VANESSA WILLIAMS is a white South African who grew up in the heat of apartheid.
She told EASY magazine: “I was born and raised in?South Africa. I grew up in Johannesburg. Like most South Africans,I think when you are living in it, you think it is normal.”
But she added: “I always knew instinctively when growing up there was something that was not quite right. We were quite isolated from the rest of the world, and you obviously get fed the information – whites and blacks alike – we believed that the way we lived was the way the world operated, and I think that is what perpetuated apartheid as long as it did.”
When love beckoned, this product of the apartheid era – and all that implied – followed her heart and is today happily married to black American Eric Williams.
“The more telling point for me was when I met my husband,” she explained.
“He was African American and having grown up in South Africa, if you even had the thought it was illegal, it was not something that you would do, and all of a sudden I meet this man and colour just is not even relevant.”
The two met in New York while she was working there, and Vanessa still laughs when she remembers that meeting.
“I was out with my work team and he was out with his friends, and one of the members of my staff brought him over to me and the rest was history.” That was after that white member of Vanessa’s staff had gone over to Eric and announced, “My boss would absolutely love you.”
“For me it was not that he was African American. He was just wonderful.”
“Then began the process of realizing that I had fallen in love with someone black and I did not quite know how my family would deal with that. They all lived in South Africa, had never left. They all thought I was crazy leaving in the first place.”
Vanessa told her family about this wonderful man she had met in America, and the two dated for an entire year before her grandmother wrote: “Eric sounds wonderful but you never send any pictures home.”
Vanessa knew that the day she did, she would take her family on a journey for which she said she was not sure they would have been ready.
“I remember saying, ‘I am going to go home and I am going to sit face to face with them and actually take the photographs out’. She did just that one year later and, as she related to EASY, “I remember my mother just looking at these photographs and going, ‘Oh dear. How do we get our head around this?’ She would not touch the photographs. Literally, my family would not touch the photographs.”
Vanessa remembered the initial apprehension among her family the first time they met their black in-law and the myriad questions asked, but she was also relieved that “you slowly started to see that all of a sudden they were seeing the same things that I see”.
Her two sons by a previous marriage were “more intrigued” by their stepfather and, according to Vanessa, “readily accepting” when they met him for the first time.
“It was the first time they could ask the questions. You’ve got to understand they lived in South Africa. They were surrounded by black people but there was never the comfort level to be able to sit down, and I’ll never forget the day that my eldest son (14 years old at the time) said to my husband, ‘Can I touch your hair?’”
“It was almost that reality check for me.”
She watched her family gradually warm to the black man she had chosen as a husband, and is candid in rationalizing their initial apprehension.
“They have had a different experience. I have been gone a long time. I have experienced different walks of life and different cultures. My family have never left. They have always lived there and their only frame of reference is what South Africa has been and how it has evolved over the years.”
“I grew up in a liberal-speaking English household where we never talked race. We had staff – housekeeper, gardeners, people that supported our day-to-day lifestyle, all of them black people.
I was just very conscious that there was a difference between the way we lived and the way the majority of Africans lived.
The difference between the haves and the have-nots was very striking to me, and even though we lived in a household that was respectful and we treated the people that worked for our family well, around you you lived apartheid – you lived the differences.”
“Today I think my family probably love him more than they love me.”
Eric and Vanessa got married in Japan, both choosing to wear kimonos for the traditional Japanese ceremony, the only issue being “how to find a kimono to fit a six foot three black man”.
Vanessa has worked for prestigious hotels around the world, and wherever she goes?Eric settles in to pursue his profession as an IT director. But though each is steeped in a career, they act out their devotion to each other.
“One thing that we do, we travel with our lives, so when we get to a place, we unpack, we surround ourselves with what we call home and it makes the world of difference. I am lucky enough that I have got a husband that I have dragged all over the world with me,” says Vanessa.
“He comes from a place where he loves and cares about me. Sometimes he says things to me that really make me think about who I am in my approach. I may not like it at the time but usually I sleep on it, and then I wake up and there is this clarity.
“He is a soft-placed man for me, certainly within my work environment. He embraces and it is gentle and it is soft, and our relationship does not take a lot of work. It just feels right.”
“That is true,” Eric concurs.
“Somehow we balance each other out. Like she said, she is one way and I am another and somehow that finds a place in the middle where we counterbalance each other.”
What attracted him to her? They both laugh before Eric replies, “You know, it is a number of things. It is hard to say, but she is a strong woman – which I really enjoy. I think that is something that is really important not only in a relationship but in life. Even though she does have a very gentle, soft side, when it comes to certain things she is very strong, so I can say that is the most important thing I find about her.”
When she told her mother at age ten, “I want to treat everybody black very well because the day will come when they will run the country”, she would have been referring to her fellow South Africans, never dreaming this thinking would have landed her in the arms and life of a black husband.
Of South Africa, she says: “I go back and I hold people accountable for how they treat each other . . . . South Africa has changed. It is still a place that you have to remind people. I often say to white South Africans today, we didn’t leave but our walls got higher; we put electrical fencing and we have security guards outside our gates, so we have almost become in many ways prisoners in our own country. But I think that’s a little bit more of the older generation.
“When I look at my sons, they live in a world that is a cross nation of people, and so to me that is where the hope is.”