Tea with the First Lady

By Drum Digital
01 December 2010

IT’S drizzling and cool as we pull into a parking bay at the entrance of Mahlamba Ndlopfu, the official residence of the president in Pretoria. We have an appointment with the president’s wife, Bongi Ngema- Zuma (45) – but before we can get anywhere near the good lady we have to go through a wall of security that would probably rival anything the White House has to offer.

After explaining our mission to the police officer at the guardhouse he beckons his colleagues and issues a few quick instructions. Two officers head back into the guardhouse where they make a call while a third takes up position behind our car.“Wait here,” the main officer says in the kind of voice that lets you know he’s used to being obeyed. He checks our identity documents and fills in a visitors’ logbook.

My cellphone rings – it’s Bongi Ngema- Zuma’s personal assistant, wanting to know if we’ve arrived. I tell the officer the president’s wife is waiting for us in the hope this will speed things up – but no such luck. “Sorry,” he says, “but we have to screen you thoroughly first.”

Finally we are allowed to drive down a paved winding street to the inner checkpoint. Again, we are screened and interrogated before we’re eventually taken into the presidential guesthouse.

It’s a white, colonial-style double-storey mansion full of antique furniture, exquisite old paintings and Persian carpets on gleaming wooden floors. Workers bustle in and out of offices and we are met by a butler who leads us down a long passage and into the main lounge. Bongi emerges looking elegant in a lime, two-piece suit and black shoes. She has invited DRUM to talk about something close to her heart: the recently formed Bongi Ngema-Zuma Foundation.

“What must I call you? First Lady? Mrs President? Msholozi?” I ask as we shake hands.

“Call me Madam. Madam Bongi Ngema- Zuma,” she says with a smile, and invites me to sit in one of the twin brown leather armchairs.

“Madlokovu,” I say by way of appreciation and I bow as she beams like a lighthouse. Madlokovu is her clan name.

She touches the parting of her cropped weave as if to make sure it’s still in place. Then she fishes a brown folder out of her briefcase and puts it on her lap. “We can start. Ask me questions,” she says looking slightly uncomfortable. And so I begin, but each time she answers she reads from a press release in a monotonous voice. I wince – and she doesn’t miss a thing.

“Do you have a problem with me reading from my notes?” she asks.

“I have to be careful because I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been misquoted in the media. That’s why I don’t like to give interviews.”

She’s clear and forthright and speaks good English, lightly tapping a foot on the floor as she makes her point. She soon loosens up a little, conversing easily about matters ranging from health issues and economics to development in rural and township areas. Her real passion, though, is her foundation which aims to raise awareness of diabetes.

Read the full article in DRUM of 9 December 2010

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