A country that prided itself on openness now worries about security, writes Mmanaledi Mataboge.
Entering Norway’s Oslo Airport was as easy as stepping into a shopping mall. No immigration official or police officer asked to check my passport. I glided pleasantly out of the baggage collection section, followed the exit signs out of the airport and entered the capital city without hindrance.
It seems the Norwegians trust that officials in Frankfurt will deal with any security concerns they might have about incoming airline passengers. That trust mimics the image that the small, rich country—described by its political leaders as an “open society” where all citizens live in harmony—embodied just months ago.
In an effort to maintain its international reputation and bolster trade relations between Norway and South Africa, the Norwegian government invited a contingent of local media for a week-long stay.
Astrid Randen, a journalist with the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation, was one of the people who briefed the group. She was also one of the first journalists to arrive on the scene at Utoya. “The feeling among Norwegians is that we live in one of the safe corners of the world. We have always been this open society and never thought we were in danger. We took it for granted that everyone believed in the open society that we wanted,” Randen said.
While the massacre has seared the psyche of the nation, it has also stirred fierce debate about security. “If the accused could drive his car right into the government building without security noticing, then we’re not as safe as we’d thought,” she told the group.
Security, she said, had been improved “a bit”. But for someone coming from South Africa, the place seemed an idyllic, Disneyland-like utopia. According to Randen, none of the government ministers or political party leaders, apart from Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg and Minister of Justice and Police Knut Storberget, has bodyguards; Stoltenberg has two and Storberget one. The police don’t carry guns, we were told, and there are no visible convoys of black cars with blue lights rushing politicians to their next destination. Ministers drive themselves or just walk. Stoltenberg is well-known for riding his bike around.
Norway’s state secretary Gry Larsen said Norwegian politicians only get close protection after “concrete threat assessments” made by the police. Norwegian politicians tend to value “close contact” with the population, Larsen said.
Will that change? “It is too early to tell whether this may change Norwegian society, but every effort is made to allow politicians to continue to meet freely with citizens,” he said.
In fact, the longest convoy we saw was that of President Jacob Zuma and his delegation of ministers, who visited for two days.
But improving security is just one of the many issues facing the shaken country. “The massacre has changed the way we talk about our society as a multicultural one,” Randen said.
“The question is: are we creating a ‘we’ that doesn’t exist? We had for many years an open-door immigration policy and we were scared to speak about problems brought by migrants, but now the Labour Party is introducing stricter immigration policy. ‘Tough, but fair’ is fast becoming the slogan here.”
Rosetta Steeneveldt, a South African-born mother of three who married a Norwegian and now lives in the city of Trondheim, said there has been “a surge of solidarity for tolerance and a big step away from racism” since the massacre. “Perhaps for the other immigrants, it has been a reminder that Norway is not necessarily as safe and open as we like to think and that the unsightly racism prevalent in other countries needs to be countered and challenged,” she said.
The immigrant issue is on hard boil now, with right-wingers homing in on the country’s social-welfare system, which offers immigrants access to free healthcare, free schooling for children and free university education if the person fulfils criteria such as language competence and subject proficiency.
After living in Norway for almost 13 years, Steeneveldt said she had been on edge since the attacks. “I suppose I was living in ignorance, but I was shocked by the racism and hatred that exists in many of these right-wing circles.”
It seems that all of Norway’s citizens will have to adapt to the country’s new normal.
Mmanaledi Mataboge was a guest of the Norwegian government, which paid for travel and accommodation expenses.
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