On the 8th July 1991, as a 21-year-old intern at the Cape Times, I found myself, like most interns, in a strange place: a real newsroom, among strangers in a foreign town, Cape Town, far from my home in Johannesburg. It didn’t help that it had rained heavily that winter morning and in my walk between the Cape Town train station across the Parade to St George’s Mall –- where the newspaper house was and is still situated –- I got completely drenched.
And thus wet and in new clothes, I made my entrance into a new home. After the formalities and being given my corner desk somewhere almost remote from all, there I was alone and not knowing what had to be done next. Seated next to me was another young reporter, Bronwyn, who made small talk and made me feel at home.
That afternoon, during deadline time, some tall bespectacled impeccably well-dressed fellow was whistling a song by Sakhile -– a Johannesburg Afro–jazz band. I do not know what excited me most. Was it the nostalgia of hearing a Sakhile song, albeit through a whistle of a stranger? Or was it hearing that song sung by a Capetonian? Was I just being nostalgic? I do not know, but one thing I knew is that I was to know this man very well and very fondly for nearly two decades.
But I did not have to do anything to meet him. Once he had filed one of his many powerful and inimitable high court stories, Ronnie came to me and introduced himself the only way Ronnie could, the only way Ronnie always did. And so a friendship had begun. A brotherhood was born. A mentorship was started.
I had not been with the Cape Times for a month yet when one Friday Ronnie took me to the Press Club across the road for a drink, in his words, so that I “can think of the intro” of whatever filler I was writing for the next day’s paper. A few drinks later we were in the newsroom -– him on same big page lead, another legal scoop -– and me, well, on yet another caption story.
I may not remember the exact caption I had to write, but I suspect it was the best I had written since I started my journalism career. No, it was not because of the beer at the Press Club. It was certainly because a senior reporter took me under his wing and took interest in my career. He gave my caption the same attention he gave every story he wrote, the same passion he gave the stories that saw big guns end up in jail, companies being sequestrated, unionists being acquitted of one crime or another, or judges denounce one or the other apartheid statute.
That evening Ronnie convinced me not to take my train back to Gugulethu, but to come dudus at his home in Woodstock. Not that he had to do much to convince me. I was in awe of him. In fact, I realised later, I loved Ronnie. There at his house I was to meet his then wife Jackie and his two daughters Jay–Allen and Roxanne, 4 and 1 respectively. If I thought Ronnie was a man of love, I found his family to be even more loving. They embraced a stranger. Jackie put her foot down that Ronnie should not let me drink before we could eat. Jay–Allen interrogated me about my home and Roxanne, oh my Roxanne, sat on my lap and just took to me like fish to water. In no time I was reading her bed–time stories; perhaps my earliest practice of fatherhood, which I was only to experience 11 years later.
Ronnie was to become everything I did not have in Cape Town and in journalism. He was my transport manager when I could not get home. He re–wrote my stories when I could not inspire myself to write well. He comforted me when I was faced with what I suspected to be prejudicial treatment from senior white colleagues in the newsroom. He showed me the girls. He made me fall in love with coffee. He taught me the law –- at least the media law. He opened his house to me. He fed my undying appetite for whisky and jazz. He took me up Table Mountain –- literally.
Even after I left Cape Town in 1994 to go back home, our bond remained strong. He knew of my every move, I knew of his work in the SA Union of Journalists and the stories he was writing. I was kept abreast of the girls’ progress and growth. I sadly also got to know about his divorce. He always referred one contact or another to me for an opportunity or for assistance.
He called me all the time when the hustle and bustle of Johannesburg took hold of me. And every time he came into town, he either made time to see me, or better still, he spent a night at my house -– giving me a chance to return the favour for what he did for me over the years.
And it was in those sporadic visits to Johannesburg –- when he had found a new passion of exposing the ills of big companies against the small man –- that he got to meet my new family. He became a friend to my wife Nandi, and was Uncle Ronnie to my son Mwalimu. I still have a picture of Ronnie and Mwalimu outside my house one Saturday morning before he drove to Limpopo to expose yet another big company for stealing from the poor.
And every time he stopped over he brought a present –- a bottle of wine, a coffee maker, lamp shade, but most importantly he brought laughter into my home and love for Mwalimu. Pity, what a pity he was impatient, five days impatient. I could have introduced him to Mwalimu’s sister, who was born five days after Ronnie’s death. I know Nasha Leago -– the names we chose for her –- would have loved Uncle Ronnie as much as her brother did. I know he would have loved her as much.
For Ronnie was a loving man. I saw him around his daughters and I thought it was a fairy tale. A cool dad as my wife called him. I saw the sparkle in his eye when he told me about the boys hanging around his Jay–Allen and the mystery in his voice when he referred to Roxanne’s quiet but intriguing nature.
Earlier this year I made two dreams come true. I took my son on his first holiday and got him to fly in an aeroplane. He has not stopped talking about his first flight and being in Cape Town. But I also got to take my family to Ronnie’s house. They were happy. Ronnie was ecstatic. My job was done.
Maybe, just maybe, Ronnie is happy to have died after hosting my family for a delicious and generous lunch, accompanied by his partner and daughters. All I know is that I would have been even more sore than I am right now had I not taken Nandi and Mwalimu to see his home.
To Roxanne and Jay–Allen, I have no better words of comfort that any other person would have spoken to you over the past few days. But let me tell you that I loved your father. When that phone call came on Saturday afternoon, and the person on the other side was not Ronnie, I knew something was wrong. I cried. I bent over. I was among friends and tears just kept on rolling. I have been crying every day since. I am not too sure what I cried more for. Maybe I cried for losing a friend. Maybe I cried for myself. Maybe I cried for Mwalimu my son. Maybe I cried for everyone that knew Ronnie. But most importantly, I know cried for you, Roxanne and Jay–Allen. For although I have never lost a father, I knew your pain, because I knew your father. I knew fatherly love because I knew your father. I wanted to be there with you and cry with you, cry for you, cry for Ronnie.
For me the death of Ronnie is the end of my Cape Times chapter. For if truth be told, in my brief stay at my alma mater, I only made two true friends. First it was Ronnie – a man I got to call Chief Justice, and Harold King, a self-made photographer. Harold died nearly 17 years ago. I was left with Ronnie. Now he is gone. Now, I have no reason for a nostalgic walk inside the newspaper house, when next I am in Cape Town.
But I would not want to be in that building and not see Ronnie. I would not want to be in that building and not see his chaotic desk, his humour hung on the walls and certainly his beautiful and genuine smile.
So long Boeta Ron, Uncle Ronnie, Judge, Ronaldo, Chief Justice, my friend, my brother…
I will miss you. But as you rest, let me tell you what you have left behind. You taught me to write with passion, from an insignificant caption to a controversial opinion piece. You told me to respect myself even when others doubted me. You taught me to enjoy life to the full -– wine, whisky and women. You taught me to dress for success. There was a time when I regarded you as the best dressed journalist I knew, until I took over. You taught me ethics. Ever since I met you, I never took a bribe or favours from anyone to write any story. You taught me laughter. You taught me love. Sadly, you also taught me loss.
Rest in peace.