Festival Bridges Gap Between Local Woman, South African
Reprint of Commentary by ELAINE WITT, BIRMINGHAM POST-HERALD
The Birmingham Festival of Arts used to be just that: an annual arts exhibition focusing on the offerings of one country per year.
When the event was renamed Birmingham International Festival several years ago, it branched out to explore the problems and politics of the featured countries.
Two years ago, the festival focused on the Republic of South Africa, and Nichelle Gainey was part of the local delegation that visited South Africa.
Gainey, assistant commissioner of the Southwestern Athletic Conference, was taken with South Africa's natural beauty and with a particular local dignitary, a member of the South African Parliament named Patricia de Lille.
At the time, de Lille was chief whip for the leftist Pan Africanist Congress, one of a number of minority parties that vie for power with the dominant African National Congress.
Despite an age difference of 19 years and the fact that they live in vastly different worlds, a pragmatic friendship took shape between the two.
Gainey, 33, describes herself as a former "military brat" who has made her career in the marketing of athletics.
De Lille, 52, was a laboratory technician in the paint industry when she became active in a chemical workers union. That launched a political career in which she became a vocal critic of the South African government, speaking out on everything from a bid-rigging scandal to the poor treatment of juvenile delinquents in adult prisons. De Lille, whose youngest sister was raped and murdered, has been an outspoken advocate for women's rights.
She has described as "lunacy" the AIDS policies of president Thabo Mbeki, who two years ago disputed the link between AIDS and the HIV virus and has held up the distribution of low-cost drugs to treat the infection.
When Gainey returned to Birmingham, the two kept in touch.
And earlier this year, when de Lille told Gainey she was leaving the PAC to help launch a new political party, Gainey offered to help.
This week, de Lille is in Birmingham raising money for the new Independent Democratic party. She isn't shy on ambition - she hopes to run for South African president in 2009. But her initial goal is that the party will win 5 percent of the seats in the South African Parliament in next year's elections.
South Africa is approaching the 10th anniversary of the new constitution that was adopted when the ruling white minority turned over power to the black majority in 1994.
"Having achieved that liberation, what do we do with it?" de Lille said during an interview on Wednesday.
"Now they're all in power and they've tasted the luxury of power ... they've forgotten where they came from," she said of the ruling ANC. "The struggle was for a decent life for all South Africans."
Poverty and unemployment have worsened since the new government came in, aggravated by South Africa's catastrophic HIV infection rate.
The new party is exploring innovative ways to build a base, including using the text messaging technology that is a standard feature on South African cellular phones.
Through her friendship with Gainey, de Lille said she has come to think of Birmingham as her second home. "I know thousands of people, but I have very few friends. I can count them on one hand," she said, naming Gainey as one of the few.
The Festival of Arts has moved on - this year it focused on Canada - and the friendship between Gainey and de Lille has moved on as well, putting its own mark on the term "foreign relations."
Elaine Witt's column runs Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday in the Birmingham Post-Herald.