An evening well spent with a visionary African woman

2013-10-11 13:21

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It had been a tight day spent waist-deep in deadlines. I was running late and burnt some rubber rounding bends on De Waal drive as dusk settled over Cape Town.

At this time of day, De Waal drive, carved into Table Mountain’s seaside flank, offers views over the city flickering to life – but I wasn’t looking.

My eyes were glued to the snaking road that leads to the University of Cape Town (UCT), where Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma was delivering a speech on pan-Africanism in honour of Steve Biko’s death 36 years ago.

I got lost soon after entering UCT’s vast Upper Campus – a maze of grand old buildings and oak trees sprawling up the mountain’s slope – eventually electing to park at the chemical engineering department (for lack of other options).

I leapt out of the car and straight into a run (one acquires strange skills after years on this job) clutching my notebook and screaming for directions to the Jameson Memorial Hall, where the lecture was scheduled to happen and where Obama recently addressed a packed audience too.

Security guards stopped me on the steps to the beautiful, ornate building. I was too late. Time to reach deep into that special tank of reserve emergency charm.

“No man, sir! Please let me pass, please sir!”

A kind guard nodded me by.

I raced up two flights of stairs to the gallery, plonking down hard on a wooden pew with excellent views of stained-glass windows and Dlamini-Zuma speaking into two microphones below. She looked pretty, wrapped in pink traditional print. From my bird’s-eye view, I could also make out two red berets in the second row from the front.

Next thing, a sparrow trapped in the hall nearly plunged into Dlamini-Zuma’s head. But in true Zuma tradition, she didn’t look up, continuing to read her speech.

The gist of her lecture was on how Africa should take control of its own destiny.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” she said. “If we don’t tell our own stories, other people will. We must teach and disseminate African history and celebrate our culture through film, fashion, research initiatives and literature.”

A former medical doctor, Dlamini-Zuma served as health minister in Madiba’s post-1994 Cabinet, as foreign affairs minister under Thabo Mbeki and Kgalema Motlanthe, and as home affairs minister under her former husband, President Jacob Zuma.

She assumed the hot seat in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, as chairperson of the African Union Commission in October last year.

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma at UCT. Picture: Liza van Deventer/Foto24

Political analysts have commented on her lack of charisma and diplomacy.

Here I need to differ.

It was well dark when Nkosinathi Biko, head of the Steve Biko Foundation (who was six when his father died) thanked Dlamini-Zuma and announced the end of the lecture. It had been a long day, and by this time I was half asleep and drooling on my folded arms.

To the front of the auditorium, a young hand shot up. It belonged to a student. He begged for an opportunity to make a comment.

Biko said there was no time, but Dlamini-Zuma relented. She put her speech aside, looked up, and listened attentively while the student spoke.

Now I was wide awake. Around me, the audience shifted in anticipation. In the second row, two red berets bobbed.

Dlamini-Zuma took notes while three more youngsters asked questions. Identity was a common impassioned thread in their queries: how to define yourself as an African in a country shaped by a history of colonialism and Western influences.

“These questions are big questions,” she said, looking at the sea of faces. “If you take the people in this room, we are very diverse. But we are unified in our South Africanness. Diversity must be viewed as a strength and not a weakness.”

Her next argument was simple and elegant. She differentiated between Africa’s history of colonialism and our present reality of technology-fuelled globalisation.

“I am all for developing our own African trajectory. But we cannot be independent from outside influences. South Africa is a part of the global village and cannot escape influences from the rest of the world.”

She promised to visit the university again, shaking hands as she left the building.

“Yoh! That wasn’t a boring lecture, hey,” remarked a loud female student while queuing to exit.

I recognised one of my favourite social commentators in the crowd: struggle poet James Matthews, father of SABC news boss Jimi. Matthews is small and hunched like a little bird, and always wears a beret (presumably a wardrobe accessory non-indicative of political affiliation).

“And what did you think?” I asked him.

“Well,” he said. “I’m 84 and a little bit deaf and couldn’t hear everything so well, you know. But look at this astonishing number of young people who attended. And how wonderful was it that she gave them a chance to be heard!”

The issues Dlamini-Zuma addressed were big issues; I doubt those hungry young minds got all the answers they craved. But the energy of her engagement had been electric and a sense of gratification hung in the air.

If only more of our leaders would just look up from their speeches, listen and engage.

It had been an evening well spent.

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