“I WANT YOU to know that your day will come. It’s coming, it’s on its way, because of you. And I want you to know that I applaud your resilience!”
The inspirational words boomed within the walls of the University of Johannesburg’s Soweto Campus’ Imbizo Hall.
Trademark par for course – they rolled off the tongue of an American icon whose identity is synonymous with success and giving: Oprah Winfrey. Product of a rags-to-riches biography, the luminary dubbed the “Queen of All Media”, was delivering the keynote address to the Is’thunzi Sabafazi [Dignity of Women] colloquium co-organized by the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the Graca Machel Trust, inside the packed, two-tiered venue.
That Winfrey, 64, born Orpah Gail Winfrey [as spelt on her birth certificate] even got to address the gathering, referenced to the self-same resilience she allude South Africans as having – considering that the event happened a mere week after she had lost her mother, Vernita Lee, who passed on, on Thanksgiving Day.
Yet such is her ties with South Africa that even the death of a loved one wouldn’t dissuade her from honouring an obligation!
Falling within the 16 Days of Activism for no Violence against Women and Children period, in addition to the year-long commemoration of Madiba’s centenary – the event’s organizers wouldn’t had chosen a more powerful and universally appealing figure to remind the country’s womenfolk of their place and purpose in Life and society!
Although happening on a weekday, locals voted with their feet as droves showed up in affirmation of the message being sent across.
Notaries such as erstwhile SA Deputy President, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngquka, Graca Machel, Dr Mamphela Ramphele, actress, Nomzamo Mbatha, Elinor Sisulu, Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi, Lucas Radebe, Professor Njabulo Ndebele – among prominent others – were out in full force to lend moral support to the gender cause.
The occasion attended by well-coiffured and adorned ladies of every colour and diverse age, had commenced with musical renditions from well-known playwright, Mbongeni Ngema and prominent songstress, Zonke Dikana.
Performing separately, the duo had guests inside the hall a stomping as Ngema belted out a hit from the Struggle era containing lyrics sounding out the refrain that South Africa would eventually return to the people!
Clearly enjoying himself, and all the while suitably dressed up, the Sarafina creator performed delightful shimmies as he sang of “ubabu Tambo a shaya itsamaya!” On a stage adorned with Ndebele matriarch, Esther Mahlangu’s familiar patterns, Dikana owned the space as she evoked the memory of her late musician father as she sang, Viva the Legend – and thereafter concluding her allotted time by leading the audience in the singing of the national anthem.
Below a quotation from Madiba emblazoned in huge letters offering: As a tribute to the legions of women who navigated the path of fighting for justice before us, we ought to imprint in the supreme law of the land, firm principles upholding the rights of women – the university’s hall reverberated with elation from the music as a prelude to Winfrey’s address.
Cometh her time, elegantly dressed in all-white, the woman who was cruelly referred to as “sack girl” for wearing clothes made from potato sacks whilst growing up being raised by her maid grandmother – stepped up to the podium, to rapturous applause!
An orator of the storytelling tradition in her own right, and largely not referencing from her prepared notes – Winfrey got off to a resounding start by greeting the audience in isiZulu, “Sanibonani!” She then related on the moment she got to spend 10 days and nights and 29 meals with Nelson Mandela.
The encounter led to her building the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls school. With some of the girls from the academy present, she told attendees, “We are Mandela’s children, and we are his legacy. And his legacy speaks to us each time we choose unity over division. His legacy speaks to us each time we decide that we are going to fight for equality over domination and love over hate.”
Her moment having the listeners spellbound in rapt attention, the classical product of the proverbial rags-to-riches biography spelt it out, “The spirit of him abides with every man, every woman who listens with humility; everyone who says yes to breaking down a barrier, and not to putting up a wall. Who educates, rather than retaliates. He is with us every single time everybody casts a vote of democracy and casts a vote for freedom – he lives!”
Also in attendance being ladies who could attest to experiences of abuse such as Josina Machel and Cheryl Zondi, Winfrey, who at the age of 14 lost a son to complications stemming from being born premature – then delved into what is evidently one of her abiding and proudest legacy ties with the country, the girls school.
“I built a school to give girls who look like me, who came from backgrounds like me, who didn’t have the means but had the brainpower and the will to succeed – I wanted to give those girls a chance. And I will say that the experience of watching these daughters of South Africa find their voice and find their grace has made me think long and hard about the universe that our young leaders are graduating into today.”
With the audience enthralled by gems she interspersed her delivery with such as “doing the best at this moment puts you in the best place for the next moment” and, “surround yourself with only people who are going to lift you higher” – the American mentioned that she had 191 girls presently in college, with 20 of them in the United States.
Some, she pointed out, graduated from universities in South Africa, the US and Oxford, in England. “The remarkable thing about every single girl who come to my school is all the trials and traumas they’ve been through. Most girls have experienced six major traumas by the time they get to my school and in spite of that, they still rise.
And so I say to all the young people, you too can rise. You are capable, you are brimming with the wisdom of all who came before you”, intoned one of planet Earth’s most influential persons who once defied her grandmother by spelling it out to her that she wasn’t destined to follow in her path of being a maid!
Every sentence rolling off her tongue literally a pearl of wisdom and inspiration, she continued, “So here is my hope – not just for my girls, but for South Africans and human beings everywhere: I hope that we are able to continue to create a culture that recognizes the responsibility that we have to one another.” “I know that everybody can’t build a school but you can take care of the person who is closest to you. You can help. You can ask the question: ‘How can I be used for something greater than myself?’ And I doing that, you align with Madiba’s vision – both compassionate and practical. He knew that if one of us is wounded, all of us bleed. He knew that if one of us is lacking, all of us are somehow affected.” “We all need to roll up our sleeves wherever you are, whatever you can do, and begin to build a new future.”
The wealthiest African-American in the 20th century and ranked the greatest black philanthropist in American history, the Kosciusko, Mississippi native flowed along, “I want to say a word to the young dreamers of this nation – Madiba said a winner is a dreamer who never gives up.”
To collective approval across the meeting space, she mentioned her being privy regarding some of the stark local realities, “I realize that the statistics are abysmal, that you’re still the most vulnerable in the labour market with more than one in every three of you out of work. Do … not … give … up! Find a way.”
Focussing her attention back to the girls from her academy, the figure whom a 2006 genetic test determined that her matrilineal line originated among the Kpelle ethnic group of latter day Liberia said: “Tell your story. One of the things I’ve learnt from all of the girls at my school is when they came to my school they had such shame about their stories.”
With Winfrey moving from one theme to another, throughout her talk, it was clear that the young ladies very much formed part of her universe – a point mentioned by renown local talk queen and the event’s moderator, Redi Tlhabi, who let the audience in on what transpired backstage before panellists would occupy their seats at the front. Tlhabi related how almost everyone in sight clamoured for pictures with Winfrey, but that when she spotted the girls – she just gushed over!
Expounded the prominent visitor, “Now we have a policy at my school that we are a trauma informed school that knows and recognizes that there’s power in the story – that the story can liberate you. That everything that has ever happened to you, no matter how devastating, how matter how sorrowful, no matter how challenging – there is not one thing that happened to you, that did not also happened for you.”
At the zenith of her element, she concluded: “Everything that has ever happened has happened to build your strength. And that strength equals power. So when you’ve been through so many trials and so many tribulations, what it does to you if you allow yourself to open up to the story that has come before you, what happens is it gives you power.”
Teasing that they “didn’t allow men on stage, that’s why he’s seated there” [referring to the Nelson Mandela Foundation’s chairman who was seated in the front row below the elevated stage] amidst a deafening standing ovation inside Imbizo Hall – Tlhabi then beckoned Professor Njabulo Ndebele to join hostess, Graca Machel in handing over a book about Madiba’s prison reflections titled, The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela – to Winfrey.
As Winfrey had to take leave of the event, owing to another engagement – the day’s programme immediately progressed to the colloquium segment which featured Mlambo-Ngquka and the younger Machel.
One couldn’t help but empathize with Graca as Tlhabi asked her daughter to impart her own personal reflections on gender-based violence and abuse at the hands of a spouse. Josina, the
former Mozambican president, Samora Machel’s child, relived the ordeal of being left to bleed for around four hours whilst being ignored – in spite of her societal standing – by those she pleaded for assistance from, after being manhandled by her then husband.
Machel, who lost the use of an eye from the incident – made an impassioned plea engendering for a community which is caring, ranged against such societal maladies.
In a heartfelt engagement, she also mentioned that she was not sure that her mother has healed from what happened to her – adding that, as a survivor of violence, she battled with issues of trust with any human beings.
Mlambo-Ngquka, whom Tlhabi declared that she’d had become the country’s president had she not being picked to become a UN diplomat, spoke about the He4She UN initiative, as well as the #HereMeToo local version intended to tackle gender issues face-on.
Encouraging the holding of governments to be accountable to the citizenry, she highlighted the lack of implementation of programmes as a focal point of challenges encountered.
Delivering the vote of thanks at the event’s conclusion, the Nelson Mandela Foundation’s CEO, Sello Hatang drew the attendees’ attention to remembering victims such as Reeva Steenkamp, Captain Rasuge and LGBT victims, amongst disturbing statistics.
Ndebele had summed up the day’s mood when he had earlier in his address, exhorted the guests to listen, learn, engage and walk from the event inspired.
At the genesis of the colloquium, a buoyant Graca Machel had offered that the celebrations would have been incomplete sans Winfrey’s presence!