Convention is the way in which ingenuity is corralled. Doing what others expect is too often not doing what we need to do to succeed.

We conform, we try to be good people, we’re nice and wonder why our spirit battles to breathe.

It’s only when we do what we need to do and bugger what anyone thinks that we find the means to access our real potential and begin creating miracles in our lives and those of others.

I live in an old, pretty neighbourhood, most of the neighbours know each other, it’s a bit like being in a family, you don’t necessarily like everyone but you’re fated to live in close proximity, so you get on. But some of us have been lucky enough to find that within a short walk is someone whose company we really enjoy and so friendships have been formed.

I’m having lunch with one of those people on Friday and I’m sharing his story with you, which I’ve included in my latest book, Committed to Me, because it is a classic story of inspiration and how the best South Africans take situations and make them remarkable.

As we head toward elections that have many of us filled with despair consider the lessons his experience give us.

Francois is a tall, attractive man with an openness and sincerity that draws people to him. At the age of 34, he was an exceptionally successful money market trader and econometrician who lived a golden life. He’d graduated from school and university with multiple distinctions, met and married a woman who was also his best friend, had a beautiful daughter and a brilliant career.

Then, one hazy afternoon while driving home from work, his life changed. He stopped at a traffic light. His window was broken, the doors wrenched open and as he was pulled from the vehicle he sustained two deep stab wounds in his leg, severing muscles and an artery. The four attackers ran off with his cellphone, wallet with a small amount of money and his car keys, but left the car.

“It started to drizzle,” he remembers. “I collapsed on the pavement, I had chinos on and they were red. I put my legs up on the wall and made a tourniquet to try and stop the bleeding. Within thirty seconds there were thirty people around me. They were all black, very poor, very concerned individuals, and they were saying, ‘Don’t worry they won’t hurt you we are here’.”

“I phoned my office and told my boss, ‘I have been stabbed, it’s rush hour, an ambulance will fight through the traffic, I need you to fetch me’. In less than ten minutes he and another colleague arrived and drove fast to the hospital with their hazards on and going over pavements. I lay in that car and everything passed in front of me, my whole life. I am religious and a Christian and I prayed, but I also had a certain calm.”

Francois was in intensive care for three days then had to convalesce at home for about a month.

“I went back to work and struggled with concentration. I was on antidepressants for two months, then threw them away. The attack had a massive impact on my life and on the way I view things. I couldn’t sleep with my wife in bed because my leg was so sensitive. Sleeping on the floor is degrading yet therapeutic; I felt that this was the level to which I had been beaten down emotionally, to a hard and cold place. I saw myself as the one the family depended on. I was set on being the best guy at the office, the hardest worker, most innovative, most caring, but after the incident I felt emotionally blunt. I began questioning my focus.”

To the concern of his colleagues and some of his friends, he stopped working. His wife, supported him.

“I told my colleagues that emotionally I was unstable. One guy said, ‘Don’t get too depressed’. I said, ‘I am trawling the bottom, I am switching the lights off, I am going to hibernate. I need it’.”

“You have to make the decision to live, and you have to make it every day, make it over and over again. You have to confront your fears. I find it a very big struggle in today’s modern life to balance family, work and personal time, but I’m learning how to do it.”

He spent a lot of time with his daughter, reading or listening to audio books. “I drive into traffic so I can get stuck and listen,” he says. These days, every week he and his wife play two hours of golf before work. His marriage has become richer, more nuanced.

“I realised that the way I was going, I was going to be the guy who was going to have a heart attack on the trading floor. I needed to give myself personal time. The fact that the attackers came into the car and touched me and stabbed me violated me completely.
A hidden blessing came from the community Francois and his family moved into. He says: “In the community we moved into people are older, the trees are mature and established and there is a perception that people care. A day after we moved in a neighbour walked over and his wife baked us a cake. I said to my wife that if the only good thing that happens here is that a neighbour brings us a cake that makes moving here worthwhile.”

“We all need to feel wanted — to belong. When we moved in the person next door hadn’t mown his lawn. There was a little swing made of iron, just left there. The trees had grown through it. He looked as though he had given up on life. He is very neat but doesn’t speak and goes to work in a battered car. I and a helper cleaned up his yard, and the most wonderful thing happened. He bought a hosepipe and now waters his plants. His old post box was broken and I threw it away. He bought a new one and installed it. It’s the most beautiful post box.”

And so a man who thought he needed a miracle to live instinctively began creating miracles for others and giving them reason to live.


  • Charlene Smith is a multi-award-winning journalist, author and media consultant. She has had 14 books published, one of which was shortlisted for an Alan Paton award. Television documentaries for which she has worked have also won awards. She has worked as a broadcast journalist and radio-station manager. Smith's areas of expertise are politics, economics, women's and children's issues and HIV. She lives and works in Cambridge, USA.


Charlene Smith

Charlene Smith is a multi-award-winning journalist, author and media consultant. She has had 14 books published, one of which was shortlisted for an Alan Paton award. Television documentaries for which...

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