Ubuntu lifted Norway, so why not South Africa?

On July 22 2011, Norway was hit by a terror attack that left 77 people dead and large sections of the government quarters destroyed. It all started with a homemade 900kg bomb left outside the prime minister’s offices.

I was there that day, climbing out of a building into a surrealistic bomb crater only minutes after the explosion. My close colleague died. The perpetrator, Anders Behring Breivik, then went to the Labour Youth camp on Utoya, an island outside Oslo, and massacred 69 people, including a volunteer from my organisation, the Norwegian People’s Aid.

Sunday will mark one year of sorrow and pain. It will also mark a period of mobilisation around the very core values and ideals Behring Breivik wanted to destroy: democracy, tolerance, equality, solidarity and the struggle against xenophobia. South Africa has been my second home for 25 years. And, preparing to go home to Oslo to mark the anniversary, I cannot help thinking that ubuntu is well and alive in Norway at a time when it is under massive pressure in South Africa.

Norway did not respond to the terror attack with increased fear, intolerance and isolation, or with large-scale mobilisation of security measures. Prime Minister and Labour Party leader Jens Stoltenberg stated in his first public speech after the attack: “Norway will pass the test, applying the strongest of all weapons: with the free word and democracy, we will chart the course after July 22.”

He concluded that we would respond with “more openness, more democracy, firmness and strength. This is Norway. This is how we are.”

And his anticipation was right. The degree of activism has increased. In a city of 500 000 inhabitants, 200 000 took to Oslo’s streets in the middle of the holiday period three days after the attack in a peaceful demonstration for democracy and tolerance. Political parties and civil society organisations have experienced high numbers of people seeking membership and involvement in voluntary activities. The Norwegian People’s Aid has seen its membership grow by almost 20%.

Many of the youth who survived the massacre on Utoya have increased their involvement in politics. Tolerance has increased and people are not more fearful. In fact, surveys show that high numbers of Norwegians are more tolerant and positive now – even about immigration and foreigners – than they were before July 22 last year.

The mother of my colleague who died in the government quarters said in court that we had to get on with our lives and respect and carry forward the ideals that were important to our loved ones.

So what is it that made Norway respond so differently to many other countries that have also been attacked by terrorism? A big part of the answer is found in a strong sense of collectivism and social capital: trust in institutions, organisations and the collective. This social capital was our best asset that fateful day. People stretched out hands to help all over the country. On the mainland, just by the island Utoya, volunteers jumped in boats to assist swimming teenagers trying to get away from Behring Breivik. Likewise, our volunteers from the Norwegian People’s Aid rescued many youngsters on the island.

After July 22, the same social capital has contributed to mobilisation around the core values of tolerance and democracy. Our social capital, or “civic virtue”, is a kind of ubuntu, Norwegian-grown but not so different from ubuntu and the democratic ideals that guided so much of the political struggle in South Africa until recently.

In Norway, as elsewhere, social capital does not grow out of nowhere. Norwegians are not just kind and caring because we were born that way, but because the very institutions and organisations we built continuously nurture the same kind of values. There is legitimacy for democracy, strong organisations and consultative governance.

A long struggle
Norway scores best internationally in terms of equality and low differentials between “rich” and “poor”. The political system is the product of a long struggle. We fought to build a strong democracy and fair distribution of resources, because we thought it was best for social cohesion and harmony, quality of life, development and also for economic progress. It turned out we were right. It also turned out that this would become our best asset on that dark day in July last year and in the healing afterwards.

My other home, South Africa, demonstrated more or less the same level of organisational activism and democratic consciousness as Norway when I came here 25 years ago. Democratic values were also high.

But now the picture looks different and worrying. People are getting impatient and find limited channels or patience for democratic expressions of grievances. Protests over social delivery spread through the country. So does corruption. At the same time, poverty, inequality, social cohesion and unemployment remain staggeringly high.

Even more worrying is the low and decreasing respect for alternative views, criticism and democratic debate. Democracies cannot be built in one day and then survive forever. They have to be renewed, debated and kept alive by constructive debate, criticism and competition. Respect for democratic debate and differing views is at a low when the president has to be protected when delivering the Nelson Mandela centenary lecture in Limpopo.

And why are marches met with counter-marches, leading to violence instead of a reception committee ready to take petitions? Why do leadership competitions seem to be dominated by personalities and their networks, rather than by ideas and programmes to deal with the real issues of South Africa? Why is Cosatu attacked for raising political issues when they affect the daily lives of its members?

Creating good debates and respect for democratic principles is not only a responsibility of leaders, but also of each of us. Strong active organisations, collective action and critical debate are good for democracy. Civil society is meant to be a watchdog of governments. Disagreement is healthy as long as it is open, constructive, accountable and built on respect.

Strong democracy and redistribution of resources provide social capital and are good pillars for growth and development. They are also excellent pillars for healing and nation-building after crises, such as the one we experienced in Norway.

Ubuntu, whether Norwegian or South African, is a concept worth exporting, but it also needs to be nurtured at home.

Liv Torres is secretary general of the Norwegian People’s Aid.

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