I am a South African: Powerful message of hope, belonging from Afro-optimist Gary Alfonso

On 8 May 1996, when South Africa’s democratic Constitution was passed in Parliament, former President Thabo Mbeki gave a speech titled ‘I’m an African’. Mbeki, deputy-president at the time and known as a political orator, wrote an ode to the continent and to South Africa that defined the upbeat political mood at the time. Since those heady days, the country has gone through waves of pessimism under the rule of former President Jacob Zuma and his legacy of corruption and plunder to a brief spell of optimism when Cyril Ramaphosa became president. Veteran journalist Gary Alfonso, who was the Managing Director of CNBC Africa and Head of Fox in Africa, is the driving force behind other television stations in Africa. Gary, who describes himself as an Afro-optimist, wrote a powerful essay (published here) on his deep connection to South Africa and how he sees his identity. He also spoke to BizNews about his message. – Linda van Tilburg

I am an African.

I owe my being to the hills and the valleys, the mountains and the glades, the rivers, the deserts, the trees, the flowers, the seas and the ever-changing seasons that define the face of our native land.

My body has frozen in our frosts and in our latter day snows. It has thawed in the warmth of our sunshine and melted in the heat of the midday sun. The crack and the rumble of the summer thunders, lashed by startling lightening, have been a cause both of trembling and of hope.

The fragrances of nature have been as pleasant to us as the sight of the wild blooms of the citizens of the veld.

The dramatic shapes of the Drakensberg, the soil-coloured waters of the Lekoa, iGqili noThukela, and the sands of the Kgalagadi, have all been panels of the set on the natural stage on which we act out the foolish deeds of the theatre of our day.

At times, and in fear, I have wondered whether I should concede equal citizenship of our country to the leopard and the lion, the elephant and the springbok, the hyena, the black mamba and the pestilential mosquito.

A human presence among all these, a feature on the face of our native land thus defined, I know that none dare challenge me when I say – I am an African!’

By Gary Alfonso

I am a South African.

I owe my essence to the big blue skies above small Free State towns. To the rumble of thunderstorms over dancing fields of buffalo grass. To sunflowers bending to the sun and golden valleys of maize as far as the eye can see. To horses in the veld and stubborn donkeys on gravel roads.

My spirit has been shaped by bitterly cold mornings and warm Basotho blankets. By freezing feet on frost covered rugby fields. I climbed countless koppies barefoot and ran cross country races up and down mountains with flat tops. I shared the spoils of steep slopes and cliffs with monkeys and baboons. And dassies. Every day I witnessed the loneliness of a windpomp against the amber sunset.

I am a South African.

My appetite for life comes from mieliepap, marog and braaivleis over open fires. From picking and eating cherries in orchards that didn’t belong to anyone, I thought. From the smell of rain in a house made of sandstone. From the scent of strawberry gloss on the lips of the beautiful girls of Bloemfontein.

I’m a country boy in the city. My resilience comes from playing rugby with and against the giant Afrikaner boys in the Eastern Free State. From riding horses without saddles in the Maluti mountains. From sitting in Willow trees and playing kleilat against the Basotho boys across the Caledon river.

I am a South African.

The first time I truly saw my country’s future was in the faces of African workers on their way home, smiling up at me in my radio station in a tree house, in a town called Clocolan. They stopped to listen to “A change is gonna come” from my Otis Redding vinyl record. The town folk preferred Elvis and Jim Reeves, whose records arrived in boxes in the mail from Reader’s Digest.

I first heard the roar of future generations when as a young boy I saw a skinny Jomo Sono play for Orlando Pirates in Maseru. I learnt a bit about politics when my Greek immigrant stepfather secretly dined with political dissidents in Lesotho. I learnt a bit about money when a guy called Anton Rupert sold us tobacco share certificates from the boot of his powder blue DKW. I learnt about art and religion from a Catholic priest called Frans Claerhout, who painted pictures of donkeys and African life in Tweespruit.

I learnt respect for women from my mother and my aunt. Strong women who laboured fifteen-hour days to share the value of hard work and keep their children in school and in line. I leant to stand up for myself when I was forced to join the army, but refused to go to war against the Cubans in Angola. At college I heard about a man who spent more than two decades on Robben Island for his political beliefs.

I am a South African.

In a journalism and media career over three decades I chased after rebel cricketers, rugby Cavaliers, apartheid politicians and unbanned freedom fighters to get radio soundbites and TV interviews. I ran from tornados, sped towards sinking ships, ducked rubber bullets and survived state sponsored township violence. At Wolwefontein in the Karoo I saw grown men on their knees, tears on their cheeks and drowning in a drought. In a news room in Port Elizabeth I met the love of my life.

I was in Kempton Park when the politicians argued and agreed to a new constitution for South Africa. I was at the ballot box in 1994 when all South Africans voted for a new future. I was with Nelson Mandela in New York when he spoke at the United Nations, about a rainbow nation. When he met Bill Clinton in Washington. When the new South African flag was hoisted at the African Union in Ethiopia.

I have shared arguments and ideas in family rooms, in rugby locker rooms, in news rooms, in board rooms and in conference rooms. I have persuaded and argued politics, religion, ethics and morality in debates at school, at work, around camp fires and on television interview panels. But never has it been words, opinions or ideas that have defined me.

After five decades, it is my essence that has seeped into the soil of this land. My heart beats faster when I feel, smell and taste South Africa all around me. Every day. When I hear Mafikizolo and Karin Zoid on the radio. When you can sway to the gospel of Rebecca Malope and the rock of Arno Carstens on the same night. When I push my fingers into the parched earth of Graaff Reinet, or the fertile brown soil of Ladybrand, or the damp red mud of Johannesburg. I feel it. I feel myself in it.

Because I am a South African.’

Gary explained to Linda van Tilburg what prompted him to write with such passion about South Africa.  

In essence, you start making the connections and connecting the dots of the things that really matter to you. Once you start getting to, maybe let’s say the last quarter of your professional, private and maybe even your emotional life, one starts making these connections and thinking, what are the things that are important?

You’ve gone through your teenage years, you’ve gone through your early working years, you’ve gone through a very harsh professional life and running stepladders. But ultimately, when it comes to who and what you are and answering the question to yourself, you kind of have to be a little bit honest and say, what are the things that matter to you? How do you bring those out and how do you help surface those kinds of experiences and I really find it useful to write them down. When I started writing them down, I started thinking there’s a cosmic connection with culture, with people, was all matter in South Africa and I think that was the genesis of that.

You refer to other people who’ve written speeches or something similar. I remember in 1996, and we were, both me and you, and it was this euphoria in South Africa. We were the Rainbow Nation. Thabo Mbeki delivered this speech called, ‘I’m an African’, where he touches on the importance of the African soil. You tap a little bit into that whole idea of our connection to the continent.

I think the continent is one thing, but it’s called ‘I am a South African’ and I know that Mr. Mbeki delivered that incredible speech: ‘I am an African’ with his kind of oratory skills. I think everyone stood up and said, wow. It really hit the right chords and the right notes, particularly at the time and where Africa is today geopolitically in the world and emerging as this economic trade block; I think he was way before his time. What I wrote as, I am is a South African, I think was all born out of….there’s so much identity politics being played out in South Africa all the time and you know, rather than argue about whether I’m staying or whether I’m going, whether my friends are staying or whether they’re going or whether having these arguments about, who is a South African. I think it’s important for everybody to really be honest with themselves and put words into meaning in what it is that they truly stand for.

Gary Alfonso with his wife Teresa.

Ultimately, if you’re able to do that in the concept, in the way that I did; it was to write about the things that gave you meaning and that shaped you. I remember as a small boy in a small town in the Eastern Free state having a radio station in a treehouse and in a funny way it shaped me later in life in the commercial world is I understood the value of targeting your audience because the African workers going home to the ‘lokasie’ (township) late in the day would love listening to the music of Barry White or Otis Redding or Al Green. Meanwhile, the guy across the road wanted me to play an Elvis records at 6:00 a.m. every morning and he paid me a subscription fee or Jim Reeves. Those records I only got because they came in the Reader’s Digest boxes in the mail. So, you make the connections about the South Africa that was, and also the South Africa that is still there and maybe, you know, just in a different political era in time. Ultimately, it’s the connections we make with other people that define it.

Do you think that it’s possible to also have this feeling as a global citizen that you can also have that connection because we have these joint shared memories and feelings?

I absolutely do. I think the big difference; many friends and even family members of mine that live abroad and talk to me; there’s something that pulls one. I think there’s something about when you feel the soil, when you feel the vegetation, when you smell it, when you taste it. I think where you belong has a lot to do with how your five senses are, you know, perhaps satisfied as a young person and growing up and when you’re not completely and utterly swamped by politics and economics and reality of life. In that time where your thoughts are shaped and your thinking is shaped, I think if you grew up in South Africa as a young person and kind of left even early or later, I don’t think that feeling will ever leave you and that’s the South Africanism I’m talking about. Many of us remain South Africans for life, no matter where we are in the world.

Somehow you have still have the palette no matter where you live; that’s why South Africans overseas still look for biltong. You can buy similar delicacies here; you have Cadbury’s chocolate, but you are looking for that specific way that it’s blended in South Africa and the sugars that they use. You are right; it touches your senses. Do you think the Rainbow Nation and coming; we can ever have it in South Africa again? What needs to happen?

I think there, perhaps, needs to be an ignition again of South Africans as an identity. I think too much polarisation has happened across party political lines because there’s no longer a dominant political force. So people are starting to fight for, their political quarters, for the power bases and I think the small margins that lie in there, it seems that party politics focus so much on identity politics that at the end of the day, that’s how, you know, political movements and political people fight their battles.

Whereas really on a grassroots level; you just find that South Africanism in the strangest and warmest places possible. You find it in the Vilakazi Street in Soweto, you find it in Parkhurst, in Johannesburg, you find him in Kloof Street, Long Street in Cape Town. You find it there, you find it everywhere in South Africa, but not on the political platform. The political platform is removed from South African identity, and it’s just playing way too much into race and into things that perhaps make it easy and politically expedient for politicians to get a vote.

This is where, I think, identity politics is causing some damage but the South Africa that I knew and the South Africa that you find in the places I mentioned; I think it’s still there. I just think people are becoming with social media, with electronic platforms, with new ways of doing things and we are bombarded by everything from fake news to digital information to commercial messages.

So, I think, we’re losing something and maybe that whole piece is really just about the day that we were not bombarded by technology and information. Maybe that’s what that piece is really about. It’s just that, at the end of the day, I think we have to start looking at each other as people again and find that everything is still there. We just have to find the way to that connection.

Gary, you started television stations all over Africa. You’re very involved with the African continent and Africa is expected to be hit hard by Covid-19. Are you positive of what this continent can bring to the world?

I have absolutely no doubt. I’m absolutely complete Afro-optimist about what Africa can mean, not only the global economy, but to a different kind of world. I think there’s already some movements happening around the world which, again, politicians are taking huge advantage of, but at the end of the day, what Africa can bring to the rest of the world is much more of the people’s stuff than those people imagine at the moment, because at the moment it’s just about economics and some social disparity. In some of the stuff I’ve done in Africa, I’ve opened in North Eastern Nigeria, in the middle of the civil war against Boko Haram; I’ve opened a television channel and Muslim and Christian reporters, producers were working together, making things happen fighting a common enemy which is disinformation and misinformation.

So, people must not doubt what the people in Africa want to do. Maybe the politicians have a different way of expressing it, but what the people in Africa want to do, is to create a better world.

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