Ambassador Extraordinaire: South Africa's New Ambassador to France, Dr Konji Sebati, Is a Woman of Steel. She Talked to Benedicte Chatel about Her Hopes and Aspirations

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COMBINING GENTLENESS AND DEtermination, Dr Konji Sebati, South Africa's new ambassador to France, radiates an undeniable charm. She is not encumbered by protocol, being more action-focused; and responds personally to her emails.

Not a career diplomat, Konji was born in Soweto in 1951 when apartheid was in full swing. She barely knew her father, a medical inspector, who was killed in the township by criminals at the age of 36. Konji was only 6 years old. Her mother, Anna, a nurse, then aged 35, became a single parent with three children. Not wanting them to become "township children", she left Soweto and moved to Pietersburg, her husband's province, now known as the Limpopo Province.

As she could not live on the meagre 100 rand a month wage that her nursing job paid, Anna turned to selling flowers in a shop run by a white woman of Jewish faith, who was sensitive to the young black woman's plight when, one day, Anna pushed the door of the shop open asking for an apprenticeship. This led to her starting a small business in floral decoration and equipment hire for ceremonies alongside her work as a nurse. Konji and her two brothers actively helped their mother during the evenings and weekends.

As a young girl, Konji's dream was to become a doctor, the profession her father had aspired to but was denied by the world of apartheid. Like her elder brother, Konji went to the University of Turfloop, now University of Limpopo-Turfloop, where she obtained a BSc degree in Physiology and Zoology. But the urge to become a doctor remained, and in the years that followed, she worked to achieve her dream.

The South African government adopted a quota system in 1973 allowing white universities to take a number of black students. The young Konji dutifully applied to do medicine but was only offered dentistry, which she declined. She then spent the spring of 1976 sending applications across the world seeking to enroll in medical school, which was not easy. She did not only need to find a university, but also to get a passport, visa, and some money. Konji thus decided to accompany a jazz band on a tour to Montreal, Canada. She put in her visa application with the group, hoping it would help in obtaining a visa more easily, without attracting the attention of the authorities. The German airline, Lufthansa, was sponsoring the tour, which allowed the members of the band an honorarium of 400 rand each, which was needed to obtain their passports and visas.

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Unfortunately the Soweto riots of 16 June 1976, and the government repression that followed, put an end to Konji's travel plans. She found herself with a passport all right and a Lufthansa ticket, but no money or a university abroad willing to admit her. Fortunately, an extraordinary series of chances would come her way. In the weeks that followed, a patient of her mother's whose brother was the dean of the faculty of medicine at the University of Nairobi, Kenya; and the intervention of Konji's cousin at a conference organised by the UN in the UK, drew attention to the disastrous situation of black students in South Africa. The UN's stance against apartheid at the time, allowed Konji to go to the University of Nairobi to do medicine, paid for by the UN. The Kenya of that time was neither Zambia nor Tanzania where ANC cadres and black South Africans in general had a free reign. "At the Faculty of Medicine, Nairobi, I was the only South African on campus," recalls Konji. "There were South Africans who were studying, but they were from families exiled from the 1960s on who lived locally. The Kenya of the day was slightly hostile to the South Africans in exile in contrast to Zambia and Tanzania which were more favourable to South Africans. …