Born White Zulu Bred, by GG Alcock (Tracey McDonald Publishers)
GG Alcock has had a life most white South Africans can’t imagine.
Thirty years after democracy I still have a mainly white surburban lifestyle, a long way from how many black Capetonian neighbours live.
I’m not proud of this, it just is so. We were brought up in silos, thanks to apartheid, and it’s hard and often uncomfortable to break out.
GG Alcock had an alternative upbringing, thanks to parents who chose to live differently. They were the only white family in Msinga, a troubled Zulu-speaking area not far from Tugela Ferry in today’s KZN, and GG and his younger brother Khonya grew up as white Zulu kids, speaking Zulu and and being immersed in the local children’s lives.
Their mother taught them “at a rock desk under an acacia”, and they grew up with a different perspective on life. White SA did claim them to an extent – they went to a white boarding school in Greyton, and GG was called up for national service in 1985, although he somehow managed to avoid being sent to the townships.
Their surroundings as children were frequently violent – faction fights claimed the lives of many people they knew. Alcock’s father Neil, who had a background as an agricultural adviser, became accepted in the community as a peacekeeper between warring groups.
But one day his efforts were not enough, and after a day of bargaining between factions, his van was ambushed on the way home, and he and the five men with him were all shot dead.
However mother Creina and her boys stayed on in Msinga, having some pretty hairy moments along the way.
After the army Alcock had a stint working for the Catholic Church’s Land Restoration Programme in Natal – the church had a lot of land which, under the deeply moral Archbishop Denis Hurley, they wanted to use to redress past wrongs.
But internecine violence became deeply discouraging. Alcock broadly supported the ideals of the ANC, but in the wars with the IFP he could not understand “what democratic benefits could be in rape and murder”. Warlords would support one party or the other in turf wars… “this way they had a reason to kill and take over land and property”.
Later, during a three-month army camp in the Valley of a Thousand Hills, Alcock became one of a group of army peacekeepers trying to keep the sides apart. He would wander the area, chatting to locals and gathering information about who wanted to kill whom and where the guns were from. “Drunken old men found a white Zulu speaker from Msinga too intriguing not to engage in gossip.”
He says they began to make a difference, with arms caches discovered, KwaZulu police caught for importing guns and ANC warlords arrested. But the fighting continued and Alcock came to realise both ANC and IFP leaders were drenched in blood, while “the National Party smirked as the fools slashed each other’s throats”.
The only victims were the “little people”. Alcock had had enough.
So he headed to Egoli where it became clear he was a born entrepreneur. He ran a restaurant and club in Soweto for 10 years, which came to a sticky end, then launched the annual Soweto beach party on the shores of an old Eskom power station cooling dam, which astonished people who had never seen a real beach. Later there was the Tour de Soweto cycle race running along the route of the 1976 pupils’ march.
The idea, like that of the beach party, was initially met with enormous scepticism. Could you really close the roads to the “mad aggressive Soweto taxi drivers famous for flouting the law”? Then there were the cyclists: “You want to run a race where? Are you fucking mad, they’ll steal our bicycles and kills us!”
To make it more interesting, they introduced a dikwiel category, the single gear delivery bike which carries anything from icecream to coal and live chickens. “Although most of the world rides these bikes – from India, Africa, Asia… – no one had ever had a dikwiel race!”
But it turned out Soweto wasn’t the most dangerous place to ride a bike. Alcock and a Canadian friend were cycling near Dainfern when they were held up at gunpoint and their bikes were stolen. Alcock always carried a firearm and was soon running after the pedalling thieves and threatening to shoot.
Eventually he did fire, and the terrified thieves abandoned the bikes and fled on foot, still chased by Alcock. But the thieves were about to reach an informal settlement, and once there they would be lost.
Then, miraculously, two motorbikes appeared on the trail. Alcock hopped on the pillion of one and they gave chase. The thieves realised they were done for, stopped, dropped their weapon and fell to their knees. “Please baas,” they said.
Alcock gave them a couple of kicks – he is not a gentle man – and marched them off to the police station
The thieves eventually appeared in court. Alcock was deeply frustrated by the quality of the Zulu interpreter’s work and, with the permission of the magistrate, took over the job, giving his evidence in English and then translating it into Zulu himself. The thief was convicted and jailed.
This is not Alcock’s first book. He is the author of KasiNomics and KasiNomic Revolution, about the economy of the townships. Many people think this focuses on women selling chicken feet on a piece of cardboard on the pavement, or tiny dark spaza shops.
But it is more mighty than that. He is passionate and informed about the townships’ informal sector. There are people who bake and deliver a few thousand loaves of bread a day, or sell more than a thousand grilled chickens a week, or repair and panel-beat taxis, often at night so the the vehicles can be back on the road by dawn, or who sell 6 000 vetkoeks a day for R1 each.
Alcock flits between worlds. He says: “My passport is my language, my cultural understanding; I’m a third world child, citizen of an invisible land. My invisible country is as scary and unknown today to both well-off black and white people, enclosed in their little Tuscan-style townhouses, ringed by razor wire and protected by armed security companies. South Africa today is not about black or white, it’s about class.”
GG Alcock has a unique view of our country. This book has a lot of blood and bullets, a lot of skop, skiet en donner. But it also contains some pretty shattering insights.