Born White, Zulu Bred – extraordinary story of Third World Child GG Alcock

GG Alcock’s family was introduced to the world by the great South African writer Rian Malan in the final chapter of his best seller My Traitor’s Heart. This week Alcock’s own book, the autobiographical Third World Child, hit the bookshops. It is fresh, authentic and a brutally honest account of a South Africa which is mostly hidden from public view. In this fascinating interview GG Alcock tells some of his story, including a little known tale around the 1879 Battle of Isandhlwana, and shares why he has hope for a country that few popular pundits really know. A country he knows deeply, intimately, as only a 100% White Zulu Boy might do. – AH

ALEC HOGG: This special podcast is brought to you by Sanlam Investments. I spent the last few days in a very happy place, reading through a book called ‘Third World Child’. The author, GG Alcock is with us in the studio. It’s not your real name (or not your christened name) GG, but it’s what everybody knows you by. Why?

GG ALCOCK: In Zulu, you’re named after a characteristic. My brother is very loud. He’s called Makhonya, which means ‘to bellow as a bull bellows’, and I was named after an event, which was the forced removal of people by the Government trucks. I often say I’m the first personalised number plate in this country because I was called GG after the registration of the Government trucks that were forcefully removing people and my parents were fighting that.

ALEC HOGG: You have an extraordinary story. Your parents took you to probably, the poorest area of the poorest part of the country in a district, called Msinga near Tugela Ferry/Pomeroy – that part of KZN. You grew up isolated from the white people and very much as a Zulu.

GG ALCOCK: Yes, my parents believed that the only way to really, change people’s lives was to live like them so they gave everything away. My father had been quite a wealthy person. He gave everything away and built this mud hut in the middle of a Zulu village. No running water, no electricity, and we grew up in this place, walking to the river to wash. Our kitchen was a gas stove under the tree and we lived the life of local Zulu people. My mother taught us at home and we grew up herding goats and cattle, stick fighting, and hunting with the local kids just like they were.

ALEC HOGG: And your dad was assassinated.

The late Neil Alcock with his infant sons and friends - cooling off Msinga style
The late Neil Alcock with his infant sons and friends – cooling off Msinga style

GG ALCOCK: That’s right. He was involved in trying to stop a lot of faction fighting, but he was involved in a lot of challenging of local police and local farmers who were involved in everything, from torture to bribery and corruption etcetera. He irritated the wrong people. In what was really, a setup, he was shot coming back from a peace meeting with another large group of local tribesmen. The opposition group ambushed them and they were killed.

ALEC HOGG: It’s quite depressing in parts, in your book because when you talk about the way things operate in Msinga, your father’s murder wasn’t an isolated incident. What was it…six of them who died who died together, in that assassination? The fighting, the shooting, and the killing continues I guess, to this day.

GG ALCOCK: It’s improved a lot. I think a lot of the fighting and stuff was supported and pushed by the local police and others.

ALEC HOGG: A bit of a ‘third force’?

GG ALCOCK: Yes. Probably not as organised as a specific group but certainly, given tacit support. They got military weapons. We used to sit on the floor having dinner, tracer rounds would be going overhead, and we could identify them at 8/9/10 years old, whether that was an AK, a 303, or an R1. A lot of that has stopped. There’s still a lot of illicit… It’s probably the centre of dagga running, which also gave them the currency to purchase weapons and historically, it’s been quite a militaristic, tribal group even from Shaka’s days. You combine the elements of this really, aggressive tribal group with dagga to buy guns: guns that the police and military were happy to let them own as long as they were killing each other, and it was a very violent factor at the time. It was probably the most violent place in Africa.

ALEC HOGG: Well, there’s much to learn in the book but you mentioned the tribal group. It’s also interesting in the history there of Isandhlawana and the spirituality that is very deeply embedded in the people. Tell us that story about Isandhlwana and the Mchunus.

GG ALCOCK: Mchunus, yes. I think a lot of the book is about the deeper spiritual elements of learning about cultures and traditions. The one about Isandhlwana was that the Mchunus and the Mtembus, (which were the tribes where I grew up) always saw themselves as Zulus from a cultural perspective, but they were never overthrown by Shaka or by Dingaan, and they had a number of skirmishes. When the lead-up to Isandhlwana happened, they actually saw the Zulus as their enemy and they joined up with the British, and marched to Isandhlwana alongside the British. In fact, when Isandhlwana happened, they’re credited with one of the more effective rear guard actions against the Zulu Impis as many of the British regiments fled for Rorke’s Drift. However, they were quite roundly, slaughtered and the King at the time was killed there as well. Many years later, we were invited.

Maidens with large hats
Maidens with large hats – decorative and practical sun shades

In fact, the Mchunus were going through all sorts of problems in their tribe and they were trying to understand what was causing all of this. They started understanding that it was spiritually related – that the spirits of the people who died at Isandhlwana had never rested. They’d never been brought home properly. It was quite a long story, but a dreamer (a kind of Zionist) lady had a dream that this Mchunu King came to her and said ‘go to my children and tell them that we aren’t resting here’. She followed voices in her head, in essence, (and she lived many kilometres away from the Mchunu king’. In fact, she arrived at the old homestead, where there was nothing but thorn trees and bush and she was redirected by some ladies who were very confused about why she went there. In fact, it was the historical site of the King.

The King received her and listened to her. Of course, I refer to him as King because they see themselves as Kings and not Chiefs because they were never subjugated under a Zulu King. Anyway, the Mchunu King basically, summoned his Impis, he accompanied them to Isandhlwana, and they had a ceremony at the foot of Isandhlwana where apparently, the last rear guard action was held and where most of them were killed. It was run by a Shembe priest. The Shembes are kind of an African Christian mix with cultural… a bizarre combination of both.

ALEC HOGG: You see bumper stickers ‘Shembe is the way’ in that district.

The Shembe religion is widespread in rural KZN
Worshippers from the Shembe religion – widespread in rural KZN

GG ALCOCK: That’s right, and they wear traditional Zulu gear and the believe Shembe was like a Jesus, I guess, but they also believe in a semi-Christian God. Anyway, we went there and the idea with fetching a spirit is that you have to communicate with the spirit and you have to carry the spirit home. You invite it to get onto the grass mat. You roll up the grass mat on what they call umHlankosi tree, which is a buffalo thorn branch. The spirits sit on the branch, you roll up the mat, and you take them home – talking to them all the way. In fact, in the modern environment you pay for two seats in a taxi for the spirit as well as for yourself. Anyway, the Impis gathered with a lot of very impressive ceremony, spoke with the spirits and it was quite an incredible experience because the Shembe suddenly assumed a different…

This very guttural, angry voice came out of him, berating the Mchunu King and saying ‘why have you left us here in the middle of nowhere’. He apologised and we, with the Impis, carried the spirit back home.

ALEC HOGG: Extraordinary story in a modern era, but that’s what you have. That’s what you grew up with. You then came to the city. Reading through your book, you’re a bit of a Rambo, as I would imagine a Zulu warrior would be. ‘Someone breaks into my house…well, I’m going to go and kill him. If someone tries to hijack me, I’ll sort him out thereafter’. How do you live in these two environments?

GG ALCOCK: Funnily enough, we move between them quite easily. When I say ‘we’, I mean my brother and I, because we have been completely immersed in both sides of things. You draw on different strengths, depending on the environment or the needs of the time. When we were brought up, we were brought up to understand the culture – and there are some lovely things there. However, as I said it’s a very violent society and so, a lot of what we learned when we were young was from stick fighting all the way through to shooting. More than that, the whole principle behind ‘you stand up for yourself’. In Zulu, they say ‘alime ubhekene jeni‘, which means ‘when you’re ploughing and you see a rock, you can plough around it’.

Alternatively, there’s a saying: ‘alime ibeja jeni’, which means ‘you plough for the rock and you see what will move – the plough or the rock’. Often, I’ll say to people we’ll butt heads and see who budges. I’ve had a number of things such as hijackings etcetera, and I guess the Zulu-warrior training kicks in in that environment.

ALEC HOGG: You’ve also started businesses – fascinating businesses – some successful, but some not quite as successful.

GG ALCOCK: Correct.

ALEC HOGG: One of the points I’d like you to elaborate on… In your book, you talk about BEE and you don’t have a very high opinion of it.

GG Alcock growing up
GG Alcock growing up – like children today, a colour-blind world

GG ALCOCK: Well, one of the things is that I obviously have no BEE benefits, despite my background. In fact, I’ve always said that the only benefit I had from Apartheid was that when we were kids, we could take our teeth, put them next to the bed, and then we’d receive five cents from the tooth fairy. Of course, all the local kids tried the same and they got nothing. My father immediately cancelled the whole thing, called all the kids, and explained what it was so the only benefit I got from Apartheid I lost at a very young age. I think that the whole thing about… It’s quite a complex subject, but for me, race is something that doesn’t define us as much as culture and class does. People are making in terms of re-bringing the black elements into the discussion.

ALEC HOGG: What do your childhood friends think about the way the country’s going, particularly on the subject of BEE? Do they think that this is the right way to have retribution for the past?

GG ALCOCK: Look, my friends are everything from owners of taxi fleets to small businessmen and no, they don’t. They believe that BEE is an excuse for jobs, for buddies. The reality is that those people whom I grew up with, who came here as migrant workers, whom in essence, have no real education aren’t benefitting from BEE and aren’t going to benefit from BEE, and they continue and build fairly successful small businesses but business nevertheless, whether it be in the taxi industry or in other businesses. In essence, they’re carrying on without that and, largely, their benefit would be from loans, from skills, and from exposure to opportunity as opposed to the BEE as they see it now.

ALEC HOGG: I loved the approach that you’ve taken towards this, that you’re going to call yourself a… I’m going to read this. “I’ve chosen to be a blond, blue-eyed coloured, or shall I be bald, blue-eyed Xhosa….maybe I’ll just be a light-skinned Zulu”.

GG ALCOCK: One of my questions that I asked earlier on when the BEE thing came out… There’s a lot of talk about mitochondrial DNA – and how all of us have similar DNA. In fact, there’s such a mix of DNA, that you’d find a white person who will have a bit of Xhosa and a black person with a bit of European lines. I wanted to have my DNA tested, and I asked ‘how black is black” and no one can define that. In essence, I could walk into any place – it doesn’t matter what I look like – and claim to be black because there’s no… In the old days, they had the pencil test where you could the pencil through someone’s hair. If it went through, they were white and if it didn’t go through… However, we have no measure. Since it’s such an artificial thing – the whole BEE issue and the race issue), no one can actually say ‘okay, so if I’m only one percent black in terms of DNA test, does that make me black enough to be BEE or should I be 51 percent black’, and so it becomes an absurd thing.

I submitted the question to a number of people, such as the Institute of Race Relations and others, and no one could actually challenge the fact that I could claim to be this if I had a tiny bit of black in me.

GG and Khonya on their shetland ponies - their one childhood luxury
GG and brother Khonya on Shetland ponies – their one childhood luxury

ALEC HOGG: It’s a pity that there aren’t more people pointing at the Emperor’s new clothes. GG, just from this book’s perspective – and it’s taught me a lot – and one of the little bits of pre-publicities was from the great author Rian Malan, who interviewed your parents (and I’d like to touch on that, shortly). He said that if you thought you knew what South African was, read this book and you’ll realise it’s a different place. Why did you write it, though?

GG ALCOCK: I started off writing it to have something for my kids to read and the stories I tell them so that they were written down. A number of people read it and said ‘this is something you have to share with people because it’s about understanding invisible markets and invisible cultures that live side-by-side’. I operate in the township environment and run a fairly successful business marketing the environment, and we’ve unearthed fortunes for people by opening up markets that people don’t even imagine, exist. For me, the whole thing is about these cultures and the fact that they’re right under our noses. It’s as a planet’s right here that we don’t know about. It’s about saying to people ‘open your eyes. Look out there. These are the things…’ I’ve had people reading it and saying they couldn’t believe…

In Johannesburg for instance, we have Jeppe Hostel just down the road, which has 10,000 Zulu men and an entire world etcetera, and there are many others like them. It’s really, about saying ‘there are these things’ as well as how third world people adapt to a first world and their survival techniques. A lot of it is fun, but it’s also fascinating how people adapt to survive in a modern society, when they come from a tribal society.

ALEC HOGG: You said quite a few times that your father wanted to prepare you for a life in Africa. Has it ever occurred to you that maybe your life would lie outside of Africa?

GG ALCOCK: No. I’ve travelled overseas and I’ve enjoyed it but in a sense, there’s not the richness and the depth I found. There’s a depth of history and richness of history, but not a depth of diversity and I love the fact that you can go down to Msinga, the Eastern Cape, or from Cape Town, shoot into Khayelitsha and there’s a different world. Forget the poverty of it, which is sad, but there’s actually a richness and culture in people, from the food all the way through to hanging out in a tavern. I don’t think you find that anywhere else in the world.

Creina, GG, Neil and Khonya Alcock
Creina, GG, Neil and Khonya Alcock – traded their world to help others in theirs

ALEC HOGG: Back to Rian Malan: how did he discover your parents and why did he decide to write about them?

GG ALCOCK: He wrote a book called ‘My Traitor’s Heart’ and part of it was that I think ‘My Traitor’s Heart’ was quite controversial at the time in the sense that it didn’t go like this typical ‘black versus white’, ‘good blacks and bad whites’ and there were a number of different stories. My father had relatively recently been killed and he wanted to understand that story, so he came and spent quite a lot of time interviewing my mother, and getting to know the place. In the last chapter of his book, ‘My traitor’s heart’ is about my mother and father’s story.

ALEC HOGG: And your mother…? Does she still live in Msinga?

GG ALCOCK: She lives there in her mud hut with no running water and no electricity. She refuses point-blank to have her house electrified or anything. That’s her home. If someone dies in the community, she goes and sits with the ladies with a blanket over her head and that’s her home. Those are her people.

ALEC HOGG: Will you go back?

GG ALCOCK: I do back but I would never go and live there. The reason I’m here is that I never had any toys when I was a child and I’m making up for that.

ALEC HOGG: And the business that you’re running now: are you finding that it is being appreciated? Clearly, you’re entrepreneurial and you have an area in which not many people have expertise.

GG ALCOCK: My business, called Minawawe Marketing, which means ‘you and I’ is really about creating connections between brands I guess, and people. Over the last few years, we found a huge demand and desire to suddenly get into that market. Someone in Harvard wrote a book, called ‘The fortune at the bottom of the pyramid’ and suddenly, people in South Africa who’d been saying to us ‘no, we don’t believe there’s business in the townships or rural areas’ were knocking on our doors, saying ‘jeez, we need to get in there’. We’ve been very successful in terms of creating campaigns and brands etcetera at the lowest end of the marketplace.

ALEC HOGG: Are you an entrepreneur who puts your head down and gets on with what you’re doing or do you also take a broader view of the political landscape in South Africa, which many people are (I suppose) satisfied with, but many people aren’t?

Kids in Msinga
Kids in Msinga – life is very different in the deep rural areas of KZN

GG ALCOCK: Look, I come from a political background. I was a political activist, so I believe politics and business are incredibly intertwined. Not necessarily politics as in a political party, but the situation that created Msinga, that very, poverty-stricken environment was a politically created one, and our economy is a politically created economy based on the rules and things that are decided at political levels. I’m not politically involved, but I’m very politically conscious, aware, and opinionated I guess, as well as in business.

ALEC HOGG: And what is your opinion about the country that our children are going to inherit and your perhaps, your grandchildren one day?

GG ALCOCK: I think that there’s a lot more hope for our kids because I see them. My daughter’s ten and she was asking me the other day… She heard people talking about black people and she refers to them as brown people. Granted, she goes to a private school, but she was like ‘Dad, why are the black? They’re actually brown; and my eldest daughter was talking about how she found black guys more attractive than white guys, so there’s a sense that actually, race is not an issue, which gives me a lot of hope. I also think that if you look at the young black guys, particularly in township environments, and strip away all the political posturing and rubbish that you hear about, there’s a lot more hope, those people have really moved on, and for them it’s about choice and opportunity. If we could get job creation, which for me, is the biggest problem this country has…

In fact, I do a lot of work asking people what they’d like win in a competition. You’re thinking ‘a car’ or ‘a trip to somewhere’, and nine times out of ten, the first thing people say is ‘I’d like to win a job’. For me, it’s a tragedy. I think those young, urban, black township guys and the black middle classes are really our hope if we can just get over a couple of hurdles that in our way – partly, politically driven.

Also read: 100% White Zulu Boy with so much to teach us