South Africa’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Ambassador Jerry Matjila, spoke with Africa Renewal’s Zipporah Musau on a wide range of issues, including the just announced winners of the UN Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela Prize that is awarded every five years; what it takes to silence the guns in Africa, and the fight against COVID-19 in Africa. Here are the excerpts:
South Africa is an ex-officio member of the selection committee that picked this year’s UN Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela Prize 2020 winners. How has the work of the two laureates, Mrs. Marianna Vardinoyannis of Greece and Dr. Morissana Kouyate of Guinea, honoured Mandela’s life and legacy of reconciliation, political transition, and social transformation?
At the outset, I would like to thank the President of the UN General Assembly, Professor Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, for successfully organizing and preparing for the nomination of the two laureates of the UN Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela Prize 2020 from over 300 nominees and applicants. That, together with the other panelists of the UN Selection Committee, conducted a rigorous process and came up with the two names.
We [South Africa] observed the process as an ex-officio member of this committee and we're delighted by the panel’s choice of the two - Mrs. Marianna Vardinoyannis of Greece and Dr. Morissanda Kouyaté of Guinea – a woman and man, so it is 50-50 gender representation, from two continents and that is exactly what the whole idea was, that the Mandela legacy is applicable in many regions of the world.
We are delighted by the two laureates because they bring in something very unique, if you look at Mandela’s values of care, compassion and assisting those who are less fortunate, always looking out for those left behind, those who are desperate, and those who are in more difficult circumstances than us.
Look at the work of Mrs. Vardinoyannis, for example. The fact that she was persecuted under the regime then in Greece, went into exile with her parents a few times, but went back to Greece and said, ‘I will save children in need of this kind of cancer treatment. I've been persecuted but I am going to follow the calling and help those desperately in need’ to me is fantastic!
Then look at Dr. Kouyaté of Guinea, a gifted and fortunate medical practitioner. He could have chosen to stay in the capital city Conakry, living a good life in a nice house but he chose to go to the remote areas of the country to help the most disadvantaged and the most vulnerable people. He made sure that through his training, he could help others. Both laureates embody Mandela's values of compassion, helping others and in the process, healing society and unifying people for a common cause.
That is why, as South Africa, we very delighted by the panelists’ choice of the duo. They are not Heads of state, or cabinet ministers, or CEOs of companies. These are ordinary people who at one point had nothing but know how to give back to the society. I think these laureates live the legacy of Nelson Mandela.
South Africa is the African Union Chair in 2020, a very crucial time in Africa. In line with the African Union’s theme for this year ‘Silencing the Guns’, what still needs to be done to end conflicts on the continent?
A few challenges remain that need fixing.
The first one is to make sure that we organize credible and inclusive elections on the continent. To do that, we need to construct a predictable, open, verifiable voters’ roll, where people can check whether they are registered to vote or not. We must clean these voters’ registers on the continent, so that no one can say they were not given the chance to vote.
We need predictability in terms of people knowing that there will be elections, there will be a change of government, and that people will have an input into the process. More openness in terms of media, human rights and where everyone has the right to be elected or to participate in the elections, are fundamental.
The second is tolerance – be it of different views, of opposition, or political differences. We need to acknowledge that in diversity lies beauty, and that different political views enrich a democracy.
Third is that we need to work hard to fight corruption, making sure that our systems of governance work and that resources and services go to those who need them most. These services include access to education and healthcare.
These are just a few things we need to do to silence the guns in Africa.
However, to completely silence the guns in Africa, we need to deal with the root causes of conflict - poverty, inequality, under-development, exclusion, and unfairness. Until we deal with these fundamental questions, we can do everything else but there will always be tension.
People will be hungry, unemployed and will feel hopeless and they can then do a whole lot of things. They can do massive demonstrations, burn buildings, fight one another, then we will end up with IDPs [internally displaced persons], migrants and refugees. This can lead to a social commotion and a cycle of desperation going forward. So, Africa must really work hard to deal with the underlying causes of conflict, including radicalization of the youth.
Why do you think young people on the continent are being radicalized?
Well, part of it is because we have a very huge youth bulge in Africa that is not employed, not in school, and no means of income. So, they become susceptible to influences of different kinds, as long as somebody puts bread on the table.
Secondly, is intolerance. When you are tolerant, either in politics, religion, culture, or ethnicity, then you take away the steam for radicalization because you advocate for all the cultures, languages, religions, gender or ethnic groups to be equal, so nobody is excluded. There is no discrimination. So, you take away the steam that makes people say ‘I have nothing to lose, I'm going to fight on’. We need to deal with these very fundamental things.
Look at South Africa, for example, we have 11 official languages, all religions are treated the same, even though 79% of the population are Christians. When the Parliament or schools open, everybody meditates in their own religion. There is no ethnic group which more important than the other. We are all South Africans. We consist of different racial groups.
We must take away the anger of our young people, especially now. Let us open up education, sports and recognize all of them, so they feel a sense of belonging in an inclusive society.
The challenge for Africa is to break down those barriers among ethnic groups, languages, religions, and cultures. If you can do that, we would remove some of the root causes of anger in our young people.
Still, a lot of efforts have gone into ending conflict in Africa and completely silencing the guns over the years. What would you say are three main achievements so far?
The first thing is that now we have regular elections and peaceful change of governments in Africa. This year, for example, we have about 17 or more planned elections in Africa, meaning that almost a third of the continent’s member states will be holding elections.
Secondly, we have reduced the number of conflicts on the continent. If you go back 10 years, the number of conflicts is going down. There is a gradual acceptance in Africa that conflict should be resolved through peaceful means.
The third is inclusiveness, increasingly recognizing the role of the civil society, and having the participation of women in decision-making processes in Africa, whether in parliaments, executive, cabinet, or local governments, we see more and more women being represented at that level. And then therefore, you see, acceptance, pacification and people becoming more and more willing to engage peacefully.
We are not yet there, but we have a very good foundation to build the future.
COVID-19 infections have gone up significantly in many countries in Africa in the last few weeks, including in South Africa. What needs to be done?
The numbers are going up. South Africa accounts for a big number of infections on the continent, although the rate of recovery has also largely improved from 47% to 52%.
I think initially, Africa did very, very well. After observing what happened in China, Europe and America, we began to lay the groundwork of containing infections and lowering the curve at the very beginning.
African governments took good measures to close borders and have curfews. But I think many of our people were not committed enough. Governments can only do so much, the people must take responsibility, people must take this in their own hands. Who is government? It is us. I think people did not take this thing in their own hands.
Secondly, I think we delayed in producing and distributing PPEs [personal protective equipment]. We also delayed in making wearing of face masks compulsory at all times in open spaces, supermarkets, etc. We took time also to close certain activities like sports and places where people gather like at funerals and weddings. We may have thought the virus was too far.
By the time most countries developed proper protocols and contact tracing, it was too late. We should have had that earlier. Especially because some people were asymptomatic, so they moved around thinking they don't have the coronavirus and unintentionally infected others.
However, I think we can still do continuous advocating to our people the need for social distancing and wearing face masks.
Are governments doing enough to educate and communicate with the public?
I think governments are trying. They are using all the tools - television, radio, the community, but nothing beats a person in your street saying, ‘hi, put on that face mask’.
If neighbours or ordinary people could say ‘put on that face mask or don't enter my house, my shop, or my taxi’, we would deal with this thing. But if a friend gives you a ride in his or her car and both of you don't wear face masks and yet you continue listening to government officials on the car radio talking about the dangers of this virus, and still you go on drinking, laughing and proceed to pick up another friend from the next street without care, then we won’t stop the spread of the virus.. Even if the government talks and talks in different languages all the time, until people take responsibility, we cannot deal with this virus.
We must reach the level where we can say ‘let's sacrifice now so we can live tomorrow’.
What should the governments do?
The governments can do their level best to enforce directives, protocols and police the streets, but then people will say ‘No, it's my freedom’.
Let's ensure that ordinary people: neighbours, friends, mothers, fathers, cousins, loved ones etc., complement government efforts in fighting the pandemic. Let's take it upon ourselves in Africa and follow governments instructions and may be make a bit of sacrifice on some of the things we cherish most. We should ask ourselves, what can I do to help the government to deal with COVID-19?