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Q&A Sessions: ‘Covering struggle funerals was my redemption’ — Noxolo Grootboom

You were born in rural Eastern Cape. Tell us about your childhood.

I was brought up by my maternal grandparents, Rose and Mzamo Mbatani, at Tyatyora in Fort Beaufort. Our house overlooked the girls’ hostel and playgrounds of the famous Healdtown High School. I vividly remember watching their sports games from our back verandah. That was entertainment to us. 

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I thought my granny was my mom, so I called her Mama. It was a home filled with love, laughter and tears, because my grandfather was a disciplinarian. You paid from his sjambok for misbehaving. I have a scar to show for it on my right leg. Now that they are both no more, I thank him for that scar as it reminds me of the love with which punishments were meted. Afterwards he would sit me on his lap and explain that I had been naughty and had to be punished. He would give me sweets to soothe the pain. 

In Tyatyora the seed of my love for reading was planted. There was a day set aside for reading in the evening. I was curious and nosy. At 12, I was introduced to my parents and I went to stay with them in Butterworth in the Transkei. 

Noxolo means “mother of peace” but there was none in the country … 

Let me tell you about my first experience of unsavoury political education. We were in standard one [grade three] and our teacher told us that terrorists were cruel men who wanted to kill us. He asked us to pray to God that He kills them instead. I still remember my passionate prayer pleading to God to kill them. 

In Butterworth, I was in grade nine and my cousin gave me my real first political lesson. I learnt who the “terrorists were”. That very same evening I went on my knees and asked God to forget about my previous prayer and promised Him to pray a different one when I had gathered my thoughts. It is from my cousin that I got this political education not my parents, because politics were not discussed in my presence. 

Even when my cousin went to exile that truth was hidden from us, but somehow, I knew. Subconsciously as a young South African growing up in the Transkei I knew that we were suffocating under apartheid and my mission was to assist those around me even if it meant a personal sacrifice not to finish my education.

How did your journey with TV start?

I started at the SABC on 1 December 1983 as a typist. Then I joined Ezisematheni/Thakangwara, a current affairs programme for Nguni and Sesotho languages, as a production secretary. I got my first on-camera stint when our isiXhosa presenter, Mkhokheli Thanda, could not make it. The team was panicking and our manager, Hennie van Wyk, said: “What’s the problem? I have a Xhosa in my office, bring her in.” That opened the way for me. I would later be called in when one of the isiXhosa newsreaders, Sis Thandi Mesatywa, was not feeling well. When she passed on, I was asked to continue as a newsreader. When I retired, I was editor of isiXhosa news.

You covered the funerals of Tata Madiba and Ma Winnie for TV. Did you ever meet them in person? 

I only met Mama Winnie Madikizela-Mandela once at a shopping mall in Soweto. We just greeted and she said: “Keep up the good work.” I first met Tata Mandela when he invited journalists to a dinner at his Pretoria presidential home. I went with my friend, the late Sibongile Sokhulu, and my husband. We shared a table with him. My proudest moment was when he greeted me by my name, “Noxolo, is this you?” And he turned to my husband: “Radebe, (my husband’s clan name) is this you?” The handshake he gave me, oh my goodness, my hand shook for days. He also signed an autograph for our kids. The picture we took on that day is my treasure. I got to meet Tata again when the workers at the Mercedes-Benz plant handed his first car to him, the red Mercedes. I was hosting the event with Tim Modise. 

You were a neighbour of the revolutionary leader, Chris Hani, and were on the scene the day he was assassinated in front of his house. 

It was a quiet Saturday during the Easter weekend. I was hoping it would be my lazy day after Friday church services. I heard gunshots followed by cries from Kwezi, Chris’s daughter. I quickly dressed, ran out just as Kwezi was coming out of the house. My aim was to bring her to my house; instead she dragged me towards Chris’ lifeless body and said: “Look Aunty, they have killed my father. He said I mustn’t open the door yet, there’s a man who wants to speak to him. Then I heard gunshots. Is he really dead, Aunty?” That was said in almost one breath. I took her to my house. She wanted to phone Dimpho, her mom. I could see her dialling … wrong number each time. She was on my bed crying until her river of tears ran dry. I was also crying. It was too much to take in. 

Covering his funeral was the most difficult assignment ever. I requested to be excused, but did not win. But I am happy I did the coverage. It became my moment of paying my last respects to him with the rest of South Africa.

Who is Noxolo, mother and wife?

Noxolo is married to Mashwabada Grootboom from Dube, Soweto. When I met him he was a cricketer. He was an all-rounder. After watching him in action, I just knew I had to marry this guy. See how many runs we could score in the marriage pitch. As a wicketkeeper, I trusted him enough to keep our marriage wickets intact. As a fielder I trusted his skill to field whatever life throws at us and as a bowler he just bowled me over and years later we are still in the pitch with good innings: 37 not out. We are blessed with four children: Dawn, Zwelakhe, Bhungane and Nokwanda, and five grandchildren. 

What were your career highs and lows in presenting the news on TV? 

My highs were the platform I was given to cover the funerals of our struggle heroes. It was my way of redeeming myself from my childhood prayer. No lows that I can think of. I sum up the story of my career as grace upon grace. 

What is the secret to your radiant skin and youthful appearance? 

Honestly, I can only attribute that to good genes because there is absolutely no effort on my side … I mean fat cakes, Russians and chips in one meal, that’s me [laughs].

What don’t we know about you? 

I am a TV junkie. I binge on soapies thanks to DStv catch-up. Now that Shakes and I are retired we will revisit our love for theatre, gospel music and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Mahotella Queens, Brenda Fassie, Vusi Mahlasela, Mango Groove, Ringo Madlingozi, Vusi Nova, Brenda Mtambo … By now South Africans know almost everything about me. In fact, they know more than I know about myself. They even prophesise about things to come.

What is next for you? 

I just want to rest, rest and rest and have a jol with hubby dearest.

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Denvor de Wee
Denvor de Wee is photojournalist and the founding director of Visual Buzz SA

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