South Africa Sweet and Sour
In the US gay weddings are becoming rather commonplace, even if they are not recognized in but a small handful of states. But not too many people in the US combine safari, petting lions, and a legal wedding in an apartheid-era women’s prison to such wonderful effect.
Kent and Damon are Americans who have been living in South Africa for about four years. Kent is white, Damon is African-American. Kent is from the North/Midwest, Damon is from Philadelphia. They have been married in practice for more than 12 years, but since they live in South Africa where since last year gay weddings became officially and constitutionally recognized, they decided to go for it and have a big extravaganza weekend.
I was just one of 30+ people who traveled from “overseas” to bear witness to the occasion. And I think that the novelty of a legal wedding is part of what drew so many people from the US to the event (in addition to the large and active Kent and Damon fan club). It was pretty amazing to watch two beloved gay friends legally “tie the knot” in a venue where a little more than 10 years ago the women freedom fighters of South Africa were held in chains, their freedom repressed.
A big theme of the weekend was the contradictions of “new South Africa”. On one hand, I spent most of my downtime roaming fabulous shopping malls and feeling like I was back in an alternative version of the US where everything costs (just slightly) less and shopkeepers have the most lovely accents. I stayed with my friend, Michelle, who lives in the carriage house of a most amazing property in the wealthiest part of town – complete with Italian renaissance-style terraced garden. We ate Thai food and sushi, visited a park where you can pet the baby lions, and took a mini-safari about an hour north of town. It was lovely.
The other side, of course, is the crime that Johannesburg has become so famous for – shoot first, ask questions later – rape – anger. Of course, this is the evitable result of decades of oppression and economic injustice. But from the outside it seems that it could be the downfall of a country that has so much going for it.
And then there is Jacob Zuma. Even two months ago he was all the talk of the town, and in the last week he was elected to lead the ANC which makes him the likely next president. I don’t pretend to know much about South African politics. But I can tell you that it is never ideal to have a man who has been accused (multiple times) of corruption take the helm of your country. But even worse than that, this is a man who during his trial for rape (accused of raping the underage daughter of a friend) stated that he didn’t use a condom during the act (which he said was consensual) because he wasn’t worried about HIV since he took a shower right after.
At the time he was a leader of the national HIV/AIDS program.
But the promises of Nelson Mandela and the potential of the new South Africa were all that was on the guests’ minds as we gathered in the rotunda of the old prison in the late afternoon that Saturday. Beams of light came through the high windows illuminating the 160 guests – the most diverse group of people I’ve ever seen in one place – half white, half black; half male, half female; half gay, half straight; half American, half not. Kent and Damon planned to walk down the aisle to a Frank Sinatra-type tune, but as soon as the South Africans spotted them down the path outside the hall they broke spontaneously into the most beautiful song. I don’t know which African language they were singing in, and I don’t know what the words meant, but it was the most harmonious, beautiful, and celebratory song I’ve ever heard. It made me cry. (And I don’t usually cry at these things.) It was incredible.
During the ceremony Kent and Damon accepted marriage advice from their “elders”, and prayers to their ancestors for a happy life together were said in the 10 languages of various participants. At the end of the ceremony they jumped over a broom, an African-America tradition; and then had guests pour water over their hands, a Thai wedding tradition (Kent was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand). Straying from the confines of a traditional marriage ceremony, it was a lovely tribute to their life together so far, the life ahead of them, and the things and people most important to them.
Later as I sat at my table in the courtyard of the former women’s prison I watched a full moon rise above the walls of the building that once caused so many patriots much pain. Under that bright moon, Kent and Damon danced as if gay marriage was a right that everyone around the world could enjoy, diversity reigned, and the new South Africa shone.