It was shortly after Deputy President Paul Mashatile’s convoy of heavily armed protection thugs beat up two ordinary South Africans that the algorithm threw up Kaja Kallas.
There was the Estonian president since 2021, cycling to work, followed by Tom Steinfort, the 60 Minutes Australia journalist, in his investigation into how neighbours are dealing with Russian president Vladimir Putin’s imperial dreams.
No bulletproof gangsta motorcade, no gym-bunny thugs with automatic weapons. Nada, nothing. Just a 46-year-old woman on her bike cycling to work.
Even more remarkable is that Estonia, a member of Nato since 2004, borders Russia and has felt its chokehold in the past. Estonia was once controlled by the Soviet Union.
Kallas’s mother, Kristy Kallas, was six months old when she was shipped off to Siberia in 1940 when the Soviet Union invaded the country.
Estonia had declared neutrality at the start of World War 2 but dictators don’t care for declared nonalignment of sovereign states.
First came Stalin’s army; then came Adolf Hitler’s Nazis in 1941, only for Estonia to be reclaimed by an invasion and occupation by the Red Army in 1944.
Estonia had lost a fifth of its population by then. People in northeastern Europe have long memories. Deep, ancestral wounds.
If there is anyone in the world you would rationally think needs actual physical protection, as in maybe even a bulletproof Popemobile, it is Kaja Kallas.
“Appeasing a dictator is like feeding a crocodile hoping you are the last one to be eaten. And I don’t want to be that,” she explains to Steinfort.
Aggression as a policy tool could never be allowed and “how the world responds to the aggression by Russia also gives a message to all the aggressors or would-be aggressors making careful notes on how this plays out or have ideas regarding their neighbours”, says Kallas.
Balls bigger than all the suits put together. And cycles to work — we said that.
Little neighbours, big hearts
Outgoing Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin, who led the nation bordering Russia, Sweden and Norway from 10 December 2019 until last month, said matters were “very black and white” in the region.
“Russia has brutally attacked Ukraine. Illegally. We have to be awake, we have to make sure we are prepared in any kind of situation.”
It was under her leadership that Finland was ushered into Nato, Putin’s red rag.
She is often seen out and about, without armed heavies at her side. When she did need security, she preferred having women on her team.
Marin said that the decision to join Nato had been made with “big support from citizens” and that this was part of her legacy.
“We are at the changing point of history… We have to be on the right side,” said Marin.
Never occupied by the Soviet Union, Finland twice fought the Red Army and lost, but maintained its independence. Finland had been part of the Russian Empire from 1809 until its independence in 1917.
Marin led a coalition government headed by five women. She will be remembered for a party she held at her official residence in 2022.
No bodyguards or heavies were captured on pictures that went viral. There were none.
Ice ice baby
Iceland’s prime minister, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, has consistently called out Putin’s aggression. She has led the country since 2017.
She is a leading voice in the Council of Europe, which recently resolved at a conference in Reykjavik to establish “a register of damage” caused by the Russian invasion.
At a press conference, 47-year-old Jakobsdóttir said that solidarity with Ukraine was “one of the main priorities of the Icelandic Presidency” and that there was a need for “accountability”.
The Council of Europe’s register of damage for Ukraine, which 43 countries have pledged to support, is the first step towards an international compensation mechanism for the victims of the Russian war.
The Greek auntie
Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou, the first woman to lead that country, is a former judge.
In November 2022 she made an unannounced visit to Ukraine.
“We will not forget the [war] crimes committed in Mariupol against its innocent and peaceful inhabitants, a city with a Greek name and with a significant population of Greek descent,” she declared.
Sakellaropoulou (67) is another who is not partial to showing off how important she is by honking a hooter, blaring a siren, flashing lights or poking guns out of windows. When she is seen out and about, there are no motorcades or visible US-style protection.
Turning down Trump
The Danish prime minister since 2019, Mette Frederiksen was the woman who told then US president Donald Trump that his idea to “buy Greenland” was “absurd”. She was re-elected in 2022.
She is the second woman in Danish history to be elected prime minister and the youngest. She is being tipped to become the first female chief of Nato when Jens Stoltenberg steps down in September.
Frederiksen has been a champion of the climate crisis and its impact on Africa and has pledged 60% of Denmark’s climate aid to developing countries.
Viewed as “one of Europe’s most skilled heads of state”, she was instrumental in strengthening Western unity in the face of the war in Ukraine.
Denmark has also given significant financial and military aid to president Volodymyr Zelensky.
The Danish government and other Nordic countries provided considerable support to Africa’s liberation movements, including the ANC, during the struggle.
Adam Price, screenwriter of the superb Danish series Borgen, said he had modelled his character Birgitte Nyborg (played by Sidse Babett Knudsen) on Frederiksen. She, too, is not big on heavies with guns, and rides a bike.
Small suits, big entourage
The motorcade of the US president (whoever puckers the leather upholstery) usually consists of at least 40 vehicles, including armoured cars, a Secret Service electronic countermeasures Chevrolet Suburban, a counterassault team and Secret Service agents. Leader of the Free World and all that…
The Russian president’s motorcade is bog-standard, similar dick-swinging with an equal amount of blue lights and traffic police in tight leather. Robert Mugabe, too, favoured the slow motorcade entrance.
The greater the theatre, the more dangerous the politics, we have come to learn.
Which brings us back to Mashatile’s goons, who did this even off duty, people.
Women of South Africa, we have nothing to lose but the motorcades, the shouting, the vitriol and the bullying… Time to get going. There are enough examples around the world. DM
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.