Respected: Xolani Gwala believes that the story comes first. He says it is critical in debates on national issues that clarity must come before stone-throwing. (Oupa Nkosi)
Xolani Gwala is alive and live. The red “mic on” light glows behind his lair in the 702 studio, and his velvety baritone patter adds extra warmth.
Gwala is standing in on the afternoon drive show for Joanne Joseph, who is on leave. But there is nothing tentative about this comeback.
Late last year, he was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer, and since that awful discovery he has endured 12 rounds of chemotherapy. He looks a little thinner and older, and the vertical traditional scars on each cheek look a little deeper. The cancer is in remission.
When you come back from the doorway of death, you can send out a special frequency — a survivor’s morbid glamour. But Gwala has sent out his own special frequency all his life, and it’s anything but morbid. His popularity in this building and this city is almost comical. It is already his third day back on air but nearly every caller begins by babbling about their gratitude that Gwala is back. He thanks each of them with disarming patience and earnestness. During news and sports bulletins, fellow broadcasters rush into the studio for a hug and a chat.
But the world outside this dark, happy room is still a mess. And Gwala is obliged to talk about it. For one thing, some dozy fool hasn’t claimed a R140-million Lotto payout. And mobile operators are still robbing us blind with out-of-bundle data rates despite the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa’s orders to stop doing so, says Gwala.
“You’re on the money,” says his in-studio foil, the endlessly affable traffic reporter Tshego Modisane.
“No, they’re on the money,” retorts Gwala. Cue his high, infectious cackle, pitched about three octaves above his speaking voice. When you have a laugh as winning as Gwala’s, you are allowed to laugh at your own jokes.
Later in the show, the ANC’s national executive committee member Nkenke Kekana calls in to explain the party’s voter-friendly position on #DataMustFall. Gwala points out to him that had former communications minister Faith Muthambi implemented ANC policy on digital migration then we wouldn’t be overpaying for data.
Kekana tries to steer the conversation away from his party’s failures to keep its promises. “If we keep analysing the past, it’s not going to help,” he says lamely. Gwala hoots with laughter at this preposterous claim. But he doesn’t interrupt to challenge Kekana, as many a more combative host would do. He lets him finish his thought.
When we talk later, after the show, I put it to Gwala that his style is unfashionably gentle. He’s robust when necessary but never for the sake of it.
“Mine is quite an old-fashioned, moderating approach,” he concedes. “Radio needs all kinds of personalities but, in my work, the story is bigger than me. It is part of your character and how you grew up. Respect is an important thing, and it doesn’t mean you don’t challenge nonsense.
“And I find there’s a space for that style in the market. There are people who appreciate the old-fashioned way of doing things.”
Are those people the “702 blacks” much derided by woke Twitter, a mythical audience of staid, bourgeois coconuts?
Gwala guffaws at the phrase. Being the son of a farm labourer turned factory worker, who grew up in a dirt-poor village called Mpendle near Pietermaritzburg, he feels no need to defend the authenticity of his politics or his blackness.
“I have never responded to that term ‘702 blacks’ and it’s never really bothered me at all. I have always known it’s not reflective of the reality of how people feel about what we do. I don’t undermine Twitter but the majority of people are not on Twitter. Until the day audiences leave us and say we’re not radical enough, that’s the day we say my job is done here.”
Gwala went to school at St Mary’s Secondary School, a Catholic seminary, before winning a bursary from what is now known as the National Student Financial Aid Scheme to study media and public relations at the Natal Technikon.
“I wasn’t a cool kid at school. I was closer to a nerd. I wasn’t even the most outspoken kid; quieter than I am now.”
His interest in radio started with watching his father’s absorption in current affairs talk shows.
“As a young man, my father worked on a white farm but, by the time I was born, he worked for BTR Samcor, a rubber factory in Howick. In 1984, when I was nine, they went on what became the longest strike in South African history. The unions were just starting to organise around that time. And then he was at home for many years, and it was only in the Nineties that they were compensated for their job losses. I think they all got R11 000. Some really rubbish amount.”
His father’s legacy of hard struggle informs Gwala’s world view. But he believes that our national debate has lost a critical mass of civility in recent years.
“This anger is not really taking us anywhere. And I understand where it comes from. But if we shout and insult each other, what then happens ultimately? We have to press the reset button. And ask why we have discussions in the first place — it’s to influence policy and the powers that be, not just to throw stones. There’s quite a lot of unhelpful anger. And the issues are so critical that it helps to be sober about them.”
One of those, he says, is the public health system’s failure to treat cancer. He was lucky enough to be able to afford the best treatment, thanks to his employer’s loyalty and his medical aid policy. And he’s acutely aware of the scale of the suffering beyond the ramparts of private health.
“What’s going on out there is criminal. The only public sector hospital with an oncology department that works in Gauteng is Charlotte Maxeke … Real people are dying every day because of how broken the public healthcare sector is. And nobody says anything. Cancer is killing a lot of people unnecessarily.”
It would probably have killed him too but for the timely intervention of his wife, the former Miss South Africa Peggy-Sue Khumalo, who is now an executive at Investec.
“She forced me to go hospital in the first place. I thought it was just flu. I was sweating one minute then cold the next minute. So, as a starting point, I wouldn’t have been diagnosed at that point. And then the support she gave. Imagine being in hospital alone — what would I have done? It’s highly unlikely I would have recovered.”
Gwala has four daughters and the youngest is a toddler. In a sense, he says, his recovery has been for the sake of his family.
“At a personal level, I would have nothing to complain about if I died. Life has been good to me, considering where I come from. I’m content. So if I died today, I wouldn’t blame anybody. I wouldn’t say, ‘God, why did you take me so early?’ No. But I have young children, a wife, parents, siblings. Those are the people that I kept on thinking about.”
He describes himself as moderately religious, having been raised as a Catholic, and believes his faith helped to pull him through.
“But there were other things. For instance, I have a cousin, Phumlani, who is exactly my age, born in 1975 on a farm. My uncle’s son. We did everything together as boys in the village. We were looking after our grandfather’s cattle and horses. He lived on a white farmer’s land like my father did but had his own stock.
“And when I fell ill, my cousin called and said, ‘Listen, I know what’s going on but I know you. You are strong, you will be fine.’ (Hayi ngiyakwaz’ wena — ustrong, uzophuma lapho!)
“That call made me cry. Because he knows me more than anyone, even more than my parents. We grew up together, we did things together. So he wasn’t being polite or philosophical about it. He’s a truck driver and he’s being practical about it.
“He’s one of many who supported me, including my brothers. But that touched me to the core. It told me that maybe I am stronger than I think. That maybe I will get out of here.”