My Zulu love letter says: ‘Embrace the exuberance of South Africa’

| October 26, 2011 | 0 Comments
Hout Bay is a coastal suburb of Cape Town.

Hout Bay is a coastal suburb of Cape Town.

My South Africa is the white man in his ML500 stopping to tow to a nearby petrol station the broken-down car of a young black mother and child stuck in traffic. It is the successful accountant who works for a global conglomerate and returns to Langa, the township he grew up in, to run Saturday school math classes in his community. It is the local mayor who has given up his salary to drive home the message that if his constituency is going through tough financial times, the sacrifices must be shared by all.
My South Africa is my 11-year-old daughter who is passionate about giving and who requests that all her birthday gifts be donated to a home for children living with HIV/AIDS.
My South Africa is the white woman who speaks fluent Sesotho and organizes music festivals for rural children in the Free State province. It is the guy living with a disability who wakes up rain or shine and directs traffic on crutches at the intersection near the University of South Africa in Pretoria.
It is the radio station DJs who collect shoes for school children who often walk up to 10 kilometres to rural schools every day. My South Africa is the remarkable lives of ordinary people who will put out their best tea cups and ‘Eat Some More’ biscuits for strangers and visitors and treat them like long lost friends. It is the citizens’ passion for their country, and their obsession to keep it vibrant through millions of acts of daily kindness despite decades of oppression under the pre-1994 apartheid regime.

The Northern Cape is famous for the Kimberley diamond mine, where digging started in 1871 and finished in 1914. Today, it’s a crater known as The Big Hole.

The Northern Cape is famous for the Kimberley diamond mine, where digging started in 1871 and finished in 1914. Today, it’s a crater known as The Big Hole.

My favourite parts of South Africa have to be a drive along the best coast in the world. Meandering slowly, the 200-kilometre route takes you through South Africa’s Garden Route. The south coast takes you between Mossel Bay and the mouth of the Storm River through resort towns, such as George, Wilderness, Knysna and Plettenberg Bay. Stopping to buy a feast of seafood from the fisherman, inhaling the aroma of peri-peri prawns and curry fish and eating it on the sandy beach is nirvana. Replete with good wine and food, at sunset, the sky and the sea make perfect love to each other offering variations of blue, purple and turquoise and finally a reflection of bronze fire colouring both the sea and the sky.
Ixopo in the Midlands of KwaZulu Natal has a beauty that is so surreal you have to keep pinching yourself to make sure it’s not a photograph in a coffee table book. I have sucked the most addictive, juicy, sweet sugarcane that flowed down my chin. It reminds me of my childhood when we could not wait for the sugarcane harvest to come. The landscape is so breathtaking; Alan Paton in the opening lines of Cry, The Beloved Country said “There is a lovely road which runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it.”
Exquisite and lush, these hills are a mystical haven to retreat and renew. I love waking up to the fresh mist. Sipping a warm cup of tea on the veranda, I watch as the mist wages a losing battle with small rays of sunlight which allow a peep of homes painted in pink, blue and green hues in Zulu kraals [villages] scattered like polka dots on the rolling hills.
Ixopo is where the old people speak proudly of great warriors of the past through the ancient oral tradition of storytelling. They tease the imagination with their legends and tales of victories in the great wars fought in the hills.

Traditional performers at the Johannesburg cultural festival.

Traditional performers at the Johannesburg cultural festival.

Where else can you smell the heady scent of rain coming? It is across the veld amongst the flowers that perfume the grasslands with air so pristine its freshness touches your lips like a cool drop of water. Flower season begins as if by magic — an enticing tapestry of brilliantly coloured blooms in Namaqua National Park. In August and September, the dusty valleys of the Namaqualand are carpeted with wildflowers. More than 1,000 of the estimated 3,500 plant species are found nowhere else on earth.
From Uppington to Port Noloth in the Northern Cape province, you can experience a sun that burns away the endless balmy afternoons to unlock the Southern Cross that will appear so close you’ll have an irresistible urge to reach out and touch it. If you walk softly in the Kalahari Desert, you’ll no doubt meet a meerkat, the 30-centimetre-high member of the mongoose family. A precocious animal, it is cute but strong enough to kill a cobra snake.
This exotic combination of landscapes, people, history and culture offer the visitor to South Africa a unique diversity of experiences. It forces one to leave everything that’s ordinary at home.
Wine & Culinary
Cape Town is well known for producing great wines. What is less known are the gastronomic adventures at the country’s many wine estates. The highly unusual wine pairings are not to be missed. Imagine a Shiraz matched with a masala chai dark chocolate. Or how about a Cabernet Sauvignon with dark-rock salt chocolate? Springbok, South Africa’s favourite game meat, pairs well with a fruity Chardonnay. Very few places in the world will offer a Pinotage matched with a Prego steak roll (a hot steak, sauced and served on a roll) with chocolate shavings. Decadent is a word you’ll use over and over again.
You know you are a special guest in a South African township such as Gugulethu when you are offered African beer. The customary way to deal with this honour is to take at least one sip or your audience will be chaffed (teased). The most common place to get this beer is a Shebeen (a tavern). Our African beer, called Umqombothi from the Xhosa language, is made from maize (corn), sorghum malt and yeast. It’s gritty, thick and creamy with a somewhat sour aroma. Surprisingly its alcohol content is less than three percent — less than most beers. Umqombothi is served at celebrations, weddings and funerals.
Tripe, also called offal, is a traditional treat favoured by most black South Africans. Many white South Africans also love it, especially those with a farming background. Tripe consists of the parts of an animal that are left over from cutting up a carcass; they are also called “variety meats.”
South African indigenous food restaurants are in every township. Try some liver, kidneys, brains or chicken feet stew. The rich dynamic of 11 official languages, and a land steeped in diverse cultures produces a variety of food that is the spice of life. For something mild, try the Mieliepap, boerewors en sous (maize porridge, sausage and sauce), a favourite with all South Africans.

The Maropeng Cradle of Humankind is a UNESCO World Heritage Site which contains limestone caves where the 2.3-million-year-old fossil Australopithecus africanus was found in 1947.

The Maropeng Cradle of Humankind is a UNESCO World Heritage Site which contains limestone caves where the 2.3-million-year-old fossil Australopithecus africanus was found in 1947.

Erudite South Africa
South Africans are erudite and love telling and writing their stories. A proliferation of book fairs and literary festivals enlivens just about every corner of the country.
South African writers have distinguished themselves as cutting-edge creators of literary excellence. Boasting two Nobel winners in literature and a linguistic paradise of nearly a dozen languages, the textures, experiences and themes of the written or spoken word give the visitor a glimpse into South Africa’s values.
Our literary talents address topics from AIDS to inter-racial tension and go beyond the simplistic black-is-good, white-is-evil formula, to look at the struggle to maintain African tradition against urbanization/modernization. Identity and class mobility are challenges now surfacing in discourse on our social fabric.
Children’s literature is my favourite genre. African storytellers use African proverbs and folktales to impart lessons about anti-social behaviour — using a tortoise story, for example, to teach children the importance of self-esteem. The images, values and messages have a universal resonance that teaches us about humility, honesty and how to use our power carefully. Buy a book by Gcina Mhlope, a noted South African storyteller, for an experience that can be passed on for generations.

A Feast of Festivals
Every month offers a feast of festivals in South Africa from the arts to the sciences. SciFest Africa, the national festival of science, engineering and technology, draws more than 35,000 visitors each year. The week-long festival is held in late March in Grahamstown, Eastern Cape where some 600 events include a laser show, workshops, lectures, sunset shows, game drives, robotics competitions and a science Olympics.
Visitors can enjoy an old tradition of a festival of theatre, notably the ground-breaking musical King Kong, based on the 1950s movie. Theatre created in South Africa by South Africans has showcased local productions at the Johannesburg’s Market Theatre since the mid-1970s. Such internationally acclaimed plays as Sarafina brought audiences worldwide to the stage. Festivals such as Arts Alive premiere artistic expression as dance companies expand their repertoire.
From the end of May to the end of November, every year, the southern right whales travel thousands of miles to the Cape south coast to mate and calve in the bays. The villagers of Hermanus hold an annual festival that features the best land-based whale-watching in the world. The dolphins also come to play, and if you stay long enough, you may even see a humpback whale.
Music and Dance
Music and dance pull in new audiences and a number of home-grown productions, particularly those aimed at the popular market, have taken South Africa and, in some cases, the world, by storm. Where else would a visitor hear a rendition of Carmen, an adaptation of Georges Bizet’s 19th-Century opera relocated from a Seville slum to a contemporary black township and sung entirely in the Xhosa language? Dubbed UCarmen eKhayalitsha, it is sung by young musicians with a South African twist in a township in Cape Town.
If you like the blues, the Oppikoppi Easter Festival takes place over the holidays and its stage draws a traditional blues-and-folk audience.
I am almost certain that, somewhere in history, we invented the voice as a musical instrument. South Africa stands out as the only place you can go to a concert knowing nothing about the artists or their music and come away feeling overwhelmed by the performance. We have festivals featuring everything from choral music to reggae, Kuwaiti and Magana. Our music has passion, musical excellence, diverse tradition, mass participation, prestige and uniqueness.
Not only can we sing, we are a nation with rhythm. We were born dancing. Even if your dancing is sub-standard, the South African shuffle done in straight line with many people will hide your less-than-coordinated efforts. The choral festivals have multiple choirs in extraordinary venues and diverse and sizeable audiences. You will experience African rhythms, dancing, and their wonderful, unique singing. This festival is different from our other festivals as it includes adult choirs, university choirs, bluegrass, symphony, reggae, Cajun and opera and the modern popular music styles of Kwaito, House Music and Mbaqanga.

Sampling the provinces
The Eastern Cape Province is the home and birthplace of President Nelson Mandela. There is a Hole-in-the-Wall at Coffee Bay, an intriguing landmark formed by millennia of constant erosion. The headland has stood while surrounding land masses have crumbled back into the sea, which adds to its significance. The sullen crashing roar of the sea through the hole has given this famous natural feature the isiXhosa name esiKhaleni (the place of sound). Access to Hole-in-the-Wall is mostly along paved roads and features a hotel which also offers surfing lessons. The beach at Hole-in-the-Wall is excellent for swimming, fishing and snorkeling. While there, it’s worth going to e-Mvezo, the village where Mr. Mandela was born, in order to taste his favourite traditional Xhosa dish of dried maize and bean mix called umngqusho.

Mpumalanga is one of South Africa’s top tourist destinations. People are drawn to it by the magnificent scenery, its fauna and flora and by the saga of the 1870s gold-rush era. Few regions in the world can match the extraordinary beauty of the Mpumalanga Lowveld and escarpment. Mountains, panoramic passes, valleys, rivers, waterfalls and forests dot the landscape.
This is also Big Game Country, the setting for dozens of sanctuaries teeming with wildlife and birds. Among them, the Kruger National Park is world-renowned, as are several of the luxurious private reserves on its western boundary. The entire Mpumalanga area offers exceptional opportunities for bird-watching, hiking, horse-riding and fishing. The Middleveld region has an area inhabited by the Ndebele people, notable for their traditional costumes and the precise geometric patterns that decorate their homes.

Northern Cape
Apart from being the Diamond Capital, the Northern Cape is famous for Kimberley, its stunning scenery, pristine air and history-changing diamond mine.
Digging commenced at Kimberley mine site in 1871 and continued until August 14, 1914. The mine has yielded 2,722 kilograms of diamonds, extracted from 22.5 million tons of excavated earth. Today, what remains is a massive crater, 214 meters deep, with a surface area of 17 hectares and a perimeter of 1.6 kilometres. It is surrounded by original buildings from the heyday of the mine, relocated from earlier sites to form an unforgettable open-air visitor experience. Recently upgraded, the Big Hole offers three experiences.
In the Underground Mine Experience, visitors enter a re-creation of a historic mine shaft to experience the perilous 19th-Century mining conditions. A fascinating 15-minute film introduces visitors to the story of diamonds at Kimberley. The Real Diamond Display, which is housed in a vault, features the famous “616,” the largest uncut diamond in the world, and the “Eureka,” the first diamond discovered in South Africa.

A Zulu love letter from South Africa
Just as different kinds of flowers and colours symbolize and express different emotions, beads in South Africa, particularly among the Zulu-speaking people, hold a sophisticated code about the giver’s feeling toward the recipient.
The Zulu Love Letter — incwadi yothando ucu or ubhala abuyise — means “one writes in order that the other should reply.” Its symbolic message is associated with certain types of beaded necklaces. Love among the Zulu people was a very private matter. A traditional woman would never say “Yes, I love you” because love must always be kept secret. Love messages are transmitted in a discreet manner, through beads.
Traditional Zulu women may write a letter made from beads to pass the message. For example, by using white beads, a woman might say “Whenever I see you, my heart goes white as the milk of cattle when they are milked in the morning,” or “My heart goes white as the goat’s milk.”
My Zulu Love Letter to you is written with ruby beads. It says: Travel to South Africa is more than visiting places of interest; it is a profound, life-changing experience that is deep and enduring.
South Africa: Where you leave ordinary behind.

Mohau Pheko is South Africa’s high commissioner to Canada. Reach her at (613) 744-0330 or

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