous country. It gives you everything from high-tech, high-fashion, five to six-star accommodation, shopping malls - we have kick-ass shopping malls.- Our cultural tourism is absolutely fantastic and it would be important for you to enjoy our suburban, city centre, township and rural areas. Be open to experiences.

What has been the highlight of your diplomatic career?

There have been so many. The one that comes to mind is a fairly recent one. We campaigned very hard as a country and as a region, SADAC, the Southern Africa Development Community [15 countries], to have our candidate be the chairperson of the African Union because since its inception in 1963 no candidate from our region had ever run for it ... we put up a very strong campaign, and Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma is now the chairperson of the African Union Commission. I was so proud to have been in Addis Ababa when that happened last year at the summit.