I feel I come from a unique generation of South Africans. White, male, English and born in the late 70s.
I'm not a writer. I’ve battled to express myself effectively in written form from an early age. I struggled with spelling, holding a pen properly and keeping it between the lines. The rest of the class had moved onto a blue hard tip pen and I was still grasping a 2H pencil. Short form social postings are no easier; I still can’t always find a way to put the words in my head into text.
Speaking is easier for me. It always has been. I am lucky to come from a family where we were taught to stand up and speak, not necessarily to speak for ourselves, but to speech. Making a speech is easy because you never really have to get personal. You can tell a few stories, make them sound like your own, drop a few names, a quote, some stolen wisdom, lyrics of a song and let people know that it’s a cash bar after 10pm.
For many years I considered myself emotionally flat, not emotionless, but very well contained, composed and neutral to showing any kind of real emotion. It suited me. It worked for me, it was easy to make a speech and walk away.The emotion has always been there, it just never left the house.As the light of age shines on me, I find my emotions turning their face on the dark room in the house, looking for the window where the sunshine pours through, where the fresh air moves the curtains and the promise of heat thaws my feelings. I’ve always been relatively astute, picked up the nuance in conversation, and known when to keep quiet, back-down, stand-up, get out or not get involved, it came naturally.
The ever-thawing emotional avalanche is however not a natural feeling. There is less control, there are more variables, there is more to consider, there are more people to consider. I am struck by my history, my heritage, my family, my country, my place in this world. I am aware of the future, the uncertainty, the dreams, the hopelessness, the hustle, the country and my impact on the world. I have always been aware of these; I have just never spoken about them.As the days pass I’m waking up tired; my mind overrun with sporadic thoughts of who I am, what I represent, who I love, what I love and what am I fighting for. I dose off, some of the thoughts gone, with more lining up to question my life. I recently read the African proverb that says that those who are at peace with the world work hard at it. I need to work harder.
These shared thoughts are not a definitive plan, they are not a blueprint, they are not perfect, and they are not meant to be. They are part of the journey that I find my thoughts and conversations taking daily. They form part of a conscience awakening that I am not able to keep in a dark room; they are muses that are looking for other thoughts and ideas streaming through windows filled with sunlight. They are looking for you. They are looking for a nation rising to the call.I am passionate about music, song, lyrics, poetry, innovation, creativity, and masterful storytelling. I stand in awe of strong bodies, athletic ability, stamina and power, people who are able to move earth and change the landscape. I am humbled by hard work, linguistic ability, ingenuity, analytic vision and ordinary people being extraordinary.I apologise in advance if my ideas are influenced, stolen, borrowed or forgotten from song, written word or someone else’s spoken genius. I find myself hearing, reading and engaging in experiences that are shaping my conscience. Thank you for the inspiration.
I feel I come from a unique generation of South Africans. White, male, English and born in the late 70s.I am analogue and digital, Zola Budd and Caster Semenya, Leon Schuster and Trevor Noah, Mango Groove and Freshly Ground, Kevin Curran and Kevin Anderson, Jan Smuts and OR Tambo, South West Africa and Namibia, the old flag and the new flag, TV4 and Netflix, “ja baas” and a Black President, Die Meid and My Mate, segregated and integrated.
I was conscripted but never called up. I started school lily white and matriculated mixed. I was never the oppressor but also not the liberator. I could date Taryn, Thandi, Thabo or Thinus. I was protected and exposed. I could be the hero or the villain.
I am the old South Africa but more importantly I am the new South Africa.I am privileged.
I question my being a South African.
The ancestry of the blood that flows in me is varied. My mother’s lineage on her mother’s side was Dutch settlers, who eventually fled into the interior of South Africa and toiled the soil of this land. My grandmother, born a South African, was Heile Maria Liefina Katarina Meyer. Her family was imprisoned by the British and proud Afrikaners. My mother’s father, born in South Africa, had ancestry in the Eastern Cape from the English settlers. He fought for South Africa in the Second World War where he fell in love with the sound of the Scottish bagpipes. He spoke English, Xhosa, Egyptian and Afrikaans. On my father’s side, and the surname I carry, the Zunckels were from the Berlin Mission Station in Germany and travelled to South Africa as Christian missionaries. My father’s father was born a South African, worked as an electrician on the railways and spoke seSotho, English, Afrikaans, isiZulu, and German. My father’s mother was born a South African to an adopted Lithuanian Jewish father and an English mother.
This is the fabric of my blood. But, I am not an Afrikaner. I am not a German. I am not an Englishman. I am not a Lithuanian.
I am a South African. I am privileged.
I am fortunate to be able to travel as part of my work in the broadcasting space. The thing that strikes me every time I go somewhere is the need for a visa; a permit to be in a country for a specific period. There is something quite unwelcoming about having to show your visa at an immigration point or to an official. It is obvious that you are not one of them, you are an outsider and you will leave. In my own country, I have never needed a permit.
I am privileged.
On a recent trip to the Netherlands I was on a train to Amsterdam. Despite being the transition into Spring it was cold, miserable and raining. I boarded the train and shared the carriage with two older teenagers. They were clearly locals, they spoke fluent Dutch, seemed to know the train’s routine quite well and they were kitted for the weather. They were black females. I pondered the irony. My visa said that as a South African I would leave in three days. The cold weather fuelled my need for South African sunshine. I didn’t understand the language despite speaking Afrikaans; which is an African off-shoot of Dutch. In my home I am considered a European and in Europe I am an African. The two teenagers are European with African ancestry and Dutch heritage. I am an African with European ancestry and South African heritage.
My ancestry does not determine my heritage.I am privileged.
As South Africans we celebrate our heritage in September; people wear clothing, beadwork, symbols, headgear and an array of other items that symbolise their heritage, the way they grew up and for many people their ancestry. Very often it is linked to a culture and language. For some it is linked to a religious belonging or religious group. When I was in high school my three friends came from Greek, Portuguese and Hungarian decent. They spoke the language, followed the culture, ate the food, supported the sports teams, had certain items of clothing and they followed the religious denominations associated with their nationalities. If they were to dress for Heritage Day, I could visualise what they would wear and the items they would bring as a symbol of their heritage. The same rings true for many other South Africans who come from varied backgrounds.
What do English speaking South Africans claim as symbols, clothing, food and stories of our culture?
I recently worked on a project with a youth-based radio station. As part of the exercise the concept of culture was examined as one of the factors to define the audience. The end conclusion made sense to me as a non-heritage based South African. The group said that South African culture was a melting pot that was in continual flux with a variety of traditional inputs and modern nuances. Based on my ancestry I am in the melting pot, I always have been. My sometimes confused sense of belonging is not a displacement but culture in flux.
As a teenager I loved buying my clothing at Dinkum Dudes in downtown Pretoria; I wanted nothing more than canvas tekkies that were worn out, so I could have thick black tyre soles glued on the bottom. I loved wearing beaded necklaces. I watched rugby and soccer at Loftus and Atteridgeville, saw Bafana play at Soccer City in ‘96 and watched the SAA Lebombo set the scene for victory in ‘95. I loved watching the Sonskyn Sisters from the Northern Cape sing with David Kramer at the Joburg Theatre. It was here that the Soweto Gospel Choir formed the soundtrack to the Johannesburg Ballet dancing. Sarafina was on the same stage; and Noah, Kani, Mynhardt and Dirk-Uys were all a treat to watch. Hotstix, Kerkorrel, Kombuis, Phiri, Mahlasela, Prophets and Clegg made the songs that sounded like freedom. Boerewors rolls, jaffles, Gatsbies, bunnies and kotas all equally delicious after a night fuelled by brandy and Black Label, Hansa and Hunters, Cane and Coke, and Rooibos for the after thirst. We jolled at Galaxy in Cape Town, Mahungra in Bloemfontein, The Doors in downtown Joburg, Dans Kraal in Kimberley, 60’s in Mafikeng and Tings in Pretoria. We used Vaseline, Zambuk, glycerine and baby oil; ate Mama Koo, Bully Beef and Pilchards; half loafs, chips, boiled eggs, pickled fish, biltong and polony with spices, herbs and chillies that would make you cry for the right reason. Kopdoek, sakdoek and vadoek. I am a generation with symbols of a mixed heritage representing a patchwork that would make any gogo, granny and ouma, behind a Singer sowing machine, proud.
I am privileged.
I grew up in a home where we wanted for little. My sister recalls my father saying we weren’t rich people, but we were generous people. Discipline was the order of the day. Clean bicycles, polished shoes, orderly table manners, please and thank you, vacuumed carpets and a formal lounge ready for guests who never came. The material that has been sacrificed or donated to make our patchwork blanket has for too long covered pain, fear and loathing; these fabrics also seek the sunshine and air of an open window. There are parts of our patchwork that make me sad; it’s the best way to describe the forlorn stitches of our past.
I remember as a ten-year old taking my clean bicycle on a random Sunday to the local corner café to buy Wicks bubblegum. As I was leaving a man climbed out of his car with a sjambok and beat another man riding bicycle for no reason. As a young article clerk on the streets of the Capital, a colleague and friend, my age, was sexually assaulted and raped, her friend beaten. These instances that where minutes in time continue as a lifetime. They were screams of dominance and anger. They were white and black.
My father was a military man, a silent hero to some and a villain to others. He flew helicopters. His flying logbooks have many sections where the nature of the operational activity is marked as “classified”, the villain? There are also sections where people were rescued from mountains and sinking ships and wounded soldiers pulled out of war zones, the hero? As a man who said very little, and potentially the source of my earlier mentioned flat emotional demeanour, when he did speak, you listened. There are two incidents that I recall that I can never erase. Once as a youngster I had a wise quip about death; his short reply, which required no response or apology, was that until you’ve said the last prayer for the man sitting next to you, shot through the floor of a helicopter, you have little to joke about. Many years later, in a trip that unknown to me would be the last I would ever take with him in a helicopter, flying over the Drakensberg, he said to me that he had seen things that he hopes we, as his children, would never have to experience. How many others in our patchwork as South Africans have had a similar sentiment, experiences and trauma? There is a generation of South Africans who carry a burden of unbridled sadness and pain.
I am thankful to be spared of this.I am privileged.
There is no doubt that education is central in changing the shape of our country. I am beyond grateful for the opportunities to learn and grow in my life. Secondary schooling and tertiary education will slowly turn the wheel of poverty and despair. For my generation the fear of future employment and opportunity is a real threat. The reality is, it is a real threat for anyone who is seeking employment. Yes, employment equity is a reality. Yes, it’s not like it used to be. Yes, we may have to try again or do something we never anticipated. I work with many young graduates, mostly black. They too are fearful of not finding employment and opportunity, and there are more young black graduates than middle aged white men. I know, I’ve heard, and I’ve experienced the rhetoric of my peers who have left South Africa for other opportunities. It must be hard to take a decision to uproot and leave what you know, for hopes of safety, security and opportunity. The reality is that unless those of us who have been afforded opportunity and education in the past, reinvest our time, expertise, money, goodwill, skills and knowledge, South Africa will never present hopes of opportunity or safety. Personal investment is part of transformation. Transformation is not giving someone a job because they’re black; the picture is bigger than our own personal conundrum. Have I lost out to opportunities because I’m a white male, yes. Have I had the skills to do the job and been the best candidate for the position and not even been invited for an interview, yes. And then?
I am skilled. I am committed. I am self-employed by choice. I am privileged.
The South African Constitution is one of the most advanced in the world and is a document that empowers the people of this land. It is the essence of our freedom and future. It holds our rights as citizens. The problem with the constitution is that we often forget the rights come with responsibilities. The ying and the yang, for every action there is an equal yet opposite reaction, the pro and the con, the flipside of the coin. The rainbow of our democracy won’t shine unless we collectively take responsibility for it. Take as many rights as you feel you need, but know that each one has an associated responsibility.
Being privileged has an associated responsibility.
My appetite for political rhetoric is at an all-time low. As a twenty-year old I loved debating systems of power, understanding the roles of politics in society and understanding the politics of South Africa. It was positive and exciting. Politics has failed us as a society in the last ten years. There’s politics but there’s no civil service. Those who are supposed to benefit the most from our constitutional democracy are in my opinion voters with a disenfranchised future. Our attentions are diverted. Marikana, crime statistics, the burning of schools, the shutdown of municipalities, the looting of our natural resources, the collapse of parastatals, the state of our water system, corruption, health services, and the economy. The way in which we treat the most vulnerable in society is in my mind the value of our citizenship. Life Esidemeni is our highest benchmark, we have nothing to be proud of. There are no words to express my disbelief in how we allow the massacre of our people. Let’s remember the previous struggle but accept that the new struggle is equally important.
I believe gestures of unity are catalysts to transformation. Transformation can however not be forced. Gestures need to be recognised and transformation needs to be embraced, accepted and actioned. The inauguration of Nelson Mandela as President in 1994 and his use of the Jonker poem, Die Kind, was an olive branch, an opportunity to embrace and transform. The Rugby World Cup of 1995, the National Anthem, the preamble to the South African constitution of 1996 and the rest of the document, another vehicle to allow for self-transformation. Mbeki’s, I Am an African, a humbling speech and peace offering for all South Africans. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission that started in 1996, granted not perfect, but a start to transformation. Not all gestures are dramatic speeches at large events. They are simple greetings as small olives branches of progress. They are the recognition of different backgrounds and landscapes and the very reason we are different.
Being united is a privilege.
My feelings and thoughts are my collective. I don’t believe that I am the voice of my generation or any other generation. There must be others who have similar feelings and experiences? For transformation to thrive we need to change our behaviour and how we react to the behaviour of others. I was recently confronted with a scenario where I was travelling with a black woman. Through a series of events I was having a conversation with the manager of the establishment where the woman was waiting. The manager, although not blatant, subtly belittled her referring to the woman as a “meisie”. This is an independent empowered and thriving woman, not a girl. I didn’t say anything. The hard fact of the matter is, if I want to see transformation in my lifetime I need to stop ignoring these obvious issues of bigotry, sexism and racism. Am I worried that I have an Adam Kantzavelos in my family, yes. I am worried that I am Adam Kantzavelos, no. I have family and friends that have emigrated and others that have looked to leave. Leave but leave us alone, your narrative ended when you left your native. Do I get on with all black people, no. Do I get on with all Indian people, no. Do I get on with all white people, no. Have I heard or seen obvious racial slurs and not said anything, yes. Have I been told to “tsek” and to “fokkof” because I am white, yes. Have I been in a queue where the other white person catches your eye in a rolling manner because they think we are unified in being white, yes. Did I say something, no. Tacit behaviour perpetuates stumbling blocks to transform. Speaking has always come easy to me.
Being able to speak is a privilege. Speak.
Hearing a language used well is a beautiful occurrence. I am lucky to be bilingual. The instances of multilingual South Africans make my ability pale to insignificance. On a recent radio project, I was working with a young coloured broadcaster who is an Afrikaans speaker. It was a delight to hear him use the language, the colour and passion in selecting the words he used to express himself was amazing. Perfect, proper and powerful. I have seen Chris Chameleon speak Afrikaans in a stage show that left me with cold chills because of the masterful expressions he was able to create. Seeing Johnny Clegg for the first time, at the age of twelve, at a clandestine gathering speaking Zulu and telling stories that painted pictures more vivid than photographs. Sharing a studio complex with Chomane Chomane made a language come alive for me in a way that no broadcaster has ever done, despite not being able to speak or understand a word.
I’ve never been in a position where I’ve been forced to learn another language. English is aspirational for many and it is international in approach. Despite being part of a very small group of home language users in South Africa, it is prevalent as a second or third language.
While judging an international radio content competition earlier in the year I listened to an interview conducted on New Zealand public radio with a politician. The politician was on record complaining about the use of limited Maori (greetings and common phrases) on the English service radio channel. He was of the opinion Maori should only be used on the Maori language services. Through a series of well-crafted questions, the presenter of the show highlighted what a proud New Zealander the politician was. Her final question was phrased as a statement, “Do you think you could be a better New Zealander if you learnt to speak to Maori?” There was no answer.
As a process of transformation and nurturing change, could we not be better South Africans by learning to speak another local language? Embracing the very essence of connecting with other South Africans in a language they consider their own? The answer is obvious. The patchwork needs more colour and stronger stitches. It needs us to transform.
My process is roughly a week old. Ke ithutha seSotho.
I am privileged to transform.
In a month of varied travel, delayed flights, rerouted baggage and cancellations I found words that resonated with me as I again crossed the Drakensberg by air, this time reading an in-flight magazine. In an interview with local eatery owner Sifiso Ntuli he was quoted as saying, “How do we move away from white and black to being African, aBantu? The day must come when all our disparate stories become one. For the nation to rise, the tribe must die”. Sifiso, I’m good to be in a tribe with you bra, let our nation rise!
I am South African, and I am privileged.
And when we are all South Africans first, aBantu, and we acknowledge our privilege and our continual transformation then let those songs of freedom play. And when the songs are finished en die donker my kom haal, sit my in ’n boks en stuur my hemel toe, ek dink dis in die platteland.