Interview: Trade, education and culture, the strong points of Romanian-South African relations


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Interview with H.E. Mrs. Thenjiwe Ethel MTINTSO, Ambassador of South Africa to Romania.


 What is the significance of April 27 for the South African people? How do they celebrate their national day?

I think the first thing to say about the significance is that is a day of remembrance for us. We remember what we’ve gone through, from the time of colonization in 1652 to the time of our freedom in 1994. And in between those it is a time full of sadness, pain, death, blood. So, we remember that. But it is also a day of commemoration for all those who fought for our rights. It is a day of celebration as well because, for instance, Nelson Mandela who spent 27 years in jail for that freedom voted for the first time when he was 76 years old instead of the internationally accepted 18 years. And that is very significant because all his generation voted for the first time at that age. I voted for the first time when I was 45.

We celebrate through workshops, conferences, talk shows, sharing what freedom, democracy means to all of us. And most importantly we recommit ourselves to enhance and defend democracy and freedom as we are aware that these gains can be reversed. And on April 27, our President addresses the whole nation on or achievements, challenges and the responsibilities. The whole nation takes a moment to reflect on our achievements, which are many, but also on our shortcomings, the challenges and the gaps that face us.

But there is also the real partying. We have in South Africa what is called a Braaivleis, which is the barbecue, as South Africans we love meat. Just in about every house, every locality we have parties like you have never seen before. The whole country is vibrant with, braais, music and dance.

But we also have cultural activities showcasing our diverse culture with music, dance, cuisine, dress etc.

In Romania, in the past we had the usual receptions, but this year we are taking a slightly different approach. We are going to have a concert by two outstanding South African artists, Mr. Ben Schoeman a pianist and Mr. Njabulo Madlala, baritone both based in London. And we are going to have it in a different kind of location, Promenada Mall, owned by the South African owned company NEPI. Mr Martin has kindly sponsored this venue. Next year, we hope to bring to Romania a traditional South African group like Umoja that showcases all typically South African dances, attires and music.


Nelson Mandela is an icon not only for South Africa but also for the entire world. What would be his main achievements that made a change for your country and what aspects of his inheritance still wait to be implemented and for what reasons?

The first thing to mention about Nelson Mandela, which he presented to the world is, in my view, a very outstanding and different kind of leadership based on humility, commitment and service not for material or personal benefit but rather for the good of the community, nation and humanity in general. He showed in his own life style the respect for everyone irrespective of their status or standing in society, respect for human rights, human dignity, respect and the spirit of giving, support and solidarity. In terms of what he directly contributed then is the anti-apartheid struggle that straddles from him as a young man to the time that he died. That is what he brought: liberation in our country.

But even as we were on the verge of freedom, his ability to persuade South Africans not to be vengeful on the oppressive system was important, and that’s why we had the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. So we owe this freedom to him and the movement toward reconciliation.

Of highly importance he was the embodiment of the fundamental values of Ubuntu, which has no direct translation as it encapsulates many the values Ubuntu represents the whole embodiment of values of: respect for others and their dignity; value life; humility; solidarity; support; love and care; hospitality; warmth; generosity especially of spirit. We have another saying Umntu ngumntu ngabantu. You are because I am, I am because you are Mandela was an embodiment of this. This why he taught us to be committed to a Better World because none of us are free if there is still anyone living under oppression of whatever kind

So, Mandela promoted this embodiment that, none of us a free so long as there is still anybody in the world that suffers oppression or discrimination in any form or is denied her or his dignity and humanity. All of us the World over should therefore struggle for justice and a better World. And I think these lessons are also valid here in Romania, whether you are looking at the people living in the periphery, people that are in poverty or marginalized, or in South Africa at the people in poverty, to be able to understand that irrespective of my world, my status and society, I am nothing if the person next to me is still in poverty. That’s the legacy of Mandela.

Mrs. Ambassador in Oradea, at a center for children with disabilities
Mrs. Ambassador in Oradea, at a center for children with disabilities

Yet, what we are still facing in South Africa is still poverty, joblessness and inequality, especially the white and the black inequalities. One of the reasons of these gaps is that there were two South Africa’s from 1652 until 1994. One South Africa belonged to the first world, it was a white South Africa, widely developed, had good infrastructure and high access to services such as education, health etc. exploiting and oppressing the other colonized South Africa, that of the blacks. The other South Africa was a colony of the first, where blacks had no voting rights, no services, and no access to education, skills, health etc. and very poor infrastructure. That is just they were oppressed, and exploited by the other White South Africa. In the past 20 years, to reach this gap between the two South Africa’s did not need only policy, but we had to develop strategies programmes to really close the gap. We had to have resources and redistribute the wealth including the land to effect the programmes and to transform our society. But of course, there was also resistance from the ones who have got the wealth of the country. The wealth is still primarily in the hands of the white men. So, we still have to deal with, on the one hand the policies and commitment to transformation on the part of the government and on the other with the unfortunate resistance of the owners of the wealth. If you look in terms of residential areas in South Africa we are divided. The blacks predominantly stay in the poorest areas with no resources. Some of us, belonging now to the elite, have moved from the black areas into the white areas, we have been absorbed into what we call “white economy”, but the black economy still predominates. So, it is taking us longer to really reach the goal of one free, democratic, non-racial, non-sexist and prosperous South Africa. We also are trying to change the mind-set and practices of international investors in our country. Most of them are used to coming to our country and indeed the whole of Africa, establish themselves in such a way that they exploit our natural resources, send these overseas for processes and return them as finished product selling t high costs in the very country of origin. We are now requiring investors to run joint ventures, process everything in our country, transfer skills to our people and e committed not only to profit but also to development of our country.


How do you assess bilateral relations during the past year?

The bilateral relations between Romania and South Africa dating as far back in 1991 but especially since 2008 when we opened the office here are very good. There is mutual respect; there is willingness on both parties to promote these relations. However, there is a lot of work to be done. In terms of both governments there are priorities. Understandably Romania’s priority in the EU, Schengen and USA. But we, the Romanian embassy in Pretoria and we here, have are working very hard to strengthened the relations in al spheres. The concert on the 27th is part of an attempt at promoting cultural exchanges. We are also working hard to ensure that our principals sign the draft MOU between the two countries which has been waiting for their signatures in the past year.

In 2013, we had a visit of the South Africa’s deputy minister of foreign affairs, and since then, we have the delegation of Science and Technology and of Defence. A lot still has to be done to encourage delegations to South Africa and to Romania. In addition to the MOU referred to above, we have outstanding agreements on for instance, Education, Culture, Science and Technology.

Our focus should be on the increase in the volume of trade between our countries. As the trade exchanges are still low and still favour Romania, as my colleague Neal Barber the President of ROSABA has said.

The strongest areas of collaboration so far are the universities. Several Universities in Romania, Bucharest University, West University of Timisoara. Babes Bolyai in Cluj have agreements with our universities like Universities of Pretoria, Stellenbosch, Cape Town and Western Cape. Even in this area a lot still has to be done. We also are collaborating with the UBUNTU African Studies Centre at the University of the West in Timisoara as well as with the African Studies Institute in Cluj. Other Universities like in Iasi and Constant have indicated their willingness to have agreements and exchanged with our universities. We have a rugby coach who previously trained players in Timisoara and is now in Bucharest training rugby players. The critical ting for both countries and education institutions is exposure of each other’s potential and what could be of mutual benefit to them.

We are also exploring possibilities of agreements with SMURD as our country is not that strong on such emergency services.


You have been an active traveller through Romania. What was the feedback of your visits in various Romanian cities and what are the prospects of future partnerships between our countries and in what fields?

The first critical partnerships for South Africa are related to universities already mentioned above. The Secondly, Twining agreements, between Romanian counties and South African Provinces so that programmes of collaboration would also be established at these levels instead of only at National level. The third level is at the municipality and city to city levels. These, in my view are quite critical as they will be sharing skills and developing programmes directly with people of both countries. People do not level at the national but they live in localities and that is where we also need to improve our relations. This is the area where we can also increase our cultural exchanges sharing our experiences such as UBUNTU on our part and learning from Romanians about their culture and identity. Many South Africans only Know Romania as the country of gypsies while Romania’s seem to know very little about South Africa and yet we have so much I common including our hospitality.

We would like agreements especially between cities and Institutions that have commonalities. For instance, we are investigating possibilities of agreements between the Constanta Port and Durban Port in South Africa, because of the mutual benefit for these as they are gateways to Europe and Africa respectively. Prahova and Ekurhuleni have lots of commonalities, both industrial counties, located not far from the Capital and with their capital centres as airport Cities. So, we have asked some of our cities in South Africa to explore the possibility of twinning with cities that we have recommended for them in Romania.

Of course, we have the exchanges on the local chambers of commerce.

The other area of possible local cooperation is the cultural one. I aim at exploring cultural links and exchanges between some of the Romanian counties and our own provinces.

Celebrating the South African Woman Day in Bucharest
Celebrating the South African Woman Day in Bucharest

What cultural joint actions is the embassy contemplating in the near future to enhance bilateral cooperation also from the cultural point of view?

I have already mentioned the bilateral cultural agreement. Romania has already given us the draft, but we haven’t finalized it yet.

We found lots of similarities between Romanian and South African cultures, including the fact that we are both quite hospitable. Also I discovered that some of our traditional dances, gumboot for instance, are similar to the Romanian ones, especially in Transylvania. We have the colourful clothes and colourful beads jewellery.   Next year we are planning on bringing a traditional cultural group to tour Romania showcasing our music, dance, dress. We hope to partner with Romania cultural groups to share the stage. Of course this depends on finding resources for that as it is a huge cost for them to travel from South Africa, for accommodation and performance fees.

In September, during our Women and Heritage Day we intend to bring to Romania, a very popular poet, Lebo Mashile. We are hoping that the same time next year we can have a Film Festival. We are exploring having a photo exhibitions in Ploiesti and Constanta in 2016. We hope these events will help in promoting culture relations and exchanges between the two countries.


What would be the pros and cons of Romania? If you were to mention what the best things about Romania are and also the worst, what would they be?

One of the best things for me in Romania (I love being here, I’ve been in Cuba and in Italy before) is the friendliness, the hospitality, which are similar to South Africans, as well as the eagerness to accept the foreigners. I would say this because I am black, and generally my life has been about discrimination. But here in Romania, people gave me a welcoming look, not the hostile look that I’ve experienced in Italy. So, Romania is good on friendliness, acceptance and the curiosity about who you are, as there are few Africans here.

Secondly, there is the beauty of the country. Bucharest is beautiful but when I went outside, Timisoara, Cluj, I discovered the real beauty of the country, a beauty which is still raw, natural, it the same as in South Africa.

But, in my view, the disadvantage in Romania is that tourism is not aggressively promoted. For example, I didn’t know, as South African tourist, that Romania could be destination until I came here and started learning about the country. I think I do represent the knowledge of most South Africans. In my personal view, perhaps the over focus on EU and Schengen integration almost to the exclusion of growing economies like Africa and especially Sub Sahara Africa could be a disadvantage to both Romania and our Continent. In this globalizing World Eurocentricism could also be a disadvantages especially to countries that are still in transition as Romania is. I asked some young people in Timisoara and Constanta Universities where they would like to visit and not a single one of the eight mentioned Africa, never mind South Africa. A lot of them would like to Europe, of course because it is near, seemingly richer, easy to accessible and so on but the sense of adventure beyond Europe seemed to be lacking. In South Africa is quite different. South Africans would not refer to go to Africa because they are in Africa; instead they would venture into Europe, Asia and elsewhere.


You have been a fervent militant for women’s rights. What do you think are the greatest gains of women now in the 21st century and what would they have more to achieve?

I think in general the greatest achievement relates to women entering politics, taking leadership positions, particularly in Parliament. In 1995, the average women representation in all the parliaments was about 4 percent, and now it is up to about 28 percent. The statistics show that in 1995, the Year the Beijing Platform of Action for gender equality was adopted there were only five countries that had 30 percent and above of women in parliament. Now we have 42 countries, Romania is not one of them. In 1995 we had no parliament registering more than 50 percent women in parliament and now amazingly one of them is Rwanda, topping the World with 60 percent. It must be borne in mind that in 994 there was the genocide in Rwanda that saw close to a million people killed, almost 20% of the total population people killed within four months, with thousands of women and girl children raped and sexually violated.

The lesson that we can learn is that if there is a political will and commitment and that if mechanisms are put in place for women’s representation then women can enter and fully contribute to the economic, political and social development in their communities and countries. However, such mechanisms must not be seen to be only quantitative presence but an agenda for complete transformation of unequal power relation in societies. Many people tend to vulgarise the quota and yet it is a system for women to enter these usually male dominated spaces. Both women and men in those spaces can then together produce policies, programmes a and agendas for the complete transformation of those relations. The first important issue is commitment beyond rhetoric to women’s emancipation and equality in our societies. Equality and emancipate be the least without reducing the matter of women to the consciously said ‘we need 50 percent’, for all political parties. Today, 2015 we have about 22 women heads of state and governments against the three in 1995, and some of these are also in Africa and in the developing countries. We are proud to have the first women Chairperson of the AU as a woman, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma. That organization and its predecessor, the OAU never had a woman as the Chair in its than 49 years ( when she was elected) of existence as previously OAU and now AU.

So, great strides have been made in women entering and participating in the political arena.

Countries have adopted the various Conventions like CEDAW, Beijing Platform and in Africa various Platforms for Gender Equality including the AU Agenda 2063 declaration that demands not less than 50% women representation in decision-making bodies. Countries have also adopted their own legislations, developed their own gender strategies and adopted programmes for gender equality. We have advanced both at a quantitative level and qualitative level in improving the position, quality and status of women in societies. And above all women themselves have accepted that their role is not only in the private, but also in the public, proving that they are mistresses o their own destinies.

However, there have been set backs and in some instances backlash against women. Many countries have not completely implemented CEDAW nor the Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action of the fourth World Conference on Women in September 1995. Millennium Development Goals no. 3 has not been achieved. The International Conference assessing the 20 years since Beijing decried the lack of progress in the World calling on heads of states, governments and countries to step up and implement their commitments to gender equality.

In South Africa 41.5% of MPs are women and we have 41% women Ministers. These women are even occupying the previously male dominated positions in the Executive like Ministers of Defence, Foreign Affairs etc.

Though small steps have been in the economic, in general, but there is a long way being integrated in the economic sphere, the economic empowerment of women is still very low. There are still countries that have different salaries for women and men.

In many countries women in diplomacy are still missing. Romania is not doing well on all fronts in terms of representation of women in decision-making.

The other element that has grown is the violence against women and domestic violence. One study is actually showing that there is a relationship between the advances that women make and violence against them. It is argued that there is a clear backlash on women. We have witnessed the challenges of Boko Haram on the girl child. There is also the abuse of women especially in countries under conflict.

In South Africa, despite our very progressive Constitution that enshrines gender equality, the Mechanisms such as the Women’s Ministry, Gender Commission on the Equality of women, legislation and programmes promoting and promoting gender equality we still experience a lot of violence against women including domestic violence. It seems men feel that the only way to defend their masculinity is through being violent. Patriarchy, chauvinistic and backward attitudes against women still tend to prevail in the World.

It seems to me that these patriarchal attitudes still prevail in Romania too. I also have witnessed more acceptance of patriarchal relations here with women seemingly tending to accept their subservient positions especially at home. The defined gender roles, women subordination and male domination, seem to be still strong and accepted in Romania with emphasis of the woman as the caregiver and home builder irrespective of her status outside the home. I may be wrong, but there seems to be very little discussion of gender equality, few organizations or structures addressing gender equality and of course very few women in parliament or as Ministers. So, I think that attitudes of both men and women in accepting the power relations between them are still strongly patriarchal.

What I like about Romania, but sometimes has unintended consequences or interpretations. The family is very strong and important in Romania. The family as a cohesive unit with, mother, father, children and the tendency for young people to look forward to having their own families. The unintended consequences of thee is the focus on women as “the wife, the mother and the care giver” perpetuating the stereotype of the role and place of women.

In South Africa, the family has also been very strong but the African family institution was destroyed by apartheid, through especially the migratory labour system that took husbands away from their families to the mines and industrial areas where women were not allowed. The positive side of this was that the women developed a lot of independence as they had to run the family without the so called head of the family who only visited once a year. So this unfortunate process of families being apart made women very strong. Even the first political demonstrations were staged by women. Secondly, because of apartheid, women have been forced to engage in all forms of struggle for the freedom of our country. So, essentially as a young African girl, you had no choice but to engage in one form or another of struggle even struggle just for sheer survival. Women were detained, arrested, brutalized, and forced into exile underground and even into armed struggle. Therefore, fighting for our rights is nothing new to us. That is why the South African women made sure that the negotiations were not about men deciding the future of our country. We also were convinced that gender equality is not a bi-product of democracy . While democracy created the conditions it did not guarantee our freedom , we had and still have to fight for that. The class, race and gender struggles have always been interconnected and integrated within each other.

The road to gender equality is still very long. It needs conscious efforts by all democracy and freedom loving people to unite against the scourge of all forms of injustice including gender justice. What we have learnt as South African women, is the importance of having organisations and activism. We are of the view that being passive and hoping for change never works. One needs to mobilise, organise and be an activist.

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