South African Style


From High-Fashion to Fatigues, Dressed in Determination

In many diplomatic wardrobes, “native dress” simply means having a few outfits from your country’s houses of fashion or, lately, the newest “hot” designers. Of course, the French have Dior, Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, Givenchy and Hermès. The Italians have Versace, Gucci, Valentino, Armani, Prada, Fendi and Ferragamo, while the Brits have their Burberry, Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney.

For some, “native dress” is dictated by centuries of traditional fashion. The Japanese have their serene kimonos; the Chinese, their striking cheongsams; South Asians, their graciously draped saris and bright silks; and the Germans and Austrians, their traditional Bavarian dirndls and lederhosen. Likewise, many of the African spouses can be identified by their colorful traditional dress — and here, one African wife stands out.

After all these years of discovering each diplomatic spouse’s style and even at times being allowed to peak into their closets, there has never been anyone who so proudly dons as many ethnic ensembles as Sissy Nhlapo, wife of South African Ambassador Welile Nhlapo. This diplomatic couple arrived in Washington two years ago after a stint in New York, where he was the U.N. director of political affairs for Africa’s Division One.

“You know we have 11 separate tribes in South Africa and I want to represent each one. It’s my job. I have at least two outfits from each,” Sissy said, noting that her walk-in closet has a special place of honor on the main floor of South Africa’s new residence in Potomac, Md.

“I even do special makeup that each tribe might use,” added Sissy, who is also Mary Kay cosmetics distributor. “I guess I always wanted to be a model so this is fun for me, along with being important for my country. Sometimes, I design a contemporary, modern outfit or evening clothes from native cloth. I work with Mandisa Thanda, a designer from home, and we create elegant clothes from native fabrics that echo the traditional colors, textures used by that particular tribe,” she said, pulling out an issue of Town & Country magazine featuring Sissy at the 23rd gala for the Africa-America Institute in New York wearing a stunning strapless white two-piece outfit that incorporated traditional native cloth around her waist and at the hem.

After only two weeks in the new South African Residence, there are still boxes scattered about, desks to be organized and rugs waiting to be unrolled, but Sissy simply navigates around everything. Walking to the private quarters, she proudly opened the door to her “traditional wardrobe” closet where dozens of perfectly pressed outfits are ready to go. Overhead, dramatic hats called “Isicholo” — upside-down hats traditionally worn by married Zulu women -— are on full display. Downstairs in the private dining room, she also prominently displays her African tribal dolls, or “Ndebele,” all dressed in native costume and representing her country’s 11 official tribes.

“Someone wanted to put these dolls away in storage but I want them here for everyone to see,” Sissy explained. “Seeing them up close helps foreigners understand our culture and all the differences within our country.”

It’s also certainly helpful that Sissy is fluent in seven of the 11 tribal languages. She learned Swahili while she was in exile and attended Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College, a Tanzanian school for refugees. She is also extremely comfortable in English, one of the official languages of South Africa, and is now learning French.

Besides being a one-woman fashion showcase for her country, Sissy is a dynamic, determined and adventurous woman whose interests are as varied as her wardrobe.

“I always wanted to be a model,” she admitted. “And now I am one in a way. Plus I’ve taken courses in cosmetology and this fall I begin a course in massage therapy.”

But Sissy also mixes fashion with fatigues — and she’s definitely no sissy. Just two years ago, she retired from the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) though she remains a reservist today. “I went into the military for the cause, the freedom of my country,” said this striking 44-year-old. “My brother, younger sister and son are all in the military.”

Today, while in Washington, she is also starting to write her memoirs. Perhaps she could include one of the photos of herself bungee jumping off a Cape Town cliff or in army fatigues and dress uniform.

Sissy is also a busy mother. Together, the Nhlapos have four children. Their eldest is 34-year-old Presley who is a musician and video-record producer in Botswana. Next is 24-year-old Edna, a jewelry designer back home who has her mother’s eye for fashion. Their 19-year-old son Khosi is the one in the Air Force, and 9-year-old Nini is the only one living at home. A visit to Nini’s pastel room upstairs shows that she too wants to be “in charge,” just like her mother. Guests are expected to ring her “daisy doorbell” before being granted entrance to the private emporium of this elementary school student.

Nini attends Annunciation Catholic School in Northwest Washington, quite a distance from Potomac, Md., a posh area that has its own fine private and public schools. “I grew up wearing a uniform and I like that look,” said Sissy, explaining why her youngest travels so far to school. “With uniforms, everyone is the same whether you are poor or rich, and the kids don’t compete in clothes and different labels. Plus, it’s a very good Catholic school, which is what we want.”

Sissy also took on the task of helping to decorate the remodeled and updated residence, which has six bedrooms and eight bathrooms. Besides the spacious, handsome kitchen in which close friends will be entertained, there’s now an outdoor terrace built around a pool with a columned pool house, all visible from the front door. The master bedroom has the prerequisite his and hers walk-in closets as well as an expansive marble spa bath in the master bedroom.

Sissy also enjoys the walk-in, temperature-controlled wine cellar. “Now I’m going to ask for a container of wine,” she joked, laughing at her almost empty wine shelves, “We produce such good wine in South Africa — I want everyone to taste it!”

Sissy is equally proud of her interior design skills and attention to detail, determined to put the right rug in the right room. “We had so many things in storage from the old residence on Massachusetts Avenue. I got these dining room chairs refurbished but these are the same seat covers. Everyone around me says I’m a slave driver but I just work very hard,” she explained. “I’m hands-on. You know what they say, ‘Once a soldier, always a soldier.’ That’s me. But I just love to entertain and I can’t wait to get this finished.”

As she unpacks in her elegant new home, Sissy recalled how life was not always so easy growing up for her or her family. “We were in exile all my life until I finally came back to South Africa — the homeland of my parents — just in time for our first democratic elections in 1994. I got a job with the ANC [African National Congress] Women’s League and often escorted foreign dignitaries. My office was in the Shell House where Welile worked. That’s how I knew about him. When President [Nelson] Mandela came into office, my husband was the first South African ambassador to be sent to Ethiopia and then become the permanent representative to the Organization of African Unity and the U.N. Economic Commission for Africa,” she said.

The couple actually met at a military funeral, and after dating several months they were married. Eighteen years her senior, this top South African diplomat and Sissy were married in a simple civil ceremony attended by four friends and their photographer.

Together, they’ve continued their work promoting South Africa in the United States. “I want to remind all soccer fans that the World Cup is coming to South Africa in June 2010,” noted Sissy, a natural athlete who loves to swim, play golf, lift weights and work out in her home gym with her personal trainer, who is also “training my husband because my husband just hates to work out,” she said.

“My country is so very beautiful with everything — mountains, rivers, valleys and most of all, beautiful people,” she added. “Although it takes 18 flying hours to get there [from the United States], there’s only a six-hour time difference, just like between America and Europe. I want everyone to come and visit us and fly South African Airways from JFK or Dulles. That way, you will experience ‘the spirit of Ubuntu’ — the feeling of humanity and togetherness — as soon as you leave American soil. That’s what South Africa is all about.”

About the Author

Gail Scott is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat and lifestyle columnist for the Diplomatic Pouch.