The revelation of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma

2013-10-15 10:00

‘I was taken aback about how wrong I was?... She has a power without flash and pomp’

I went to the Steve Biko Memorial Lecture reluctantly last week.

Not because I don’t enjoy the lectures.

On the contrary, they are the highlight of my year’s calendar.

Just last year, I reneged on an agreement to baby-sit my niece to go listen to Nigerian author Ben Okri.

It’s still difficult to regret that decision as Okri was phenomenal.

The reason for my reluctance was because Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma was the keynote speaker: no doubt, a fitting choice by the organiser, the Steve Biko Foundation, which seeks to advance the ideals of black consciousness and the legacy of Biko.

It’s been a year since her appointment as chairperson of the African Union (AU) Commission and many are looking to her to revitalise the body and prove that it is relevant. So who better to help us define what this “blackness”, this “Africaness”, means than Dlamini-Zuma?

But I was sure she would be dull and boring. Maybe others thought the same, judging by the empty seats. My memory of her public persona on TV was of a surly and detached politician.

She seemed to respond to the media with disdain, answering every question in that shaky and monotonous voice. So much so that I was privately unconvinced by all the brouhaha when she was gunning for the AU position.

I thought her talk would be a bit like Thabo Mbeki’s at the same podium six years earlier.

The then president and champion of the African renaissance stood in front of a roomful of people waiting on his every word and talked on and on and on, shrouding meaning with quote after quote from every philosopher that ever lived.

I battled to keep myself from fidgeting and left that hall thinking, “Wow, the president is well-read”, but was disappointed.

I think it’s an issue among many ANC politicians – they’ve been at the podium for so long they are forgetting that they are supposed to interest us, give us a reason to vote them back in.

But I was mistaken about Dlamini-Zuma. She might not be an orator nor possess the poetic pizzazz of Okri, but she was clear and deliberate in her meaning.

I felt her passion for the work she does, which can seem abstract to the rest of us, concerned only with our immediate lives.

“Africa must have a skills revolution,” she said, and spoke practically about how she saw industries achieving this.

And she was emphatic about the role she felt women must play in raising the continent off its knees.

I’m generally sceptical of a grand nostalgia for early pan-Africanist ideals or the idea of one homogenous African people, but could see how, under her guardianship, we could realise “political and economic unity and consolidation in order to facilitate trade, wealth creation and common defence”.

I truly felt she represented that banner under which I could believe in this “unified Africa”.

I was taken aback about how wrong I was in my expectations.

I was well aware of her prowess as a foreign affairs minister, an activist and an academic. But I mistook her soft-spokenness for disinterest.

She has a power without flash and pomp – it does not need to shout to be noticed, it just is.

And I never imagined that she had a sense of humour – perhaps it was the Mbeki years, no one seemed to laugh in those days.

And, against protocol, she accepted questions and engaged honestly, and I believed her when she said she would be back to discuss issues with the students who had raised them.

I left wishing I could invite her to dinner, so I can swim in the knowledge of her experience and to hear about the many nations in Africa she has been to that I still hope to see, and the grand plans she has for her job as chairperson of the AU Commission.

And I wonder if she would be so kind as to indulge in some girl talk.

I’d love to know which of her beautiful print dress and headscarf ensembles is her favourite.

And, of course, I’m dying to ask: What was it like being married to Number 1?

»?Follow me on Twitter @Joonji

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