Shine, Vusi, Shine! Identity and the mirror test; my grandfather was never a whitey; and the clever black who trended on Twitter. Vusi Thembekwayo is one of the youngest directors of a listed company, chief executive of a boutique investment firm and a Dragons’ Den judge. This is an extract from his book, Vusi.
Vusi Thembekwayo is one of the youngest directors of a listed company, chief executive of a boutique investment firm and a Dragons’ Den judge. This is an extract from his book,
Growing up in our humble home, I was my mother’s little sunbeam child. This I know to be true because, of all the boys and girls living under that roof, it was I who was the Chosen One.
“Vusi!” my mom would call from the kitchen, which served as the bridge of her battleship.
“Go and polish the stoep nicely now.”
That was my chore on the household roster, the toughest chore of them all: to coat the dull-grey cast of concrete with a layer of lipstick-red, the kiss of welcome for anyone who crossed the threshold that made our house a home.
From the cupboard beneath the sink, I fetched the thick cloth and, with it, the tin with the face of the sun on top, the crown of spiky rays, the dimples, the lips curled into a smile that always struck me as smug. And with good reason, because life always felt more bright and shiny when I held a tin of Sunbeam in my hand.
I gave the lid a twist, and the polymers hit the air with a puff, the molecules bonding into memory with the waxy, intoxicating smell of ... what was it? Beeswax? Petroleum? No. From where I sit now, even after all these years, I recognise it for what it was – the Smell of Pride.
On the stoep, I would get down on my hands and knees, I would dab the cloth into the Sunbeam and I would buff, buff, buff, in small circles, then big circles, then zigzags and stripes, as I painted my masterpiece in polish.
But you know mothers. They expect and demand more from us because we are their masterpieces in the making.
My mother would come outside to see how I was doing. It would be hot, I would be sweating, the sun shining its sunbeams on my face, me shining the stoep with Sunbeam.
“Make it shine, Vusi,” she would urge me. “Make it shine!”
She would stoop down and run a finger across the gloss, the captain of the ship conducting her inspection.
“Mandela would be proud to sit on this stoep,” I would say, pausing for a moment to admire my handiwork.
But, no, if it didn’t pass the mirror test, it didn’t pass the Mum test. I had to be able to see myself reflected in the shine.
I sighed and got back to buffing. I couldn’t understand at the time why a stoep had to be polished to such a gleam – and ours went all the way around the house, like the board under a cake, to the back, where the dog slept.
After all, it was designed to be walked on, by family, friends and neighbours, the traffic of a community coming and going, and all the footprints and shoe prints would eventually dull the dazzle, and I would have to get down on my hands and knees with my tin of Sunbeam all over again.
But now I know why.Vusi: Business and Life Lessons from a Black Dragon, by Vusi Thembekwayo, is published by NB Publishers.
My mother wanted me to look deeper than the surface, deeper than the Sunbeam. She wanted me to reflect, through sweat and toil, on who I was, where I had come from, who I could grow up to be.
Shine, Vusi, shine.
So here I am again, still hard at work, still polishing away. Only, now my buffer zone is the driveway of my home on the golf estate, and I am Simonising the bonnet of my metallic-black V8 to a sheen.
In the background I can hear the playful laughter of my children, and it strikes me that they will most likely never be tasked with Sunbeaming a stoep, just as I, when I was their age, was never called on to herd cattle into a kraal.
The threads that connect us to our ancestors grow more slender with each passing generation, until all that is left is memory, spirit and the blood that courses through our veins.
As I catch sight of my reflection in the black metallic burnish of my car, I wonder if my grandfather would recognise me, if he would see himself in me, in this idyllic estate where he wouldn’t even have been allowed to sit at a table in the restaurant when he was my age.
He was born the wrong colour in the wrong country at the wrong time. In 1978, two years after Soweto went up in flames, one year after Steve Biko was manacled, naked, in the back of a police vehicle and driven to his death in Pretoria, my grandfather opened a small spaza shop in his home township in KwaZulu-Natal.
In that same year, in Stellenbosch, a chartered accountant and retail operations executive by the name of James Wellwood “Whitey” Basson set off on an acquisition trail that led to the purchase of a small Western Cape chain of grocery stores called Shoprite.
Today Shoprite is the largest food retailer on the African continent. It is worth more than R118 billion, and every minute of every day – and when I tell people this from the stage, I can see their eyes widening and their fingers tallying up the numbers – it turns over a million rand. A million rand a minute.
I often wonder, what if my grandfather had been given an equal chance? What if he had been able to go to university and get an education? What if he had been able to open up shop wherever he pleased? What if he had been born a whitey?
I know the answer to all these what-ifs. I can see it clearly as I polish away the layers of history. The answer is me. I can live and work and wander, and bring up my kids wherever I choose. I am not constrained or held back by a law that says I am lesser than or other.
And yet, as a young black South African, having freely made my choices, I know too that there is one way in which I am not yet free. I am not free from what other people think of me.
Listen to me speak. Hear my voice: I have trained it to be clear and strong, to carry to the back of the hall, to soar into the peaks and whisper in the valleys.
I used to stammer as a schoolchild; my ideas would trip and stumble on the path to being spoken. That is why I chose to become a debater, a speaker. I wanted my ideas to be heard, to shape the air around me into a bridge between people, cultures and nations.
I expect people to charge at me on that bridge, to tell me how and why my ideas are wrong.
Speech is freedom. But listen to my accent too. It is not the accent of KwaZulu-Natal, the green and hilly land of my ancestors. It is not the accent of Wattville, the gritty township where I grew up.
It is the accent of transition, moulded by a fusion of class and cultures on the cusp between apartheid and democracy. It is known colloquially, after the first integrated state schooling system of the new era, as a Model C accent.
And when people tell you that you speak with a Model C accent, they never mean it as a compliment.
It is a pejorative remark, a code word for accusing you of having allowed your blackness to be bleached. It is perceived and received as an affectation, the implication being that you have been affected by your intersection with the default culture of the once white-only suburbs, and the bleach has seeped into your brain.
“White people love Vusi, because they love the way Vusi speaks.” I heard that comment from a radio deejay once, and it made me laugh.
But I don’t speak for white people. I speak for myself. This is what I sound like. This is who I am. I am Vusi, who was taught to shine. Every time I open my mouth, I give away my identity but, at the same time, I claim it back.
When I stand on a stage in Joburg or Stockholm or Dubai or Cape Town or Las Vegas or Barce lona, do people listen to me for what I say, or for the way that I say it? My hope is that it is the former.
If I work on my biceps, if I tone my upper body, if I spend an hour or two a day lifting and spinning and running on the spot at the gym, people will say, “Vusi, you’re looking good!”
But if I were to spend an equal amount of time flexing my consonants and vowels, sharpening my diction, stretching my vocabulary, then, in the view of some people, like that deejay, I would not be working out, I would be selling out. I would be stepping out, defiantly, from the series of categories to which I have been confined, the interlocking nesting boxes of my destiny and my identity.
Who am I, this Vusi who looks back from the Sunbeam on the stoep, the Simoniz on the bonnet?
When it comes to the question of our identity, we peel away the layers by revealing who we are, where we come from, what we do. That is how we get to the core. It is the way we trace our histories and forge connections, seeking the common ground on which we can build our personal and professional relationships.
So, I am Vusi, short for Vusumuzi – “the builder of the home” – from Wattville via KwaZulu-NAtal and Swaziland.
I am black, male, a millennial, South African, a speaker, a business owner, a venture capitalist, an entrepreneur. All of these things are a part of me; none of them make up the whole of me.
We need to understand that identity is a fluid construct. It flows like a river. We don’t stand on the bank and watch it rushing by; we jump right in and see where it will carry us.
When we introduce ourselves to each other, as coming from Wattville or Soweto or Alex, we say that with pride, because those places are true to our identity; they shaped us.
But why do we allow our sense of who we are to be framed by places that were designed to confine us, to keep us from becoming citizens of the world?
My identity is not pegged to where I come from. It is liberated by where I want to go. In the same way, my identity is not just framed by the colour of the face I see in the mirror, a poster child for what Twitter calls “black excellence”, always accompanied by an emoji of a pair of black hands clapping.
If I am going to be excellent, let me be excellent for what I have done, not because I happen to have it done it while being black. Why must we classify excellence by its colour, as if it lies on a Pantone scale, with white, the absence of colour, as the benchmark at its centre?
Why, when you are black and successful, do you run the risk of being labelled, even if only behind your back, as “Ingama”, which means “white”? If you are black and successful, then you are seen to be white, because in our minds, success is seen to be white, not black.
If this is true, it would explain why, when a black person succeeds, we go out of our way to find reasons to explain their success. It is because they sold out; it is because they went to this or that school; it is because they have connections in high places; it is because they speak with a twang in their voice.
We will find a thousand reasons, but we fail to home in on the one that matters the most, the simplest, the most likely: they are a success because they are good, maybe even better than anybody else, at what they do.
I never heard my father talking about excellence as a black thing or a white thing. But I often heard him talking about what it took to achieve excellence: sweat, honesty, integrity, hard work, respecting your elders.
He espoused the idea that you had to go out looking for your success in life, that it wouldn’t come and meet you if you sat at home waiting. But first, you had to find yourself.
He meant that philosophically, in a Zen kind of way, but looking back now, I think my mother meant exactly the same thing when she sent me out to shine the stoep.
My dad kept our dog chained up during the week because, in a township, you don’t want a big German shepherd named Boss running around biting people. On the weekend, my dad would take the dog out for a run. Boss, let off the lead, would bolt into the wind, barking at the air, darting wildly this way and that, pausing only to sniff intently at the trees and the grass. But he wasn’t free. He had just been freed.
That is us too, as black South Africans – as long as we continue to think of ourselves as freed people, rather than as free people, we will continue to be chained in our minds. ’nThe system of oppression that we fought and defeated no longer lives in law, but it lives on inside us like a virus, whenever we look down on someone as less than or other.
This is the greatest victory of apartheid: it taught black South Africans to see themselves as a cursed generation, as hewers of wood and drawers of water, to use the biblical phrase so loved of Verwoerd. Even today the ghost of that self-image lingers on, not just in the way we look down on each other, but in the way we look up and tear each other down. In Australia, this practice is so commonplace that it has a name – tall poppy syndrome.
The poppy that rises above the field must be snipped down to size, in the name of egalitarianism. But in a meritocracy, that is a false premise. Egalitarianism does not mean that everyone must be equal. It means that everyone must be granted an equal chance to prove that they can be better than anyone else. That they can shine brighter.
On a cloudless night, when you gaze up at the heavens, and your head spins at the vastness of just our little portion of the Milky Way, it is always the brightest stars that will command your attention – Venus, Jupiter, Acrux.
But, as any astronomer will tell you, these are not by any means the brightest of the celestial objects that can be seen with the naked eye. They just have better stories to tell: Venus, the evening star, first to rise when the sun slips from the sky; Jupiter, the giant among planets; Acrux, the steadfast anchor of the Southern Cross.
We are drawn to them because they dazzle us. It’s just a matter of perception. In the world of business too, we look to the stars for meaning. In marketing, we use a concept called the Net Promoter Score, which is a way of measuring a customer’s willingness to recommend a company’s products or services to others.
Based on their answer to a single survey question, respondents are classified as promoters, loyal enthusiasts who will keep buying and refer others; passives, who are satisfied but unenthusiastic; and detractors, unhappy customers who can damage a brand through negative word of mouth.
Let’s assume the brand in question is South Africa itself. I’ll tell you what we don’t have here: we don’t have passives. We are never neutral or lukewarm. We shout and argue about politics, about sport, about business, about culture, about race, about language, about jobs, about money.
We even shout and argue about shouting and arguing, as I discovered for myself when I tweeted, using the hashtag #ThingsIHate: “People who think they can debate with you on Twitter ... meanwhile we are not even in the same tax bracket.”
Yoh!, as we say on Twitter. I thought I was merely being mischievous, deliberately igniting a hot-button proposition to get the sparks flying, as one might do to warm up the rhetorical muscles during a debating competition.
You challenge yourself by deliberately taking a contrarian position, to see how well you can perform at a remove of 180 degrees. Of course I’m covering for myself here, but let’s just say on that day, as I became a trending topic on Twitter, that I didn’t even manage to put my theory to the test. I didn’t get a word in edgeways.
Which is just as well, because who wants to butt into the conversation when you’re being called a “clever black” with a Model C accent? And that was just one of the gentler insults. And yet, if clever and black are aspects of my identity, along with the accent, I’ll take them.
Among the detractors, the haters, the shouters, I’ll be a net promoter of myself, shining my own image, polishing my perceptions of who I am and what I can do.
Because that’s the job for which I was chosen and, let me tell you, when you’re down on your hands and knees with your Sunbeam on the stoep, trying to pass the mirror test, the last thing you want to do is get on the wrong side of my Ma.
This news has been published by title South Africa: Black People Waiting To Get Their Land Back
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