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Power to the People

Magazine

Power to the People

By: Jóhann Páll Ástvaldsson
Sanna Magdalena Mörtudóttir

Reykjavík City Hall is getting a fresh perspective this term in Socialist Party Councillor Sanna Magdalena Mörtudóttir. Sanna is in many ways in stark contrast with the typical city council member. She’s experienced a life of poverty, she’s young, she’s a person of colour, she’s an anthropologist, and last but not least… she’s a socialist. A founding member of Sósialistaflokkurinn (The Socialist Party), she has spearheaded the party’s foray into politics which culminated with 6.4% of the votes for the city council in Reykjavík.

A life of poverty

Sanna is no stranger to poverty as she and her mother long struggled to make ends meet. The mother and daughter once had to last a whole day with a packet of Polo candy as their only nutrition, while her mother juggled two jobs to make ends meet. Although Sanna is now a city council member, her history of poverty still lingers over her life and led her into politics. “When I see people’s reactions I realize how brutal my upbringing was. I am re-experiencing it in many ways, as I often thought before there were many others who had it worse. But when someone hasn’t had a real meal for a long time – it’s a dire situation.” Her mother is worse for wear after the previous decades, “My mother receives disability compensation, a direct effect of her working days. She worked at a kindergarten through the day, which she then cleaned after closing. She was constantly working but we could not make ends meet. We bought nothing but basic necessities, yet the money didn’t last us the month. She has experienced severe anxiety attacks which eventually forced her to retire. The disability compensation doesn’t last her the month either. People want to get out of the situation but they are stuck in a system which keeps them down. This is not just a period in my life which is over. You become angry at the system and the fact that it’s keeping people in a vicious cycle.”

Did her experience of poverty lead her into politics, I ask her. “Definitely, the experience affects me and I know of a lot of people in the same situation. There are so many things we need to improve which many are not aware of. It still rattles me in many ways. Whenever I hear the sound of clinging coins I get an uncomfortable feeling as it reminds me of when my mother was counting coins, around the 20th of the month, and I knew that this money had to last us the month.” A revealing status on Facebook about the poverty she and her mother experienced eventually led her to come in contact with similar minded people “I had no experience of politics and my first foray into this field was on the first of May last year, when I became a founding member of Sósíalistaflokkurinn.”

Systematic poverty

Sanna’s mission is clear, to foster a movement that gives poor people the tools to succeed. “If we look at the preschool system, it is clear there is a low-wage policy being driven, while those who work in the city hall are on the other end of the spectrum. They even get paid overtime for sitting more than three committee meetings a month. In the current context it seems to make sense to give higher wages to city council and committee members, while other groups have to work extremely hard to get a pay raise on their minimum wage salaries. These groups are systematically held down. We are a rich nation and should ensure that everyone can have basic necessities. We know that wages do not cover these necessities, while there is no ceiling in rent market prices. There is a long list for social housing – we are systemically pushing these people to the margins of society. The poor need higher wages. It begins and ends with finances and people have to spend a large portion of their salary on rent. People are working two and three jobs so it’s clear that the problems do not lie with the individuals.”

Hidden racism

As a person of colour, Sanna has a different outlook than many of her fellow countrymen. An anthropologist from the University of Iceland, she has made questions of race and self-image the focus of her research thus far. “Icelanders of colour often get questions from strangers regarding origins or whether they are adopted. Even if people don’t mean anything by it, it’s a constant reminder that you are different. It’s embedded in the idea that Icelanders are white, and this bigger image that we’re decended from Vikings, and that those who are brown or black cannot belong to Iceland. You feel that from constant reminders of the fact that you’re different. You’re spoken to in English, or you get compliments for your Icelandic. It’s connected to the homogeneous idea that all Icelanders are white, Christian, that both parents are Icelandic and people can trace their lineage back through the ages. Even if an individual has a different background it doesn’t make him any less Icelandic. Even though this is not direct, violent racism, there is clear prejudice to be found in these microaggressions where people are constantly reminded of how different they are.”

“It can foster a feeling of being excluded. Should I define myself as half Tanzanian and half Icelandic? I’m not half anything – I’m simply a whole me.”

Socialists, in this time and age?

Many a reader will raise an eyebrow that a socialist party has shown up in the Icelandic political scene. The party, along with Sanna, have a clear vision for the future and their goals. “We’re not afraid of stating that we are socialists, even though socialism has received its share of criticism in the past. We are radical and will not put up with the current system. Capitalism is the enemy. It keeps on getting more violent. It’s a system which doesn’t work and we’re rising up against it. With the power of the people we can achieve so much. It’s all built on the fact that the public rises up and states ‘we’re not having this anymore!’ If we get the numbers, fantastic things can happen.”

Read the full article.

Iceland Review is the longest running English-language magazine presenting Iceland, in continuous print since 1963. Published six times per year, the magazine includes features and photographs on Iceland’s community, culture, and nature. Subscribers will soon enjoy digital access to Iceland Review’s back issues: a treasure chest of photos and articles.

Subscribe here or preview our August-September 2018 issue in full.

Caption

Sanna Magdalena Mörtudóttir.