Pretoria – President Jacob Zuma on Friday recounted how he meticulously planned to surprise “first lady” Ontlametse Phalatse with a car on his birthday.
Little did he know she would not make it, despite her promising to be there, during a courtesy visit to his Mahlamba Ndlopfu home ahead of her 18th birthday in March.
Phalatse, who had progeria – a rare genetic disorder that causes premature ageing – died of lung failure on April 11, the eve of Zuma’s 75th birthday.
“When we met, I told her that she was invited to my birthday. ‘I will be there,’ she said in her special way as she threw her wonderful eyes in all directions,” a visibly heartbroken Zuma told hundreds of mourners at the Phalatse home in Hebron, North West, on Friday.
“I was looking forward to the 12th in a hurry. I wanted to take her by surprise. I gave the [Jacob Zuma] foundation an instruction to buy a car.
“Little did I know that God, who has secrets about all of us, had taken a decision to take Ontlametse.”
Zuma said he was shocked to learn of Phalatse’s death because when they parted, she was healthy, talkative, and bubbly.
He thought that by June, Phalatse would be living in the new house he had promised to build for her family.
“Her day had come, so we decided to give the mother the car. Giving it to her was just as good and we will continue to build the mother a house.”
The vehicle was handed over to the family on April 12, during Zuma’s birthday celebrations in Soweto.
When they met, he hoped he had found a friend in Phalatse.
“Before meeting her, I had seen her on television and heard about this very rare ailment, not knowing that one day I am going to meet her. When I heard that this lady had a wish, among them to see the president of the country, I said I would certainly put many things aside and meet this young girl.
“I had my own picture of her in my head and that impression changed immediately when she walked in. She walked very proudly and came to shake my hand and give me a hug.”
Phalatse’s mother and family friends accompanied her to their first meeting. He described her as articulate and bright.
“She sat very proudly on the chair. She leaned back and crossed her legs. I just knew she was proud.”
He said Phalatse did not mince her words.
“I love talking, laughing and happiness and we connected immediately. You could not even ask her anything because she answered and would tell you something before you even asked.”
Phalatse explained progeria and what it did to the body to him. She told him she needed money to travel to the United States to The Progeria Research Foundation, where she was taking part in medical trials. He said it became apparent that travelling was costly.
“I thought to myself I can see where I can play a role. I should be able to contribute something.
“She also spoke about the hassle of using public transport to go and see doctors, people pushing her around. She told me her wishes of having a car, a house that she and her mother would feel comfortable in.”
Zuma told Phalatse that although his foundation focused on education, it would build the family a home.
“I said: ‘You have a wish for a house, consider it done. You have a wish for a car, consider it done.'”
He wanted to ease her burden and by providing support, perhaps help her to live longer.
He hoped Phalatse’s death would spur the medical fraternity into doing more research into rare ailments.
Zuma thanked Phalatse’s mother for making her child happy.
“She was really something out of this world. I enjoyed my time with her and what she was saying as well as the way she thought.”
Zuma said Phalatse’s other dream was to become a motivational speaker and he wanted to attend her talks because he enjoyed listening to her.
He praise Phalatse’s neighbour Tebogo Mothoa as a shining example to all South Africans.
“There are very few people who could do what you did, drop everything to help your neighbour. You convinced medical doctors that this child had progeria and helped the young child finally connect with people who knew what to do.
“You are an exemplary citizen of this country and a good neighbour. You touched me very much. I wish many of our citizens were like you and had a heart like yours.”
He thanked Mothoa for being a mother to Phalatse and for helping her mother, Bella, understand her child’s ailment.
When the family had sought help from various government departments in the past, their cries fell on deaf ears. Zuma said he wondered how many other people there were who were unhappy with some departments.
“You don’t pick and choose. Every citizen must be helped without discrimination.”
Zuma said he would find out which departments had failed Phalatse and promised to follow up.
Had he been a pastor and known about Phalatse’s situation, he would have done something about it, but he could not because he did not go to school, he said.
“I think the job of the holy people is to try and address such issues. It is important for us to have good hearts toward one another.”
He said Phalatse had achieved much in her few years of life.
“We have to thank her. I am sure she walked into the gates of heaven and they opened before she got there. She is happy where she is now.”
He had intended to invite Phalatse to his Nkandla home in December, for his annual Christmas party.
“Family, you had a hero who played her role during her time and did not waste time. She used her time to the maximum. She was a go-getter.
“Go well, our first lady, you made an impact and we felt it,” Zuma said.