Thank You America from South Africa for Electing Obama

I wish I were better at remembering names, but I suck at it. Especially if the name is in a language I am unfamiliar with, such as Zulu. But faces and presence and story I never forget.

He was working the bar at the Protea Hotel in Johannesburg, where I was staying for the MobileActive ’08 conference in October 2008. I had had a long and fascinating day learning about such topics as mobile banking. I ordered a glass of South African red, the kind he recommended. He commented on my Obama t-shirt, which those who spent time with me during my week in South Africa and Swaziland will attest I wore quite often. We discussed Jacob Zuma’s trial and he told me he was a Zulu like him. He asked why Americans voted for George Bush. I didn’t have an answer.

Before turning away, I handed him my card, which on the back had an image of me and my five-year-old son, who like Barack Obama, has a father from Africa.

I went back to hang out in the bar with the MobileActive ’08 attendees, and wine and merriment and social mobile case studies flowed. Whether because of jet lag or a second wind brought about by spending much of the day in intense concentration in the media room documenting the conference, it was nearly 3 AM, near closing time, but I and Marty Lucas, a documentary filmmaker who teaches at Hunter College in New York, remained.

Zulu Bartender came over to us to see if we wanted anything else, but then sat down to talk more. He grew up in Soweto, he said, and told of the police entering his home and beating his parents. He spoke of what it was like to be in Soweto during the youth uprising in 1976. He gestured around the lobby of fancy hotel we were staying in, which was in the north of Johannesburg, and said he would not have been allowed on the grounds during apartheid. He spoke of getting in trouble visiting his mother who worked cleaning the home of a white family.

I was only a week in South Africa, but his story and his eagerness to share it touched my heart, and taught me more about what really happened during apartheid than reading any history book.

Back in the States, the amazing happened, and Barack Obama won the election. The next day, I looked down at my cellphone. I had missed a call, and there were only a few digits of the number showing up so I couldn’t call back the caller. I played my voicemail message, and it was Zulu Bartender:

“This is your bartender from the Protea Hotel. I wanted to say thank you for voting for Barack Obama, and thanks to all Americans for electing him. My God bless you and your son.”

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