It was by a happy internet coincidence that I found out about the Nordic Africa Institute event celebrating twenty years of South African democracy. I’d spent an afternoon googling a number of keyword combinations, including: “Africa + Finland Society”, “Southern African + Scandinavia Group”, and “Nordic + Africa Association” out of the sheer longing that comes from having not made contact with another African in weeks.
So it was quite a wonderful thing when google brought up a number of results that included a business seminar hosted by the Finnish African Society, that I attended a week prior, and most wonderfully, “20 Years of Democracy in South Africa” of which perhaps the most anticipated speaker, Governor Emeritus Tito Mboweni, was to deliver the keynote address, September 23rd.
The event was held on an island called Hanasaari in Espoo, right outside Finland capital, Helsinki. A location, I was quickly informed, held great historical significance as a site for the planning of anti-apartheid activism by Nordic nations during the fight to end South African apartheid.
Beginning with the traditional two-thirty PM coffee I’d grown accustomed to in my short career of attending Finnish events, the seminar kicked off with opening remarks from Mrs. Gunvor Kronman, CEO, Hanasaari–the Swedish-Finnish Cultural Centre, followed by an introduction by H.E. Mr. Sello Moloto, Ambassador of the Republic of South Africa.
Both expressed a joy in the fruition of this event, Kronman particularly expressing gratitude for Mboweni’s appearance, and pointing out that the room filled with important people from both Sweden and Finland, was something of a site for reunion of people that participated in anti-apartheid activism together, while Moloto stated the importance of these “types of events” for the mapping out of South Africa’s future.
The topic for the event was also revealed to be “Two Decades of Freedom – What South Africa is doing with it, and what now needs to be done”, and the audience informed that our participation in discussion would strongly welcomed.
Mboweni began his presentation with a cool and blunt reminder of what Apartheid was, saying it was, “a system of oppression and suppression of the black majority,” and then adding solemnly, “let’s not forget that.”
“It was a deliberate system of economic exclusion of the black majority.” He continued to stress the effect of creating self-doubt in the oppressed and how that continued to cripple progression of black majority to this day. But perhaps most interesting was his praise of the South African constitution, “The constitution of South Africa was designed to make sure the oppression of one or another shall never come back to South Africa,” and then describing it as “an important safe-guard for democracy.”
Soon he was presenting data gathered by Goldman Sachs, of which he is on the advisory board, including a summary of key advances and challenges remaining for South Africa after two decades of freedom. One important statistic he relayed was “growth of LSM 5-10, from 13.8 million people to 23.4 million people.”
He added soon after, “Unfortunately unemployment has stayed very high,” reasoning that, “the problem is the education sector is producing too many labourers and not enough people in tertiary sector. The biggest setback for SA is underdevelopment of education sector”
After presenting more data, but not, it seemed, as much as he had planned to, he thanked the crowd for their time and question time began.
At this point I informed my followers on Twitter, to whom I was live-tweeting this event, to send me any questions they’d like asked on their behalf during the portion of time reserved for audience questions.
Many flooded in, particularly, when Mboweni touched on the topic of FIFA’s 2010 World Cup, after being asked by an audience member, “We had doubts about the world cup. How did it benefit poor people in SA?”
Mboweni’s response was a brief regaling of his and Trevor Manuel’s, former SA Minister of Finance, near-refusal to sign off on FIFA agreement as “FIFA wanted to act outside of South African laws.” Eventually they had to and the world cup took place. This answer drew dissatisfaction from many South Africans on Twitter who requested that I re-ask the question.
When, I did, two answers came from both Mboweni and the Ambassador, Moloto. Moloto said, “The FIFA WC was something of a political statement. It showed the world that Africa was not just a dark place full of indistinguishable countries and their problems, but a place capable of hosting an international audience.” Mboweni later added, “There is a FIFA fund in SA setup to improve conditions of poor people. But, if it were up to me, I wouldn’t apply to host [The World Cup] again.”
Next up, was a dialogue about Swedish and Finnish engagement in the Liberation Process, between Ambassadors, Kristi Lintonen (Finland) and Bengt Säve-Söderbergh (Sweden). Lintonen gave a brief history of actions taken by Nordic nations against apartheid government including: arms embargoes, sanctions, etc, and stressing some of the challenges they faced when trying to enforce their anti-apartheid stance in the international community.
“Almost all the Western world sided with Apartheid regime except the Nordic nations,” said Säve-Söderbergh. He went on to detail his own discovery of the brutality of Apartheid. “Sharpville was the turning point. That’s when we [international community] realized the horror apartheid.” His first encounter of apartheid was in Cape Town where he saw a sign that said, “For Europeans Only,” at the time he thought “What a strange place. Is there a sign that says “For Americans Only” too?”
He went on to discuss his involvement with ANC in “the early days” to assist in building the organization, concluding with, “Some say had the Nordic nations not cooperated with ANC [the end of apartheid] wouldn’t have been such a peaceful outcome.”
After him, University of Pretoria Professor Schoeman began her talk entitled, “A Crisis of Leadership?” beginning with, “We are still battling with an unresolved class struggle” Saying a big problem is, “the big investment we were hoping for didn’t quite come because of ‘financialization of capital.’”
Schoeman dropped a number of gems in her speech, touching on everything from race relations (“The mistake [white people] made was overestimating importance of tolerance. There is a big difference between tolerance and respect. People want respect and dignity.”), education reform (“Despite what some think, we do not spend too little on education in SA, What we need is ideas.”), the economy, (“Some studies show that white people are richer now than they were during apartheid. Something is very wrong.)
Following this was a panel discussion titled “South Africa after Mandela era” between Lintonen, Säve-Söderbergh, Schoeman, Associate Professor Annika Teppo (also director of Nordic-Africa Institute) and Professor Liisa Laakso.
After introducing panelists once more, lina Soiri, co-author of Finland and National Liberation in Southern Africa (Nordic Africa Institute, 1999 ), said the importance of race has never been more important as, “We need to examine the reality that populist, openly racist parties are gaining footing in Nordic countries.”
This sparked off observations from Säve-Söderbergh about the relationship between feelings of economic exclusion and xenophobia. Some gems from the panel discussion were “South Africans feel very misunderstood,” (by Prof. Teppo, when outlining difficulties she faced as an anthropologist that studies post-apartheid cities), “There has never been space for one nation to lead in African organizations, (Prof. Schoeman explaining why SA can not always live up to high expectations when it comes to foreign policy in SADC and AU), “The Nordic Model is based on trust. SA can learn from that model,” (by Ambassador Säve-Söderbergh)
After some heated audience participation in which Mboweni gave a brief list of “sites of continuous struggle” which included the state police being “inherited from Apartheid government” and resulting problems from that, the closing words were given and we were released into the restaurant where a cocktail party was held.
Siyanda Mohutsiwa is a 21 Year-Old mathematics student at the University of Botswana. She is currently slumming it in Finland.