All change for Flanders’ faces in southern Africa


One of the top diplomats involved in development co-operation in South Africa is returning home, to be replaced by her counterpart in Mozambique. They discuss the challenges of the sector and what the future holds

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This month the Flanders representation in South Africa saw the arrival of a new deputy general for development co-operation. Katrien Vandepladutse comes to Pretoria from the office in Maputo in Mozambique, and replaces Katrien Dejongh, who returns to Brussels. Flanders Today spoke to both women as their paths crossed.

The General Representation of the Government of Flanders in Southern Africa is based in Pretoria. The office covers seven countries: the Republic of South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia and Swaziland. 

Crossing borders

The representation handles all elements that come under the responsibility of the Flemish government: culture, development co-operation, education, science and technology, youth policy, economy and foreign trade.

How did you come to represent Flanders in South Africa?

Katrien Vandepladutse (pictured above, left): I’m a linguist and studied French and Spanish at Ghent University. I worked in Brazil for seven years, first as a volunteer and afterwards as what they call a co-operant, someone who works with local organisations on capacity building. In 2009, I started to work for the government of Flanders, as a desk officer for Mozambique. Four years ago I was selected to represent the government in Maputo, Mozambique.

Katrien Dejongh (pictured above, second left): I’m an agricultural engineer. I’d been working in the development co-operation sector since forever, in civil society organisations, mainly in South America. In 2004, I came back to Belgium to work in non-profit organisations, and started to work with the Flemish government in a few years later as desk officer for the development co-operation programme with South Africa here in Brussels. So I was responsible for the follow-up of the bilateral programme between the government of Flanders and the government of South Africa. And then two years ago I left to head the programme in Pretoria.

South Africa is an important partner for Flanders, isn’t it?

KD: Yes, Flanders has always been interested in South Africa. I think it was the first country they interacted with for development co-operation, in 1994. There’s also the language connection. 

Flanders’ main interest in Mozambique is improving the health status of the Mozambican population

- Katrien Vandepladutse

KV: Flanders’ main interest in Mozambique is improving the health status of the Mozambican population, especially sexual and reproductive health. This year we have also focused on the adolescent population. Flemish-Mozambican relations are quite important, both for Flanders and for Mozambique. Mozambique is one of our three partner countries for development co-operation, and we invest about €5 million a year in it. Although we don’t have big budgets, Mozambique has a good relationship with Flanders, probably because we are flexible, patient and not too bureaucratic. President Nyusi went to see minister-president Geert Bourgeois this spring, and the visit was very well covered in the Mozambican press.

Challenges ahead

How easy is it adapting to life there?

KV: I haven’t found it too difficult to adapt to Mozambique, as we already spoke Portuguese, and I had already lived abroad for some years. We will see what South Africa will bring us, but we are looking forward to the challenge.

KD: I’d lived in South America for a long time, so South Africa wasn’t such a big culture shock. That was one of the main reasons we agreed to go to South Africa, because for my husband it was his first time living abroad. When we’re in South Africa we fall under diplomatic rules, so partners are not allowed to work. He also works for the Flemish government, and he took a sabbatical. In South Africa he worked as a volunteer, and he ended up making furniture.

Can you explain a little about how the representation works?

KV: In Mozambique I was the only expat at the Flanders office, taking care of everything, with support from one local financial officer, the headquarters in Brussels and Geraldine Reymenants, the general representative. In Mozambique, we work within the Belgian consulate building; in South Africa we have our own office.

In South Africa I will be working in an office with three expats and three local people, which makes a huge difference. I have a boss who is in the office, and fields of work are also organised differently: in Mozambique, we support health, and in South Africa we currently support social entrepreneurship and innovation and will move towards climate change from 2017.

The new programme will be geared more towards climate challenges

- Katrien Dejongh

KD: When I was appointed in 2013, I was head of development co-operation and head of the Flemish International Co-operation Agency (Fica). There were only two of us in the office, myself and a local employee. But then in 2014, Fica was merged into the department of foreign affairs, so we joined the colleagues who were there under the general representative of Flanders, bringing the total up to five. So it’s quite a small office. My particular task was for South Africa, but the office covers seven countries in southern Africa.

Katrien Vandepladutse takes over in Pretoria. What’s up next for Katrien Dejongh?

KD: I’m back in the department of foreign affairs, in the policy unit of the division of global challenges. The whole dynamics of development co-operation are being questioned and all actors in development co-operation have to reposition themselves and basically investigate what their new role can be in the new global context.

One of the things I will do here is focus on that transition, and specifically look at what other actors are involved in development co-operation and how can we work together, in particular in the private sector.

Do you have any advice for your successor?

KD: On the one hand, she will still be working on the programme we have now in South Africa, but at the same time she will also have to develop a new programme for the coming five years. The new programme will be geared more towards climate challenges. I hope she can find the smart and strategic link with the social innovation and social entrepreneurship programme that we have now so that it can fit and flow into the new programme. I wish her all the best, of course, because it will be quite challenging.