Vuyo Koyana invited me to Winnie Madikizela – Mandela’s 80th birthday celebration at the Artscape Opera house in Cape Town.

Winnie in Xhosa attire with Marlene le Roux, CEO Artscape

Winnie in Xhosa attire with Marlene le Roux, CEO Artscape

Vuyo and I have known each other for many years. Often, I listen with rapture to her stories of life under Apartheid, how she coped, excelled, and now works as a successful entrepreneur, leading the Pan-African market on Long Street, and as a psychologist, facilitating diversity workshops. She is spiritually deeply grounded and straddles diverse traditional and cultural environments with ease and aplomb. I often return from our meetings filled with warmth, inspiration and admiration for her beauty and generosity.

As habit, I arrived early that evening at the opera house and lingered in the foyer as it filled up with color, friendly batter, sunny smiles, hugs and happy laughter. Some people wore sophisticated traditional attire, richly adorned with beaded accessories. Others dazzled in their modern African designer outfits that have caught the attention of fashion shows in Paris Milano and New York, all so electrifying.

I saw an empty chair near the bar and asked a group of young black women gathered there whether I could join. With a warm welcome, smiles and friendly gestures I was invited and soon we were talking, exchanging names, who we were waiting for and how exciting it was to be here; such easy connectedness, warm, open, mutually respectful.

I wondered if this were a group of white women, the usual crowd at Artscape events, mostly monochrome and hushed, wearing gray on charcoal with the occasional muted burgundy as a sign of boldness. How would this group of white women respond to a black woman asking to sit with them? Would they invite her to take the empty seat, smile invitingly, greet her warmly, and engage effortlessly and respectfully in friendly and genuine conversation? I wondered and thought of the many stories from African women friends of the opposite experience.

Vuyo and I had not connected yet as time for the gala opening approached. I got up to be more visible and moved next to the bar. A young black woman was also waiting for her friends. Again, we fell into conversation so easily and attentively with one eye scanning the hall for our friends and the other kindly focused on each other.

The foyer by now was brimming with deep joy and anticipation. Vuyo called, her group had gathered upstairs in the main galleria next to the entrance doors. Walking through the crowded foyer, up the stairs to meet the family, I felt so easy, belonging, was smiled at so often along the way by young and older black people gathered to honor Winnie.

Again, I thought what it would be like for a black woman walking through an all-white crowd. Would she be treated to such warmth, friendliness, welcoming looks, smiles and courteous nods as she was striding through the large foyer?

Vuyo Koyana behind uMama and with her sister Andiswa and friends

Vuyo Koyana behind uMama and with her sister Andiswa and friends

Vuyo, uMama, Andiswa and two friends were settled on a comfortable sofa in the center of the galleria. For a long, endless moment it seemed the welcoming hugs, smiles, happy faces enveloped me, us completely; so much joy at seeing each other, so, openly shown and freely shared. We all squeezed together on the couches and took photos, all so giddy, squeezing together, laughing and being exalted about this event of momentous historical meaning, celebrating a black woman warrior who fought fearlessly for freedom from white oppression, that I was white too at that moment did not seem to hinder anyone from showing me love and acceptance. How is that possible to be treated with such generosity of spirit after so much suffering by black society at the hands of white people like me?

As the gala concert opened, the opera hall was brimming with excitement and pride, deep reverence for Mother Africa erupted as she arrived. “Amandla” Winnie called out on stage, dressed in imposing traditional white Xhosa attire. Her booming voice had such power, it shook the chandeliers.

“My god” I said to Vuyo, “what a powerful voice”. “That is her indomitable spirit and spiritual fortitude”, Vuyo replied; “unbreakable, fearless even though very frail of body”. The full house rose, exploded into cheers, dancing, hugging one another, tears and chanting, swaying and clapping; an awesome moment of joyful solidarity including the few specs of white strewn about.

This was the experience of a lifetime for me; to be included, not ‘othered’ but embraced, welcomed and swept off my feet like everybody else with love and admiration, witnessing the joy and power of humanity triumphing over brutal oppression and exclusion.

This evening of celebrating black pride electrified me to the core. I promised myself renewed vigor to take this message to young, especially white people in dialogue meetings. Let us cast away the shackles of past ill-fated values and norms and open to the beauty of the humanness, the richness we can share by embracing diversity as opportunity and imagining a world of learning living and building together.
‘Why not simply attempt to touch the other, to feel the other, to explain the other to myself and create a new ethics of care’ as Pumla Gobodo – Madikizela suggests in her article “Battle against racism is really a long-distance human race”’ Sunday Times 11 September 2016.

This is so much kinder and wiser than hardening the lines of ‘Othering’ through criticism, aggression and violence; just see where it has taken America today and Europe tomorrow.

We live under the cherry tree and see no flowers; we are surrounded by strawberry fields but instead grow thorny hedges – Anna-Rosa Pion