Ambassador’s Interviews

William Max Philman Whitehead

AVA Diplomatic’s Exclusive Interview with “William Max Philman Whitehead”, South Africa’s Ambassador in Iran.

When did you come to Iran?
It was March 4, 2013.

Where had you served before coming to Iran?
Actually, I was not ambassador in any other country. In South Africa, I worked in private sectors, and also, as the advisor to the Minister of Communication.

Had you travelled to Iran before?
No, never.

How different was your image of Iran before you came here from what it really is right now?
My mental records go back to almost 30 years ago, which was the time of South Africa’s armed battles, and nearly from then, I became aware of the relations South Africa’s National Congress established with Iran. It was 1978; exactly when the Islamic Revolution came to existence; therefore, I was under no propaganda and knew Iran as it really was. I was aware that the country was governed by its own people. However, even in South Africa, you can notice so many propagandas run against Iran. In 1975, I had to leave South Africa, for, then, I was a member of Students’ Movement and Africa’s National Congress, and also joined the armed battles as a military officer. You can clearly see that I could not go under the influence of apartheid and was against South Africa’s then regime and also Pahlavi’s regime.

Where did you go once you left South Africa?
I went to many countries. I traveled to Angola and received military trainings. I stayed in Bon in Germany’s Democratic Republic, which was before it was separated. Generally, I have been to lots of countries. I went to Cuba for some time, as well as Darussalam, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, etc.
I did it as the armed battles necessitated so. Remember that I was a commander and also had training responsibilities.

Which means I’m now sitting before a seasoned guerrilla who has spent his whole life fighting apartheid and is a revolutionary ambassador. It really makes me pay you my greatest respects, for you chose to pick a gun and oppose racism while you could simply opt to sit behind your chair. What troubles did you go through to achieve your objectives whilst you did fight in the frontlines?
That is a tough question. I need to tell you that once you make up your mind in that direction, first off you make a commitment to your people. First, it is your family members who suffer the most. The greatest pain is the pressure the regime imposes on its people, like apprehensions and massacres. Some of my colleagues died as a result of their involvement therein. We even lost an awful lot of people in our neighboring countries, Botswana, Zambia, Angola and Lesotho. We saw them being sacrificed. But, what really matters is your commitment to your principals and to undergo hardships for them. I have always believed this way. It is aims which matter, not positions. I am a diplomat now, and can be a plain soldier tomorrow. I should serve my country and people; that is what matters.

Nelson Mandela opposed violence, whereas armed battles are violent by nature. How could his opposition to violence match with violence itself?
Mandela was not against armed battles, and he was one of the first chief commanders in them.

He was in jail for a major part of his life, though.
The core of the armed battles was first formed in 1961 named “M Plan” which sought to convey that the then regime had no ear to hear what people wanted, and changes should be exacted. What Mr. Mandela stressed was that should the government start fire at us, we had to be capable enough of firing back at them. Some figures like Albert Luthuli, South Africa’s National Congress former chairman, voiced their opposition against armed fights and believed it must be only resorted to when there is no other way. But it does not mean all of them opposed armed fights. After the people of Sharp Ville were massacred, almost everyone concluded that there was not any other way. Those were not only armed fights against white-skinned people for other skin colors! Our targets were their military bases and infrastructures. We did not fight them because they were only white.

Please, explain more about the tribal arrangements in South Africa. In 1910, South Africa was formed as a result of the unification of 4 states. One of them was consisted of the Dutch who were immigrating to the region, and before them, there were the English and Portuguese. At the time of the struggles, what percentage of people were native Africans and how much other races?
I cannot give you an exact number, but since the formation of apartheid in 1949, the separation rules were strictly pursued, which means that every different ethnic group had to live in a different area. Before that, there existed no such a separation. South Africa has nearly the highest ethnic variety in the whole world and houses diverse races therein. Then government pursued a policy which ruled to separate the whites from the blacks. The whites used to live in cities like Johannesburg and Cape Town where the wealth focally accumulated. Oppositely, the blacks had to live in cities plagued with poverty.

So, you are saying that the capital cities were controlled by the whites, and the native Africans were driven to isolation, right?
The blacks lived in areas named Ghetto, or as they are called, rural areas where water, electricity and other infrastructures were not available for them. And if a white person lived there, it was because he managed to seize a large scale of land from the blacks. At the time, the population was nearly 28-30 million, 6 million of whom were whites. Now, the population has grown to 50 million and the whites consist only 5 or 6 million of them. The reason why the whites’ population growth rate has gone static is that their families are getting to be smaller in a way that now every white family is consisted of only 2 or 3 members, while the blacks are normally 3 to 5. However, this number, too, is descending. Another reason for the population increase of the blacks were the immigration of our fellow brothers from countries like Mozambique to South Africa.

Where were you the day when Nelson Mandela was set free? How did you feel?
I was in Zambia. Then, the whole country was filled with mirth and joy. Mandela was freed because the regime figured it itself that it cannot run the country the way Mandela could. The Apartheid regime was similarly having sanction problems like those current ones of Iran, whereas our Freedom Movement was internationally bankrolled. The Islamic Republic of Iran also advocated this movement a great deal. After the revolution, Iran sanctioned the apartheid regime and cut its ties with it. We all knew no one could govern the country as efficiently as Mandela did. When he was released, we all were sure that everything had come to an end and could come back home. Such happiness surpassed the borders of South Africa and broke out to the whole world.

You mentioned that Iran imposed sanctions on South Africa. But while South Africa was under heavy oil sanctions, it supplied its needed oil from Iran. Did it not turn out to be a problem for the revolutionaries with Iran?
I did not say that, and your story goes back to the pre-revolution time. On the subject of oil and petroleum, it should be noted that in exporting oil, there are always middle-countries which carry the oil shipments in any way possible. Of course, by sanctions, it is not meant that no oil was injected into South Africa. Then, the regime had access to oil supplies but in a lot lesser amounts. Furthermore, the regime had oil reserves, for it had seen the sanctions coming. There were also countries at the U.N. which did not contribute to the apartheid regime on the surface, but helped it out in practice.

Didn’t the presence of Iran’s deposed Shah in Johannesburg leave an impact on Iran-South Africa ties in the beginning of the Islamic Revolution? Because even now, there is a building in Johannesburg worthy of $0.5 million which used to be the deposed Shah’s residence and was bought back then. Didn’t I.R.Iran have talks with you or your predecessor about claiming the building or turning it into a museum?
There is not any conflict between the two countries on that matter, and South Africa’s stance is pretty clear. Whatever belongs to Iranians will go to them no questions asked, and it is also true about South Africa. South Africa has maintained quite bright ties with Iran, and such a trivial issue will not negatively affect them. As far as I know, there has not been any disagreements between the two countries in this regard.

Between 1976 and 1977, Iran was South Africa’s second trade partner after Israel. How are Iran-South Africa economic ties working out now?
It cannot be true to say Israel was South Africa’s first trade partner. The major partners were the U.K., Germany, the U.S. and France. But if we consider the Middle East, yes, Israel was ranked first. But once the commercial sanctions were imposed, the trade became much less. I cannot talk of a precise number, for I do not believe in such figures. 60% to 70% of South Africa’s oil used to be supplied by Iran, which was before the imposition of sanctions. After the U.S. imposed the sanctions on Iran, South Africa was still authorized to proceed with its oil trades with Iran, because since June, 2013, the U.S. exempted South Africa from following the sanctions. But after the E.U. passed new sanctions, the circumstances changed. One reason was because the oil tankers were not insured anymore, and the other was because South Africa’s oil refineries are owned by private sectors and needed crude oil, but could not make deals with Iran. At the moment, we pursue to remove sanctions, such as those the E.U. imposed on Iranian banks. Because, the problem is not Iran per se, but also all the countries which used to be buyers of Iran’s oil are influenced thereby. South Africa does not have crude oil itself and needs to provide it from other countries. After the E.U. sanctioned Iran, we did not import oil from Iran anymore, but believe that such sanctions are not forever, and Iran’s negotiations will finally pay off. All P5+1 members are under the influence of this economy and seek their own interests. Given its 76 million population, Iran is one of the largest markets in the Middle East for these countries.

You just pointed to the fact that a majority of South Africa’s refineries are in possessions of private sectors. Does that mean South Africa’s oil industry has not become national yet? Doesn’t the government have any control on the refineries?
The government does not own them. They are owned by multinational corporations. South Africa is not a socialist country, and oil, as well as other things, can be used by private sectors.

Doesn’t it mean that South Africa’s economic paths are all controlled by a few multinational companies? Isn’t there oil apartheid of some sort?
We should note the fact that major parts of South Africa’s economy are run by private sectors and multinational companies from the U.S., the U.K. or even South Korea. The dominant is the private sector, and as a result, close ties have been established between our country and the West. Our economy enjoys a rather complicated structure. For example, the mining industry of South Africa belongs to the government, but all the mines are operated by the private companies. Also, there are many corporations which are, too, run by South Africa entirely like South Africa’s Airlines, Transnet, etc. However, the lion part of our economy is managed by the private sector. Unfortunately, it has been witnessed at times that multinational companies put other corporations under pressure using their positions. For instance, they threaten the native companies to cut their collaborations therewith. I need to mention that we are constantly trying to repair this situation through establishing interregional connections. On the other hand, such corporations are able to bring our national economy to a state of equilibrium. For example, the way BRICS works now is in the direction of the foresaid policy. That is how the structure of South Africa’s current economy has been formed. We should not forget that we suffered a colonialized past since 1962, which means we need quite a lot of time to stay in balance.

Once, I was talking with Jaavid Ghorban Oglu, who has been our ambassador to many African countries. He said that South Africa is highly potential in the field of textile products. Is there any plan for textile trades between Iran and South Africa?
Recently, a joint economic commission between Iran and South Africa was formed which covered various aspects. First and foremost is the compatibility both countries’ economies seem to have, and are almost at the same level. We both have productive, mining, agricultural and developmental sections. Due to its geography, South Africa accesses more water, and in turn, Iran is fairly well-equipped in terms of its technology. In agriculture, there have been agreements which can introduce profitable potentials, and so as in education, medicine and health care, water and sewage, hygiene and finally, tourism, which can be South Africa’s leading aspect. Once the sanctions are lifted, it is pretty clear that many barriers will be obviated, and we can boost our trades, and of course, Iran can know, for sure, South Africa is its partner. Africa lives in the moments now, and does not look at the days ahead. Hands joined with Iran, South Africa can achieve countless innovations. Soon as Iran bids the sanctions adieu, you will definitely see more of both countries. Numerous agreements are to be signed, esp. with South Africa’s private sector, which seems to be its Achilles heel. Between us, there are a lot of common grounds to be shared. Many Iranians now live in South Africa, and I believe Iran enjoys strong work forces. For example, many Iranian doctors are active in our country. We are also after transferring math and physics professors to South Africa. Our country will cooperate in other areas with Iran as well, and try to maintain these collaborations at mutual levels. Likewise, there are lots of potentials for joint investments and I am optimistic toward them.

The Geneva Talks are of the essence now. Some believe Iran should follow South Africa’s footsteps in its nuclear case; a country which put much effort into its nuclear science, and even experimented a nuclear bomb, but shut its whole nuclear facility eventually. Do you think such a pattern can be a good guide for Iran? How did South Africa’s nuclear case reach this point?
Our foreign policy does not allow us to comment on other countries’ affairs.

Yet you can comment on you own country’s pattern.
Our pattern is pretty simple. Generally, our foreign policy is non-invasive and based on mutual respect. We have our nuclear plant and intend to enhance our potentials within the frameworks of the IAEA. Nuclear technology brings a great deal of capacities into realization in the fields of medicine and tool making, but I am no expert at its technicalities. Yet, our stand is very firm; every nation is entitled to possess peaceful equipment and we support their rights and strive for its recognition. There are a lot of nuclear weapons in the world which can potentially lead to a nuclear war, and we seek to have them destroyed, for these are weapons which can make the world suffer uncontrollable war flames. It does not make a difference whether it is the U.S, Israel or any other country. What matters at the end is the peaceful aspects of this technology which should never be abused. For Iran, too, the peaceful aspect of its nuclear technology ought to be recognized, and South Africa fully supports Iran in this regard. Also, as a member of the NAM, we believe that this problem should be worked out as it influences Iran’s general status.

Does South Africa enrich uranium inside the country? Because rumors had it that after the nuclear bomb was experimented, the enrichment was stopped as well.
It does, but to a limited extent, and within the frameworks of the IAEA, and was regularly inspected. We are direly having energy problems which constantly impacts our economy. After the experiment of the nuclear bomb, we voluntarily halted the enrichment process in accordance with the inclinations in our foreign policy, for we were against the apartheid regime’s nuclear activities.

Which country contributed to your nuclear experiments?
I do not have exact details in this regard; this was a very urgent case and all its details are documented. That some countries made contributions is undoubtedly true, and can be analyzed in details. But I remember that three main countries were involved: South Africa, Israel, and cannot remember the third.

On November 1, 2013, the Second Secretary of your embassy, Mr. Inayit Hassan visited Iran’s stock market. Johannesburg also stands among the world’s top ten stock markets of agricultural products, and South Africa is a rich country in terms of grains, esp. corn. What agreements have been reached in this section? Do you have any plans for exports to Iran?
I have gone on trips to different provinces, met with the related people in this business and expressed South Africa’s interests in grain exports. Moreover, the embassy represents the government and is tasked with easing the affairs to sign the agreements. As construe our agreements, we arrange to have Iranian merchants and importers sit with their South African counterparts to make connections and then, we stay aside and will not be engaged in the details of their commerce, because these trades are dealt with in the private sector, as in Iran’s Chamber of Commerce and South Africa’s Union of Merchants or its Chamber of Commerce. They establish and manage the connections themselves. South Africa intends to import agriculture machineries and technology from Iran. Also, if I am not mistaken, Iran is the fourth exporter of fish in the world and first in the Middle East. South Africa, too, seeks to use Iran’s potentials in this regard and tries to become a fish exporter to Europe and the U.S., just like Iran. In the Northern Cape Province, rich loads of olive are planted, and we want to use Iran’s technology for this matter, and of course, further researches have been conducted already. We are ready to promote our commercial status with Iran.

So, you must have had a trip to Gilan province. Where else have you travelled in Iran?
Yes, I did. I also went to Mazandaran, Tabriz and recently, Esfahan.

Tourism is a profitable trade now. South Africa managed to gain huge revenues at the time of holding the World Cup in this way. In addition to the people of a country, one needs to know their interests and needs to be able to work in the atmosphere of its economy. Therefore, your tourism can definitely help your trade. Iran is fully ready to host your tourists now.
Iran is a large country, and certainly, I will not have the chance to see the whole of it during my tenure. I am not a bird which can fly from one city to another. The trips I went on were planned according to the existing requirements. My trip to Esfahan was because of its steel industry. As you said, South Africa is fully potential in the fields of tourism and crafts. We had talks with Iranian tourism officials. Iran is a beautiful country and has lots of depths for tourism, but has to improve its tourism services.

Travelling back and forth can also lead to people’s further familiarity with the two countries’ relations. Spain’s ambassador said this to me, of course. Furthermore, Indonesia’s ambassador once told me that trade has to be directed and encouraged, as Indonesian merchants worried that should they travel to Iran, their economic ties with the U.S. will be in peril. I am not making this propaganda out of my own thoughts. That is what the foreign diplomats resident in Tehran are talking about. You may not be influenced by such a propaganda, but South African people are likely to have such a false image about Iran. You have a significant duty in here to clarify such ambiguities; what are your plans?
Of our programs, I can refer to a radio channel and a magazine in South Africa in which African diplomats share their experiences and activities in other countries. On navigating and encouraging merchants, I should say our embassy’s commercial section is following processes, and I inform them about the areas which are not sanctioned. When I announced I was coming to Iran, many thought I was going to Iraq, and drew almost no distinction between these two. They worried over tanks, bombs and stuff like that. First, I explained to them that these two countries are completely separated from each other, and Iran is in total peace; there is no violence and Iranians are very pleasant and warm, and their country is very potential. But it is the Iranians themselves who should take the major responsibility here. We can only help others out on a better understanding. Iranians should put much effort in this task, as it seems to me that you do not know what treasure of a land you are living on. You have to leave your country and spread the good image about it. When I went to Gilan, I also went to Masuleh, which is registered in UNESCO. I was very much impressed for it was a real beauty. But had I not come to Iran, I would not have heard anything about it. If you imagine that people can acquire such information all on their own, I have to tell you that you are so very wrong. This is you who has to offer an unvarnished image. I totally agree with you on the round trips people of the two countries should make, esp. the student transfers which can familiarize people more with each other’s culture and is a type of advertising itself. South Africa’s Muslim population is much interested in visiting Iran, and Qom can be a place of impeccable tourism values for them. Offering efficient services is very important and a necessity in tourism. Lacking and being in short of such facilities can turn out to be a destructive factor in the way of tourism industries.
Iran owns an educated population and needs to develop its advertisement/image spreading activities abroad and at its embassies.

The worst agony a human being can suffer is his lonely times. A guerrilla does always carry such a feeling. When was your toughest, most painful moment?
There have been many, I’d say. But I think one of the worst is when you lose beloveds of yours and cannot bury them.