South Africa’s envoy with a Balkan mission

Jannie Momberg presented his credentials to President Costis Stephanopoulos last week, taking up his post as South Africa’s new ambassador to Greece and capping a remarkable career in which he moved from beginnings as a wine producer, sold his farm, went into politics and was, in his own words, a part of the whole regime of the white minority government for many years. In 1992, the white Afrikaner from the Cape Province joined the African National Congress and was elected to Parliament in the country’s first democratic elections two years later. He became the ruling party’s chief whip in Parliament. I assisted the new people to become parliamentarians, he explains. Now, at the end of my career, I was given the singular honor to come to this country. Momberg, in his first and last diplomatic posting, will also serve as South Africa’s ambassador to Cyprus, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Bosnia-Herzegovina and will also cover the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. He feels a strong affinity for the Balkans he says, especially regarding the woes of the former Yugoslavia. I have a very strong personal feeling toward these people, because if I look at the hardships suffered by the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the people of Yugoslavia, I can just say, ‘There but for the grace of God goes my own country.’ Because we could have so easily been thrown into that same situation, Momberg said. We also have a country that has diverse communities. We have 11 languages, we have different religions. And yet we managed to get beyond that. When I go to these countries, if I can have one message for Bosnia and if I can have one message for Yugoslavia, it will be: ‘If we could do it, surely you can do it as well.’ Momberg believes strongly in the cleansing effect of an open inquiry into the wrongdoings of the past, such as South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee which was headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and which drew out harrowing testimony from victims and perpetrators of crimes in exchange for amnesty for the latter. I believe that Yugoslavia should start with a Truth and Reconciliation Committee, Momberg said. If I can assist them I will bring some of our people, from Bishop Tutu down, to visit them and to share with them their experience. Because I think only by cleansing yourself the way we did in our country can you level the playing field and start afresh in building a new nation. I would really like to expand this. I’m going to look very seriously at appointing at least honorary consuls in (Sarajevo and Belgrade) where we have no representation. There are about 65,000 Greeks and Cypriots living in South Africa today, down from about 150,000 before 1994. Momberg’s primary concern is to strengthen already strong ties between the two nations. And he stresses that he does not buy the argument that many Greeks left because of a useless black government. He cites the achievements of a government that is still struggling with many problems of the past but he also acknowledges the crime and violence that have made life difficult for many South Africans, including Greek shop owners. We have contact with many Greek South Africans who live here. As I say, I sometimes pick up negative vibes about Greek people who come back who say they left firstly because of a useless black government, etc., Momberg said. I totally reject that because I believe it’s not fair. I believe we have to look at what was achieved over the past seven years under the black government, of which I am very proud. I would really like to persuade the people not to look back at their former homeland in a negative way but to look at it in a positive way. The ambassador admits that crime in South Africa is bad. It has come to a point now where the public at large, the ordinary, decent people in the streets are getting fed up and I’m worried that some day they are going to take the law into their own hands, he said. What worries me more than the crime itself is the lack of respect for life in our country. You’ll find people shooting dead a person just to get his cell phone. You know, if you steal a cell phone it’s a crime. But I mean, if you’re killing for it… The lack of respect for life… I don’t want to take back everything to Apartheid. But we must understand that in the mid-1980s, which is now 16-17 years ago, when these people who are now committing the crimes were six or seven years old, they went to school in the morning climbing over dead bodies lying in the street – either killed by police, or by other people in the street. But they grew up with dead people. The result is that they grew up cold and heartless toward life. These are the people who are killing people right now, Momberg said. I want to make another point, that some people at home say I am a lunatic to say this. But I believe that the fact that we had a peaceful transition is also a cause of why we have so much crime. Because I believe that in the process of a violent transition, from one government to another government, in that violence you get rid of most of the criminals. In the process where we were, where we stopped all crime in the runup, the people who were criminals got through the net as well. Momberg also argues that part of the increase in the crime rate is because, back then, crimes that were being committed in the areas where black people lived went largely unreported. But the crime is a problem, he stresses. It’s one of the factors, I think. The people from Greece who lived in our country, who still live in our country, were very much in the forefront, because many of these Greeks are shop owners and they were the first to be targeted by criminals. That’s why you find many of the Greeks who have come back say they can’t live with the crime. I don’t agree with some of the reasons that they came back, but they felt it firsthand, so you can understand. Momberg is proud to list the achievements of South Africa in the last seven years, but he notes that much more has to be done to fulfill the expectations of the country’s very poor. Economically I think we have seen almost a miracle. Here you have a country that was governed up until 1994 by a minority government, you had an inflation rate of 11 to 15 percent, a growth rate of minus 1 percent. The growth rate is still not what it should be: We’re aiming for 3 percent this year. Inflation is down to below 7 percent, we’re getting to 6 percent. So economically I think we’ve done miracles, he said. The big issue is that our country needs more money to look after the needs of the very poor. The president (Thabo Mbeki) once said in Parliament – and it caused a huge uproar among white people – that we are still polarized between rich, mostly white, and poor, mostly black, people. And I think the emphasis is on the word ‘mostly’ because there are also poor whites and there are also very rich black people, Momberg said. In 1994 the ANC promised the people that they would build a million houses in the first five years….We built 850,000 houses, which I think is amazing. It’s amazing what we achieved. But the fact is that 3 million houses still need to be built. Momberg stresses that the new government picked up all the debts left by the previous government. Because we repay our debts we sit with this backlog of our own people. It’s worrying because the black people in our country have been extremely patient. They are waiting patiently. They don’t want a mansion. Or they don’t want a 4×4 Mercedes. They want a house, they want water, they want sanitation, they want schools for their kids. Which is what normal human beings request in life. We will have to move quicker because people are not going to be so patient in the future. But on the other hand, you can only move as quickly as your financial situation allows you. And economically I’d say that we have done very well. And what about education for black children? There is no doubt that there is a vast improvement over the past three or four years on the education situation of our kids, of our black kids. We inherited a situation where the previous government said that black people don’t need mathematics because they are not supposed to be in jobs that need mathematics. The result is that the majority of your black teachers have got no maths background. And their ability now to teach people in that crucial area is zero. So there is a problem. But I believe that if you look at the situation, you find this tremendous pride in the black people to send their kids to school, he said. The moment you increase your literacy and the kids’ ability to become something in life, you’re going to find that your crime rate is going to drop too. Momberg explains President Mbeki’s vision for Africa’s future and the New African Initiative. This is for Africa to get to look after itself. The president believes very strongly that unless Africans can stop the internecine warfare there is no use trying to have fancy economic plans, he said. I think Mbeki’s vision of a peaceful Africa looking after itself is directly linked to the role he is playing as a peacemaker on our continent, Momberg said. We have a democracy. We probably have one of the most advanced constitutions of any country in the world, and suddenly South Africa has become a major player. I don’t think it’s only because we are supposed to be the wealthiest country in Africa with the most electricity and the most this and the most that. I don’t think it’s that. It is that the leadership coming out of South Africa is crucial to the welfare of the continent. Business ties I really would like to expand the very good relations between the two countries. I really would like to make it stronger. I’d like to see much stronger involvement on both sides for import and export for both countries. I don’t think that you can just say I want to export so much from South Africa to Greece. Because I believe that to be able to export you must be able to import as well. I’d love to see a major drive in this country to sell South African wines. I would love to see a joint venture between the olive people of Greece and the wine people of my country and to have a joint thing in Athens to promote it. Because I don’t think the Greek people have discovered South African wines. It’s very encouraging to hear about developments. One of our major cinema companies in South Africa, Ster Kinekor, has three major complexes in Thessaloniki and is finishing the next one in Athens, a big one – $50 million or something like that. Purely South African. You look at the Greek pay television, Netmed, of South Africa. You look at the Greek people who have now taken over [the shipping company] Safmarine, it’s a South African-Greek situation. I pick up stories about people bidding for the waterfront, jointly Greek and South African. I believe there is something really, really promising happening between our two countries. I would, in the next four years, love to expand that because we have such a lot in common. I think the people have a lot in common and I would like to see that expand.

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