During one of her stateside trips to Chicago, in part for a Rainbow Push appearance, South Africa’s First Lady Bongi Ngema-Zuma stopped by Johnson Publishing Company and spoke on a wide range of topics one-on-one with EBONY/JET’s Kyra Kyles.
A visit from a foreign dignitary to the EBONY offices in Chicago occurred with an expected level of formality. Security detail. Obviously. A small entourage. Of course. A careful sweep of the office where the interview was set to take place. Oh. Okay.
But once the eloquent, and highly intellectual, fourth wife of President Jonathan Zuma arrived at the building, all precision, pomp and ceremony ceased. Dressed in a beautiful full-length, autumn orange dress with her hair swept up into a stately braided bun, the First Lady exited the elevators with kind greetings and down-to-earth energy.
She paused several times during a slow procession to the office, once to remark on some of JPC’s iconic artwork and several other times to warmly greet print and digital staffers hard at work on the building’s 21st floor.
Moments later, a view of the city skyline at her back, the woman who has worked as a business consultant for both IBM and Deloitte, addressed questions ranging from areas of progress for South African women to her personal cause of diabetes awareness to her musings on the racial unrest currently (and clearly) sweeping America.
Spoiler alert: Given her own personal knowledge of the racist apartheid that devastated, and continues to impact South Africa, you will want to hear what the First Lady said about mainstream media coverage of the AME church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina.
EBONY.com: First, can you please describe your role as the First Lady? Do you have specific duties you must complete?
First Lady Bongi Ngema Zuma: South Africa does not technically have a role for the First Lady. We do have a spousal support office. You perform some duties and community projects, but you have to choose a cause on our own. You have to register an entity, as you cannot do anything, raise funds without having an entity. I started my Bongi Ngema Zuma Foundation in 2010 to address the cause of diabetes but not diabetes in isolation. As a third world country, we don’t have the luxury of looking at one issue. There are many other things deeply affect the community. In South Africa, we have to look at health but also education, which is a cornerstone for growth. We also look at empowerment, especially in the rural areas and develop opportunities for children, women and the aged. These are the pillars that drive our strategy.
EBONY.COM: Why did you choose diabetes as your particular cause?
Ngema-Zuma: I have a personal story that propels my passion. From the family I come from, many were affected by diabetes, though I myself am not diabetic. My mother lived with diabetes for 20 years and managed it well, but I have lost many of my loved ones. From my mother’s story, I can share a positive story. I know it can be managed and controlled, and she did so with very few resources but my goal is to make sure there are outreach campaigns and education in churches, schools, corporates and rural areas so that people know to screen and recognize common signs and symptoms.
EBONY.COM: You mention there are other areas in which you want to affect change and make progress, including education. What would you say are the biggest markers of progress in South Africa today?
Ngema-Zuma: I think if you go back to our time of liberation in 1994 where everyone, for the first time was able to vote, we are making progress. We’ve made strides in policy. We’re making headway in being part of the global market. But we cannot underestimate the impact or legacy of apartheid. Some people that were in power have still not let go. It’s still evident in corporations, where there are Black managers, but the power still lies with the minority. We still have equity issues when it comes to land distribution. It’s a work in progress.
EBONY.COM: Is this where young activists are focusing their energies now?
Ngema-Zuma: Yes, because the struggle continues. We are free politically, but economically, we’re still making our way up. If you look at education in schools, there are disparities among schools in the Black townships. We still have a long way to go. We have to raise our voices and address and balance these and other inequalities. If you go back to our history, the youth played a big role in letting the world know about this struggle what we were experiencing in our country even back to the [Soweto Youth Uprising] of 1976.
EBONY: Women are seeking empowerment across the globe. What does that struggle look like in South Africa right now?
Ngema-Zuma: We have a history of women’s contributions into the development of the country, both as it comes to politics and in terms of consumer buying power. We celebrate the 60th anniversary of the historic “Women’s March” this year. In 1956, more than 20,000 women marched to petition against the pass laws and other issues related to the apartheid. That went a long way in our history. The tide was turned and we now have the ability to consider the issues that affect women. The government has made strides in addressing gender equality. There’s progress in Parliament. We have a number of ministers who are women. But in the private sector, that is not the case. We have to nurture our girl children and challenge them to pursue skills not traditionally cultivated in women. Our girls need to take IT, electrical engineering roles. We have to change the stereotypes and encourage them into science and technology fields, which were typically perceived as men’s work. As for women in rural areas, we need to pay attention to them and help them through a legacy of empowerment. You find women who can do crafts. They can produce items and goods that could find their way into a Macy’s, but first they must learn to package, establish themselves as businesses, price correctly and ship. Affluent women must carry someone…mentor someone to help these women who have not been exposed to get ahead. It’s our duty and obligation as a country and as women. Mentoring is key.
EBONY: It's clear South Africa has undergone a transformation. Do you see more African Americans coming to the country to see that for themselves?
Ngema-Zuma: I think the country with the highest rate of visitation when it comes to tourism is China. The top of the radar is China. I don’t see that much evidence of African Americans visiting, unless it’s in silos. A church group may come every now and again. As we’re living in and participating in a global marketplace, you find a lot of multinational companies are traveling here more for business. I worked for two American companies, so we saw a lot in the space. But not so much individual African Americans.
EBONY: Why do you think that is?
Ngema-Zuma: There are a lot of misconceptions about South Africa. What I find common: There is this thinking that Africa is one place. It’s 54 countries. The dynamics in all these countries are different. I worked for IBM and went to 20 different countries in Africa, each different than the other….there are commonalities, but it’s diverse. It’s on a much larger scale, but think about the United States, I come here and go to cities and see the differences. I have a different experience in North Carolina versus New York.
EBONY: Speaking of perceptions, what are your thoughts about what is going on in America right now with the AME church shootings, Ferguson, Eric Garner and some of the other racially motivated incidents in the news?
Ngema-Zuma: Remember, for me, this is not something new. The legacy of apartheid still exists. It may not be the killing, but the racism is not new. It’s nothing I don’t know coming from South Africa and its history. But also, a lot can be done from the American side. A lot of education needs to happen. With South Africa, our transition from the old and new regime was not easy. The Truth and Reconciliation committee did not undo everything, but it gave people a platform to voice out how they feel…what this did to them. Even perpetrators could say, “I did this because I was told to under this instruction.” It did not fix things because losing someone is losing someone and Black lives were lost during the apartheid, but it brings a form of awareness that is necessary. Saying “why” you did something doesn’t turn back time, but it gives us a chance to reflect and learn. Here in America, we need to speak a lot more about these things. I’ve been here for a few days. This topic of racism is not heard enough in the news. I am not trying to be critical but I heard more about the incident in Charleston back in South Africa than I did here. If you were in South Africa last week, you would have thought Charleston was located there…not in South Carolina. Not shying away from what happened will help.
EBONY: Wow. You are not the only person saying that. There has been a deafening silence, so to speak, about this topic in the media…a lot of posturing as if there could be another reason, versus race, that this happened.
Ngema-Zuma: He was wearing a jacket with the [apartheid-era] South African flag! That’s a symbol of hate. He had a relationship with hate. This story, we are captivated by it in my country. It was on the front page of every newspaper. It was as if here, some people did not relate.
EBONY:That is an interesting take. We live in this world where there are so many ways for us to empathize with one another and we miss those opportunities.
Ngema-Zuma: We cannot keep treating one another with the legacy of separateness and “other.” Who cannot sympathize with innocent people dying in a church? You would think it would be more touching for more people.