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Ambassador Jabu Mbalula, from UFS to Romania

By Amanda Tongha

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Ambassador Jabu Mbalula, South Africa’s number
one citizen in Romania
Photo: Supplied

It has been almost 30 years since South Africa and Romania established diplomatic ties. Dating back to 1992, cooperation and friendship between the two countries have grown and evolved over the years. The two countries enjoy good relations, promoting and working together in the areas of tourism, education and training, agriculture, trade and investment, and sport, arts, and culture. 

Looking after South Africa’s interest in the south-eastern European country, is Ambassador Jabu Mbalula, a University of the Free State (UFS) alumnus. Based in Bucharest, Ambassador Mbalula has been South Africa’s representative in Romania since 2017.

We spoke to Ambassador Mbalula about his journey from Bloemfontein to being South Africa’s number one citizen in Romania. 

What is a typical day in the life of an ambassador?

Central to the task of being an ambassador, is to implement the objectives of your country’s foreign policy; in this case, those objectives get crystallised into the mission’s annual performance plans. 

So, what you do daily is informed by this plan, which includes a variety of activities such as attending meetings, participating in symposia, conducting interviews, conducting visits to different counties, interacting with key opinion makers, and hosting receptions for critical role players. 

As the head of the mission, I also have to ensure that our administration and operations are aligned and capacitated to support the strategic goal of the mission.

What do you like about Romania?

A long tradition of friendship and cooperation binds Romania and Africa, especially the North African countries. The Romanian Government continues to affirm Romania’s commitment to support the stability, security, and development of African countries. Romania has stated its openness and willingness to provide expertise to African states that are in the process of building a democratic society and an efficient institutional capacity.

What is heart-warming to me, is the friendliness, hospitality, respect, and warmth of the Romanian people. I like the rich culture and how it is being preserved and displayed in many museums, such as the Peasant Museum, the Village Museum, in the historical architectural monuments, and medieval cities and castles. I also like the rich music culture, which is regularly shown through concerts that I have attended in the past year. I like the beauty, especially of places outside Bucharest and the countryside. 

I have visited many different cities in Romania: Timișoara, Cluj, Sighișoara, Sibiu, Sinaia, Oradea, Brașov, Ploiești and met many government officials, academics, students, and communities. I have seen the different levels of development of each county, just as our South African provinces. I have found lots of commonalities in some of the cultural aspects, such as bright beads, colourful traditional costumes, similar dances, food like – for instance, what we call ‘pap’ is called ‘mamaliga’ (polenta) here – although ours is white, the cooking is the same.  I have found similar flavours in our wines, especially the red wine. Above all, I have found the hospitality, acceptance, respect, support, and friendliness very similar to ours in South Africa … the humanness of the people of Romania, especially those outside Bucharest, is similar to our African philosophy of UBUNTU.

Tell us about your studies at the UFS

I first arrived at the UFS in 1994 as part of a contingent of students who gained university entrance through the Career Preparation Programme. The programme started out in 1993 as the NEED (Need for Education and Elevation).  This programme arose from the necessity to address the imbalances in the school system, which resulted in many deserving students not being able to meet the entrance requirements of higher learning institutions. 

After a long study break in 1997, I came back to the university and completed a BA Governance and Political Transformation in 2014, and a postgrad in Labour Law in 2015. In 2016 (second semester), I commenced with my studies for the Master of Public Administration, which I sadly had to abandon in 2017 when I started the process of preparing for my posting.        

How has the University of the Free State helped to prepare you for your current work?

For me personally, immersing myself in improving my education level is a journey and a mission I couldn’t betray or abandon. It is a tribute to my parents who were less fortunate, denied the right to education by the harsh conditions of the apartheid system of governance, who sacrificed their hard-earned meagre inheritance to secure me and my siblings access to education. A tribute to many martyrs who paid with their lives for quality free education. 

It’s a fulfilment of the ideals of our forebears who strived tirelessly to secure us the freedoms we enjoy today. For such freedoms to blossom and grow in strength and impact, education must be a tool we all must embrace and use for our collective development. 

Despite the challenges faced during my years of study, having to contend with transformation challenges and a difficult learning environment at times, my choice of subjects was like a premonition preparing me to represent South Africa as an ambassador. Some of the courses I did were somehow directly relevant to my current assignment; these were courses such as political science, international political economy, international relations, UN system, conflict studies, and international gender studies. 

In addition, through the application of its research output, the university has played an exceptional role in enabling me to meticulously put to use the learned and acquired knowledge needed to meet the challenges of sustainable development.

Secondly, the teaching methodology has further equipped me to integrate my new knowledge to meet the demands of formal employment ever since I joined the public service.
Lastly, the quality of knowledge transfer and infusion was well cut out to empower me to provide methodological answers to daily challenges of different polities.

The university provided a far more expansive, comprehensive, and multi-disciplinary examination of our world and its interacting forms of knowledge. It provided a formidable foundation for me to understand societies, identify its problems, and work towards resolving them.  
What are your hopes for Bloemfontein and South Africa?

My dream is that one day, Mangaung will fully develop into a city that is authentically Free State, a completely different city built and weaved together to reflect the beautiful spirit that carries its people. A city where the people, united in their diversity, come together to build something that reflects their individual and collective aspirations.

The Free State is blessed with many universities and TVET colleges, which must be used to localise skills and drive local economic development. A strange thing is currently happening – our economy is in dire need of tradesmen and artisans, but we are not producing them. Strengthen Glen College, for instance, to centre the province as the breadbasket of the country. Education for liberation means that academic institutions must exist primarily to resolve people’s problems, i.e. they must continually ask what problems they are training their students to resolve. Most of South Africa’s economic activities must actually take place in the Free State, considering the strategic location of the province. 

Higher learning institutions can be a catalyst in producing knowledge that is aligned to the current prevailing realities of the ever-globalising world, and the necessity to create pathways for the youth after completing their studies. There has been a shift globally to move from an industrial market economy to a networked creative economy, which, among others, requires more independent minds with initiative, creativity, and passion.  


Ambassador Jabu Mbalula, from UFS to Romania

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