The most important of my recent five-star experiences was entertaining at the FW de Klerk Foundation dinner to celebrate his 80th birthday. It was a warm, informal, heartfelt and deeply personal evening where the private man – who gives in to tears easily – spoke of his 72- and 62-year friendships with his oldest friends, his family and, with emotional joy, of his wife.
I also had the pleasure of performing at his 70th birthday celebration and the difference in the guest list was immense. In 2006 Mandela spoke in sincere and humourous tribute to FW, Tutu led the prayer, Trevor Manuel, Zanele Mbeki, Helen Suzman, Tokyo Sexwale, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, Mario Ramos all got up and spontaneously danced together.
Of course, the two great voices for reconciliation, Mandela and Suzman, are no longer with us – and unfortunately “the Bish’ was overseas, otherwise he would doubtless have attended. But Buthelezi and Zille were the only current political people there, though many captains of industry were present, as well as representatives from around the world. And I realised how far from our goal of reconciliation, acceptance and celebration we have retreated as a country.
This year the evening was beautiful, successful and deserved – and refreshingly humane. But the great and extraordinary transition of 1990 to 1999 has been allowed to slip away and to be replaced with invective, polarisation and polemic. And that is the fault of all of us but especially the great institutions of politics and the media who feed the split relentlessly; while society and the business world do more to heal wounds by simply getting on with life and allowing us all to grow, change and heal.
Two of the other functions I performed at were for a German/SA shipping company, Deutsche Afrika Linien, whose ties with South Africa are strong and vital. The audiences were mostly South African, completely mixed in terms of race, gender and age, and of course were a joy to perform to. Generally the rule of thumb for a corporate audience is the greater the mix of all three, the better the event will be in terms of energy and spirit (and reaction for me as the performer since that mix is what I believe in and try to celebrate in my work).
Our German host stood up and spoke with insight and intensity of the developing situation in Europe, global economic trends and the problems facing international shipping. But he then spoke with unaffected joy and pleasure of the South African connection – the work ethic, the people, the energy, the can-do attitude of South Africans. In brief, he gave us a glimpse of why we continue to thrive economically despite a series of long-term and worsening problems the government has refused to deal with.
The last function was a 70th birthday for a “swallow” – a British resident who has a home in South Africa, and lives here for between three and six months of the year. Guests came from the US, UK, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Australia (much of the SA white diaspora) and from all over South Africa.
Of course, they came in celebration of a life well lived, but they also came because they could afford to – and travelling to South Africa is a pleasure. Walking along the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town, which was literally heaving with people from all over the world and every type of South African, you could see the huge amount of money and employment that tourism brings into this country. Climbing Lion’s Head at sunset recently I was one of maybe 10 South Africans among about 60 foreigners revelling in the sweat of the climb, and the age-old ceremony of watching that ball of gold igniting the endless expanse of the ocean.
Of course, I have been writing about the very top of the multi-layered structure that is our country. Privileged, pleasure-filled and luxurious it may be – but it gives an insight into a world that is hidden from most South Africans. Evenings such as these happen every night around the country, for every type and size of business, social event and racial group(s).
But they do make me think of the great divide between the rich and the poor; the empowered and the disempowered. In the early days of democracy I remember Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma once saying that “even if the line is long, people will wait patiently if they can see the line is moving forward steadily”. How do we keep that line moving steadily? That is the responsibility of those people who meet behind five-star doors. DM