I was on a launch, out in Wellington Harbour: on board was the South African Deputy President, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, and a delegation of fellow South Africans. Our host was Helen Clark, the New Zealand Prime Minister. A police boat bobbed discreetly in our wake; the afternoon light faded, and the music and canapes and drinks came out. The formalities were over; Phumzile had greeted everyone, I had said hello – well, ‘good evening’ – to the Prime Minister, who had stopped to ask me something or other – probably, ‘and what, exactly, do you think you are doing here?’ and someone started dancing.
Think of the moon, dancing on the waves, think of the occasion – grandeur and informality, champagne and nibblies – relaxation after a long day, and a hectic visit. I started dancing, too.
Phumzile looked me up and down.
‘White men don’t dance,’ she said, laughing.
Well, it is true, white men don’t dance, not really – not white South African men, anyway. Not as Phumzile understands it.
But tonight I put on Miriam Makeba, and cranked up the volume and, glass in hand, began dancing, alone in the living room – as one dances to the sound of home, to the language of one’s people and the music of one’s country, at a moment of profound national sorrow and celebration.
In my wildest dreams, as a white boy growing up in apartheid South Africa, I would not – could not – have imagined that scene on the Prime Minister’s launch in Wellington harbour, with the Deputy President – with Phumzile.
‘If you think that white men don’t dance,’ I can hear myself saying to her, ‘let me tell you, stranger things have happened!’