The Western most country of the Old World, Senegal gets its name from a river that crosses the country, and it means “our boat”. Embassy Direct sits down with Her Excellency Mrs Safiato Djia, Ambassador of Senegal to South Africa.
Embassy Direct: It’s a pleasure to have you here, your Excellency.
H. E. S Djai: Thank you for having me. It’s a wonderful atmosphere to be in and I’m excited to talk about ideas of historical and cultural heritage.
Your Excellency, as Ambassador of Senegal to South Africa, could you tell us a bit about your diplomatic tour in the region thus far? How long have you been in South Africa, and are there any moments or events that have stood out for you?
I arrived in South Africa in January, just over three months ago. Senegal and South Africa have a very long, interesting bilateral relationship. We focus on the economic relationship between the two countries, on how to improve the exchange between our countries, and we invite South African companies to discover Senegal. We have oil and gas, we do a lot of mining, and we know South Africa has experience in these areas. We are developing relations in terms of railroad activity, having started discussions with TransNet. We place focus on our economic relations, but also on cultural relations. We deeply believe that it is reinforcing to the relationship to know more about each other’s cultures.
Often the role of a diplomat can be somewhat glamourized, when in truth each job has its hardships as well, such as the difficulties in relocating and settling in a country far from home. Are you here with your family, how have they adapted and how has their overall stay been thus far?
I’m here with my son, who has joined the University of Pretoria. My husband works in Senegal, but comes to visit. So far it’s been interesting, and we are very happy to be here.
President Zuma went on a state visit to Senegal in 2013, and met with President Macky Sall in Dakar. They signed agreements in agriculture and arts & culture, placing emphasis on people-to-people relations, and agro-industrial partnership for development. Could you elaborate on these agreements, and the results they’ve shown thus far?
We are working very hard with South Africa on the agricultural agreement. South Africans are going to Senegal, creating farms, and teaching new agricultural technologies to Senegalese people. In 2016, we received a great delegation that came to South Africa to exchange and engage on these agricultural topics. I’m expecting to see them soon again for more collaboration. We also focus on tourism between the countries.
The two leaders also took part in a South Africa-Senegal business forum. How would you define trade relations between the two countries? What is being traded?
Right now, we trade in a lot of juices, fruits, and sometimes vegetables from South Africa to Senegal. We have prospective, but more can be done between our two countries.
What other strengths in terms of our countries’ diplomatic relations would you highlight? In what areas would you say bilateral cooperation is strongest?
Culturally, we work together on very specific topics, like the celebration of the 30th anniversary of ‘the talk of Dakar’. 30 years ago, Senegal hosted the first meeting between leaders of the ANC (at that time, the delegation was led by former president Thabo Mbeki) and leaders of the apartheid government. It was the first time they got a chance to sit around a table and start negotiations. At the same moment we also celebrate the twinning of Gorée Island, which is a very symbolic island in Senegal, and Robben Island, here in South Africa. From the Island Gorée, slaves were taken from our continent on a non-return trip to America. It’s a very sad part of our history, but it’s true. Gorée and Robben Islands are two islands that are recognized by UNESCO as historical heritage sites. The world faces so many issues of – I don’t like the word ‘racism’, I don’t like the word ‘xenophobia’ – but so many issues in misunderstanding one another. These moments of heritage help we understand one another better.
Even the worst moments in history need to be recalled in order not to repeat them.
Of course. It’s our history; we have to keep it, we have to know it and learn about it so that we don’t make the same mistakes again.
Could you elaborate on the current state of your home country, Senegal? How would you describe the political, economic, and social stance of the country?
Economically, Senegal is in great progress. We have a new generation of self-made money, because people believe that they can make it. They are working, creating businesses. I also have to pay tribute to young woman. We are seeing a new generation of young people working in different fields of the economy, not waiting for the state to offer them jobs. We, as a government, are creating an environment of business so that we can help anybody and everybody to create a business. Right now, you can open a company in 24 hours in Senegal.
In terms of agriculture, we are making big strides. We eat a lot of rice, for example, so we are trying to produce enough rice so that Senegal does not have to go outside the country to buy rice to feed its people. We have about 80% success in this, which is important for us because Senegal was spending a lot of money importing rice to feed the population.
Concerning education, we are again making strides. According to UNESCO’s Rights Concerning Girls’ Education, we have achieved our goal of having all young girls going to school. Now we face having to maintain these girls at school until they finish high school and go to university. This can be challenging in certain areas due to religious or social issues. When faced with the choice of whether or not a boy or a girl should go to school, parents will often say to the girl “you remain at home, you don’t need to go to school”, or send her to school until the age of 13, and then she will leave to be married off.
Politically, Senegal is a great democracy. It wasn’t a gift, it was the population’s will and we worked very hard for that. It’s a young democracy, and there is still a lot to improve on, of course, but we are doing well. We have stability, everybody can vote in Senegal without killing each other (sometimes the debate is very interesting). I do believe and I’m optimistic that Senegal will make it.
I’d like to discuss the state of the continent and African relations as well. As member states of the African Union, how would you say the continent is developing? In what areas should development be focused, and how can individual nation-states work together to strengthen the African continent through the AU?
Africa is the continent of hope. Hope will be realized if we tighten our unity and if we develop freedom of speech, which is still a problem in many African countries. If a population does not have their right to freedom of speech then they will express their freedom in another way, not usually the best way. So it’s about asking African leaders to respect their constitutions, to respect democracy, to respect freedom of speech. That’s one of the first steps. The next is unity, to reinforce South-South cooperation, as we are doing between Senegal and South Africa. We have to create links between African countries, to create roads from South Africa to Senegal, from Senegal to Morocco. If a farmer in Senegal has mangoes, for example, and wanted to sell them to a neighboring country, if there are no roads it would not work. The agenda of the AU2063 insists on that.
We agree about Africa being the continent of hope, but that hope relies on its people. When everyone understands each other and can respect their differences, the continent will have the opportunity to surge.
Lastly, what would you say is the most beautiful and attractive part of your country?
My culture. Without hesitation, my culture, Senegalese culture. It is very rich. We are talking about ‘teranga’, which is our hospitality; we are talking about our music, we have great musicians; talking about painting, Senegal had the first Biennale of Contemporary African Art in Africa, with collections coming from all over the continent and all over the world. The Biennale takes place in Senegal every two years.
We are a small country and we may not be rich, but our first thing is our culture.
Thank you so much for your time, Your Excellency.