Interview with H.E. Mrs. Thenjiwe Mtintso, South Africa’s Ambassador to Romania.
South Africa is celebrating 22 years of democracy while commemorating 40 years since the youth’s rising of June 16th 1976 against the racist regime. Would you tell us more about these events and their significance for the South African people?
This year there are several important events for us, which are directly related. Firstly, it’s the 40th year commemoration of June 16th. On June 16th, 1976 the pupils from a school in Soweto decided to march against the introduction of Afrikaans, the oppressors’ language, as a compulsory instruction in schools. They were joined by other pupils from other schools in their ten-kilometre march. They were stopped by the Police in Orlando west, actually near where Nelson Mandela used to live and they were shot down. The first child to be shot dead was a 13 years old boy Hector Peterson. After the shooting of June 16th, other pupils, high school and university students as well as the population of South Africa went into countrywide protests. By the end of July many people were killed all over the country, mainly young people. Many others were arrested; others left the country into exile. This uprising and the subsequent massacre became known as the June 16 Soweto uprisings. So, June 16 marks a very important time that shows the commitment and dedication of youth to their freedom.
This moment was followed by a strong activism in the late 70s and the 80s, when young people would say ‘liberation first before education’. After 1994, June 16th was declared the National Youth Day, in commemoration of the young people who died back then but also in celebration of the contribution made by young people to our liberation. There is a heroic linkage between the resilience and commitment of the South African youth to the destruction of Apartheid and to the creation of our freedom.
Then, in 27th April 1994 we finally got our freedom and we had democratic elections for the first time and Mandela emerged as the first ever black president.
So, on one hand, it is commemoration because of the massacre of young people on June 16 1976 and the sacrifices that the youth have made. On the other it is the celebration of their resilience, their contribution to the destruction of apartheid and attainment of our freedom as well as to the reconstruction and development of our country. And at the same time, we are celebrating 22nd years of our own freedom. In 1994, led by President Mandela, we started building a democratic country.
That freedom set our nation on a path towards reconciliation, freedom, justice, peace, democracy, non-sexism and unity in diversity and the entrenched strong culture of fundamental human rights and Ubuntu.
Where were you in 1976?
Before the uprising, there was a lot of activism by the black people of South Africa in different spheres of life. In the late 60s and early 70s there was the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) and our slogan was “We are Black and we are proud” and are masters and mistresses of our destinies. We felt black people needed to first liberate themselves psychologically as they had been made to feel inferior to white people. They would then be able to tackle their physical subjugation. So we organized ourselves around our black identity and conditions and formed a Black consciousness Movement (BCM) across the different spheres of our lives, students, youth, women, workers, journalists, political organizations etc. It was black, black, black…black peoples’ movement everywhere (laughing). At that time I was working in the Eastern Cape as a journalist and I was a member of the Union of Black Journalists (UBJ… a BCM organization). The BCM activists knew about the students march though we did not expect the massacre. Once the massacre happened we knew we would be detained. I was one of those detained immediately after and remained in jail for some time. We were seen as the organizers of the students’ uprisings.
On the National Day celebration, “Ubuhle be Afrika /”The Beauty of Africa” will perform for the first time in Romania on June 15th. What does their dance signify? Is traditional dance standing in the focus of the South African culture?
The performance by Ubuhle be Afrika is the first ever South African traditional activity in Romania. The previous cultural event we had last year was a classic concert by South Africans. We are trying to promote people-to-people relations and cultural activities bring the two peoples closer. Young people are very important and critical for cultural linkages as they help in understanding and promoting the other with less prejudice than the older generations. If we are to build a better world it is important to break the stereotypes and negativity about the unknown ‘other’. Of course as part of celebrating the Youth we had to bring young performers. Unfortunately, we couldn’t bring a bigger group, because of the budgetary constraints we could bring only seven artists to perform in Bucharest. They will be doing several dances. Dancing in our culture is very central and generally all South Africans are good dancers, dancing is in our DNA. Traditional dancing has been important since the beginning. The rhythm in the different cultural groups differs but we all dance during and for different occasions signifying what the occasion is about.
What other symbols are representative for the South African culture?
Besides dance, there are also the drums, and the Marimba instruments. Dance and song are very close to our culture. In South Africa you sing and beat drums for different occasions, when there is war or death, when there is celebration like child birth or wedding, when there are rituals like or religious occasions like the baptismal of children there are always drums, dancing and singing though with different melodies and rhythm. Our cultural dresses are also very important, very bright, and very diverse but the similarities are represented by the beads. Beads have also got messages. For instance, in some areas boys would give a bead to a girl to say ‘I love you’ and vice versa.
The other part of our culture is reflected in our art. South Africans are very artistic in paintings, which date back to the Khoisan paintings.
With the Apartheid, the African national cultures were rejected, were denied, certain rituals were not allowed . And as part of the liberation struggle, culture was a weapon of struggle for freedom. We used poetry, songs and dances to carry our liberation messages across
After 1994, it was very critical to go back to our culture as part of our identity. Our symbols, anthem etc. reflect both our history, who we are, our diversity and our aspirations with emphasis on unity in diversity
The flag, the coat of arms, the anthem, the springbok and the protea are the national symbols of South Africa.
The national flag was unveiled on 27 April 1994 (Freedom Day). The design and colours are a synopsis of principal elements of the country’s flag history. The black, green and gold are the colours of the ANC, the ruling party and the Blue, white and red are the colours of the previous Boer Republic. The central design of the flag, beginning at the flagpost in a ‘V’ form and flowing into a single horizontal band to the outer edge of the flag, can be interpreted as the convergence of diverse elements within South African society, taking the road ahead in unity. The theme of convergence and unity ties in with the motto “Unity is Strength”.
Coat of arms
South Africa’s Coat of Arms was launched on Freedom Day, 27 April 2000. The Coat of Arms is a series of elements organised in distinct symmetric egg-like or oval shapes placed on top of one another.
The secretary bird: The secretary bird is characterised in flight, the natural consequence of growth and speed. It is the equivalent of the lion on Earth. Its uplifted wings are an emblem of the ascendance of our nation, while simultaneously offering us its protection. The secretary bird s also our national bird.
The rising sun: An emblem of brightness, splendour and the supreme principle of the nature of energy, it symbolises the promise of rebirth, the active faculties of reflection, knowledge, good judgement and willpower. It is the symbol of the source of life, of light and the ultimate wholeness of humanity.
The protea: The protea is an emblem of the beauty of our land and the flowering of our potential as a nation in pursuit of the African Renaissance. The protea symbolises the holistic integration of forces that grow from the Earth and are nurtured from above. The most popular colours of Africa have been assigned to the protea – green, gold, red and black. The Protea is also our national flower.
The shield: It has a dual function as a vehicle for the display of identity and of spiritual defence. It contains the primary symbol of our nation.
The human figures: The Khoisan, the oldest known inhabitants of our land and most probably of the Earth, testify to our common humanity and heritage as South Africans and as humanity in general. The figures are depicted in an attitude of greeting, symbolising unity. This also represents the beginning of the individual’s transformation into the greater sense of belonging to the nation and by extension, collective humanity.
The motto: The motto is: “!ke e: /xarra //ke”, written in the Khoisan language of the /Xam people, literally meaning diverse people unite. It addresses each individual effort to harness the unity between thought and action. On a collective scale it calls for the nation to unite in a common sense of belonging and national pride – unity in diversity.
The ears of wheat: An emblem of fertility, it also symbolises the idea of germination, growth and the feasible development of any potential. It relates to the nourishment of the people and signifies the agricultural aspects of the Earth.
The National Anthem is very significant of our call to Unity in diversity. It is the merger of two Anthems, Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika of the liberation Movement under the ANC as political defiance against the apartheid Government and the Apartheid’s Anthem “Die Stem”. The lyrics employ the five of South Africa’s eleven official languages – isiXhosa, isiZulu, seSotho, Afrikaans and English.
Other symbols are the springbok, as the national animal and the King Protea, as the national flower.
The Springbok is a small brown and white gazelle. The springbok was a national symbol of South Africa under white minority rule. It was adopted as a nickname or mascot by a number of South African sports teams, most famously by the national rugby team. As a sign of reconciliation and unity it has been kept as such.
The King Protea, (Protea cynaroides), is a flowering plant. Its flower head is the largest in the genus Protea: the species is also known as Giant Protea, Honeypot or King Sugar Bush. It is widely distributed in the south-western and southern parts of South Africa of the fynbos region.
During our last interview one year ago, we talked about the embassy’s commitment in promoting and sharing the South African values abroad by organizing cultural and social events, by visiting Romanian cities. What events you’ve been attending since the beginning of the year and what others are in store for the upcoming period?
It has actually been quite an exciting year. We had sad events but also happy ones. One of the largest South African investors, Breweries behind Ursus left the investment and it is a sad moment for us, but we are proud that we’ve made our stamp on the Ursus investment an done beer in Romania.
I visited many Romanian counties, I came in touch with local communities, students, academics, local authorities of Constanta, Ploiesti, Pitesti, Oradea, Cluj, Timisoara, Iasi, in an attempt to know the people, find economic opportunities and openness for academic and cultural exchanges, expose South African system of values.
Since last year’s National Day celebration, the SA Embassy has organised and participated in a quite a big number of events:
2015 Africa Day. It was celebrated at the West University of Timisoara, Ubuntu Centre for African Studies, through conferences, debates, lectures, in cooperation with Heads of Missions from ten African countries represented in Romania, professors of the University, local authorities.
2015 Mandela Day. It was celebrated in Constanta, in collaboration with “Andrei Saguna” University, in Bucharest, in cooperation with “The Door” Placement Centre, by providing assistance to underprivileged children, in Oradea, where I attended the unveiling of Nelson Mandela bust, the first one in Romania, and in Cluj, inaugurating Mandela Freedom Cube with blank walls for everyone to write messages on their views about democracy, human rights and all the values lived by Mandela.
“Open your culture” Embassies’ Festival in Bucharest. Our Embassy participated with a display of culture, tradition and artefacts presented at its stand. A cultural group consisting of South Africa, Togo and Romania performed at the event.
UBUNTU African Culture Week, hosted by “Ion Creanga” Library of Bucharest. I explained the concept of “Ubuntu”, a South African philosophy based on solidarity, humanness, hospitality, generosity, respect, care and love and which can be illustrated through the proverb “I am because you are, you are because I am”. The event was mainly attended by children, who were glad to come in contact with South African stories, songs and dances.
Tourism Fair. South Africa is a wonderful tourist destination. Our Embassy presented it as such, with all the opportunities it offers: exotic, adventurous tourism, safari in nature reserves and large national parks, bungee jumping, scuba diving, canoeing, rafting, kayaking, paragliding, cage diving with white sharks, hot air ballooning, etc.
South Africa’s Human Rights Day and Woman’s Day celebrated in Galati. I delivered a presentation on the occasion of two events: the month of March, which is human rights month in South Africa, and Woman’s Day [8 March], which celebrates the woman and her rights.
2016 Africa Day celebrations. I participated with all the African Ambassadors at the Babes Bolyai University in Cluj at a Conference dedicated to African women under the theme ‘African Women’s contribution to the development of Africa’; Africa Week Festival, opened at the National Library, in Bucharest on 25th May was a diverse display of African traditions, African music, African tourism and African cuisine. Ikhaya Drum Association and its partners also participated in the 1st edition of the “Africa Days Festival”. The evening concerts opened every day at 21.00 with a special concert offered by Ikhaya Band. Also, during the festival many exhibitions were on display. Besides photos from different parts of Africa, there were paintings and painted materials by African artists.
This year, SA Mission is planning to take part in the following future events:
- Mandela Day: In line with the 67 minute work in service of the community, a way of celebrating Mr. Mandela’s dedication and political activism, the SA Embassy staff will help “Fundatia Inocenti” of Bucharest with gardening, painting and cleaning the kindergarten on 18 July – Mr Mandela’s birthday.
- Women/Heritage Day in September: The Mission is planning a performance by a well-known young South African woman poet, Ms Lebohang Mashile who will come and celebrate these two important dates in our calendar. Her performance is particularly important as we shall be celebrating 60 anniversary of the August 9, 1956 March by the South African women in protest against having to carry “dompaas”, the identity document meant only for Africans to be monitored when moving from the Bantustan areas in which they were supposed to be confined.
- The Embassy will also participate in “Open Your Culture” Embassies Festival in the period 29 August – 4 September and in the Tourism Fair between 17-20 November 2016.
On bilateral relations, we are happy to say that the agreement on Bilateral Relations between Romania and South Africa will be signed between our Ministers of Foreign Affairs in September on the side lines of the UN National General Assembly, is very good for us because it further strengthens our relations. Once there is such a political framework even the business community get the assurance of the security of their investments.
What is Romania looking like in your view during this one-year time? What has taken a favourable turn and what has taken a turn for the worse in your view?
What is exciting in Romania for a diplomat is that no day is the same here, and every day you wake up and wonder “what’s new, what’s new?” (smiling).
There have been really concerted efforts to really eradicate corruption at all levels of society, especially mainly among politicians, which is a positive aspect. We have somehow similar problems and it’s amazing because the people leading the national anti-corruption bodies both in Romania and South Africa are two strong ladies, in our country she is called the Public Protector. Both of them are not quite as popular as we would have wanted them to be, of course in some instances they might make mistakes like everybody else, but in our instance we appreciate the work she does, just like the Romanians do, I think. Corruption is a scourge that really works against progress and development in our countries. That aspect in positive to me.
Romania is now one of the fastest growing economies just like South Africa, however what is challenging for both countries are the inequalities between those who have and those who don’t have.
The challenge in both countries is the youth unemployment. It’s very high in our country. But you can see in Romania that a lot of effort is being made institutionally to really address the question on unemployment. We are learning a lot from Romania on how to address this problem.
The side that is not as exciting for us is the regular changes in Government, the replacement of Ministers, Prefects, Mayors represents a constant challenge that our Embassy has to face as it somehow threatens the continuity of our efforts and projects.
For instance, we worked for almost six months with a former minister of Education and a draft MOU was finalized when the two Ministers of Education met in South Africa. It was agreed that our own Minister would then visit Romania for the signing of the agreement. The meeting was also attended by the then DG of Education. Regrettably, a week after their return from South Africa, both the Minister and the DG moved from the Department of Education and Scientific Research. This was the second Minister I had met in my first two years in Romania. So, the changes, while they may be good for Romania, sometimes they create some discontinuities for the embassies. Each incoming Minister begins from scratch to understand the positions on each country, even though there is standing policy, opening the file, review the matters all over again or sometimes ministers come with their own priorities. One Minister may not be so passionate about South Africa as a country and the projects might drop.
As an African group we are happy that we met Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Comanescu, which was the first for me. In the past two years since I arrived here, we, as an African Group had never met the Foreign Minister. The discussions were very interesting, showing a rise in interest in Africa as a whole as well as in our individual countries.
What do you like most to do during your spare time in Romania, in Bucharest or outside the Capital?
We also talked in our previous interview about the woman’s role in today’s society in South Africa, Romania and worldwide. Our newspaper has launched a project by interviewing the women ambassadors accredited in Romania to hear their opinions about the woman’s condition nowadays, the values close to her such as family, children, career, etc. Is there a strong bond among the foreign ambassador ladies accredited in Bucharest? Do you have joint actions?
There is a difference between a Mission run by a woman ambassador and a mission run by a male ambassador. The women ambassadors, in my experience, are very active and hardworking. You’ll find them everywhere. There is also empathy in a Woman run Mission especially to the working women. This is because the Woman Ambassador understands better the stresses on a woman worker. Women Ambassadors also are hands on and have an eye for detail.
Most of the time they are overstretched. For instance if you as a woman are entertaining you have to do your ambassadorial duties but also are responsible for overseeing the preparations at your Residence or wherever you are entertaining. A male Ambassador especially a married one can literally walk in five minutes to 8 when the dinner is at 8, when everything is already set up. It’s like in most households, a woman prepares for entertainment in the house irrespective of the job she does.
We have the women ambassadors group, that is meeting monthly at their different residences, sharing our experiences as women ambassadors, talking about gender challenges and what we need to do to achieve gender equality as Ambassadors, as women in our posting , in our own countries and in general in the World. The group is informal. I usually talk about gender, women and youth because these are my favourite topics. But other women talk about economy, culture and we usually we try to find significant topics for women. We tried in the past to get women Ministers, or secretaries of State to address us, e.g. former Labour Minister, Rovana Plumb addressed us on her job and challenges facing women.
Also some of us, like me, are also active in other organizations like the International Women’s Association, the Professional Women’s Association etc.
There is also SPOHOM, the wives of Ambassadors who are very active in Romania. They organise bazaars, charity events. Some women Ambassadors also participate in these activities.
How do you think you can help Romanian women for instance? You talked about meeting Roma young women at some point during one of your visits? What would you be your personal advice to them, as a woman of diplomacy?
I don’t think that anyone coming from outside would have an advice for anyone in a particular country, whether there are Romanian women or women in particular. All we can do is to share experiences of what happens in our own countries or situations. And hopefully whoever is a listener can learn or use something from those experiences.
For instance, In South Africa women are very active. Thanks to the fact that we were involved in the liberation struggle, we’ve managed to be included in decision making in every sector of society, politics included. We managed for instance to have 42% (168 out of 400) women in Parliament and 41.7% (15 Women Ministers) because of the quota from the ruling party. But numbers are not enough, we need to transform the power relations. This is an experience that can be shared, advantages and disadvantages of quotas and numbers. We also believe in organising and organisation… unity of purpose even though we as women have our own differences and different identities e.g. class, race, religion, education etc. I do participate in a lot of women’s activities when I am invited and my feeling is that women in Romania are not as organized as a force, whether they are women in the media, or in politics or in any other sector. I used to be a journalist myself and we had the black journalists union (UBJ). But as women, we formed our own association within the organisation, because we found that in the newsroom we were completely marginalized and there was, in general, not a gender lens used in selecting and telling stories. There was also stereotyping women in the media, something we as women had to fight against.
In SA you’ll always find some women organisation in any sector even if small. Even in the rural areas, women in business, in mining etc. As a woman, once you get into any institution, you organize as a voice of women. In parliament we have a Women’s group across political parties to tackle gender issues in parliament and also in society. This group also monitors legislation to ensure that it is gender sensitive.
So, in my little experience here I would say there is very limited women’s mobilisation and organization in Romania. Unless you get organized so that you can share experiences you cannot have united actions on anything and you cannot speak as speak as one voice.
For instance even when we speak about the women in the margins, as the Roma ones, there are no strong organizations to help them.
I would have loved as a foreigner to see more women activism in Romania in all sectors, I don’t see a lot in politics either, of course there are women organizations in every political party but it’s not as strong.
I don’t see a lot of young women associations, students etc. I have met some businesswomen and participated in their Conferences. But I still think there is still room for more organising and Mobilisation. From our experience in South Africa, my message is organizing and organization.
In South Africa we organise, mobilize on everything. It’s also the history that helps us. During apartheid, you had to organise and find various occasions to do that, for instance we used religious events in churches, mosques, etc.
I have an example of women in some rural areas, they used to fetch water and wood and doing their laundry in the rivers or collecting wood helped them to get together to strategise on various actions to take to address the challenges in their lives; of course it was also time to share their burdens whether problems with their mothers-in-law, who they were forced to stray with in the absence of their husbands who were migrant workers in the cities. But the main issues about organizing themselves for various causes. Their husbands would leave to work in the mines and the women were left alone to deal with family affairs, but despite their huge work, they found time to get together and share experience and get support.
What challenges do you think the contemporary woman is facing right now?
Challenges are related to gender equality, equal opportunities, women entering politics, taking leadership positions, particularly in Parliament, difference wages for men and women.
I think there is more stress on women especially because the psychic of the society has not yet moved. Patriarchy has not changed, has just taken different forms. Of course, things are different from one society to another but, let’s take the family. Much as women are still earning just like husbands do, when they come home the responsibilities are the same, food, children, the domestic responsibility still remains on women. Despite the improvement the help got from the technology, the role of the woman in the household is still the same. And it’s more now, in the sense that previously you depended on the men to bring the income, you did not go out to work but now women have to work both in the public and private sphere. Men kept only the public sphere. Secondly, and this is very frequent in South Africa, there is a tension, men in South Africa find very hard to adapt and change to the new woman’s stature, to accept that women are now in decision-making too, that they don’t have to do this domestic work anymore and that they don’t depend on men anymore. And the unintended result has been an increase in domestic violence.
Patriarchy, chauvinistic and backward attitudes against women still tend to prevail worldwide.
It seems to me that these patriarchal attitudes still prevail in Romania, too. I have also witnessed more acceptances of patriarchal relations here with women seemingly tending to accept their subservient positions especially at home.
It’s a struggle, a revolution within the revolution. For instance, even if you are in Parliament, there is still the expectation from you to run the house, but amongst your own colleagues there is still the view that you are woman. So, there is still a mentality block against the advancement of women. Things have changed objectively, but, inside, the mentality of men is still the same, and or the women’s mentality they usually say I cannot do this or that. For instance there is a current debate on a woman President in our country. And if you go to a woman asking her if she would be willing to run for Presidency, they say NO as an immediate reaction. We are not as yet used to really look at decision-making as possible for us but there are also problems in accessing resources like loans. So we have to ensure that we empower women in many ways to access decision-making. The more women we have in these spheres of power the nearer we advance towards gender equality as they begin to bring their own perspectives, experiences to the table. This also makes society see them as role models thus making it possible for others especially the youth to aspire to do the same.
But access is but one part that is critical but not the end. We need to ensure participation in those decision-making spheres. There are huge constraints in these including attitudes, lack of experience, inferiority complex and a horde of others. So women still need to be assisted with gaining the necessary skills to participate. It also becomes necessary to level the playing field in these so they can participate on an equal footing as their male counterparts.
Access and participation are important but the final goal is to transform society into real and complete equality. So women should not be satisfied with accessing and participating in these spheres of power they should transform both the spheres and society.
Women have made tremendous advances, but even though there are many challenges ahead and the violence against women is one of them.
Do you think it can be overcome?
I think it’s being overcome and I am so proud to use South Africa as an example. We still have a lot of problems and violence is on the rise, but it’s no more a given thing that women are the underdogs. It is no more acceptable le to be sexist. Gender Equality is accepted as the norm for which we should all strive. I have seen, as a diplomat, the changes among the South African diplomats because we are now about 32 % women, I have seen advances in many other African countries. The fact that we are discussing this even now and the projects that women in Romania are undertaking is evidence that it’s no more men’s business as usual, women are on the move forward. But we need to organize, organize, organize and keep on struggling, and uniting in action as women. Women need a strong Women’s Movement in their own countries but also internationally. The UN Women are also helping us in this mobilization. For instance their call for 2016 is 50/50 by 2030. Activism and unity of purpose is critical for us to achieve gender equality.