South African First Lady Talks Apartheid and Charleston

"This topic of racism is not heard enough in the news," she says.

Race relations took an historic turn this month in the U.S. following the shocking tragedy at Emanuel AME in Charleston South Carolina.

Numerous citizens, retailers, and political leaders have called for the removal of Confederate battle flags across the nation; Bree Newsome, a Black "superhero," scaled the South Carolina statehouse flagpole "in the name of God" to take down the one that was still flying there, even as the funerals for the nine victims commenced; and Bishop Michael Curry of North Carolina was elected the first African-American presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church.

There was also the one time President Barack Obama said "n***er" during a podcast discussion that covered racism in America.

South Africa's First Lady Bongi Ngema-Zuma says these kinds of conversations –– and more –– need to happen in the mainstream media.


"The legacy of apartheid still exists," she told Ebony magazine during a visit to their offices. "... A lot can be done from the American side. A lot of education needs to happen."

The first lady pointed out that the alleged guman wore an apartheid-era South African flag on his jacket. "With South Africa, our transition from the old and new regime was not easy," she said. "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."

Much of the progress in South Africa can be attributed to the dialogue, she added. "... 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 shying away from what happened will help."

Ngema-Zuma went on to explain some of the success her nation has seen, and confirmed the existence of institutional racism that some U.S. pundits continue to debate. "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," she said.


"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," Ngema-Zuma continued. "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. ... 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."

As for her personal legacy, Ngema-Zuma revealed, "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 [that] 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."

Watch What's at Stake: A Tribute to the Victims of the Charleston Massacre in the exclusive video below.

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(Photo: Larry Busacca/Getty Images for F4D)

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