“White Zulu” Shares His Story of Zigzagging Between Black And White South Africa [Book Review]
GG Alcock had a highly unorthodox childhood, raised by white parents in the midst of a rural Zulu community in Msinga. Using his fluent Zulu and understanding of Zulu culture, he rose through the turbulent eighties to found one of the first ever marketing firms targeting black audiences. His is a unique story, an unexpected blend of things normally kept separate, and his life offers a glimpse into unfamiliar versions of South Africa. His new book Third World Child brings unlikely possibilities sharply into view.
GG Alcock’s Story
Alcock’s story begins in rural Zululand, a place called Msinga, where his parents Neil and Creina had moved in amongst warring factions and clans. In the 1970s and 1980s thousands of people forcibly removed from their ancestral lands were dumped in the area by the apartheid government. They were placed in remote areas with no access to transport, emergency services, or police protection when in need. The drought and unforgiving conditions of Msinga compounded overcrowding and scarcity, exacerbating the violent battles for turf. The Alcocks tried to bring development through agricultural projects, broker peace with the headmen of the different clans, and fight legal battles against the apartheid government and police services on behalf of the people of Msinga. They became the port of call for people hit by disasters of all kinds, finding themselves at the centre of the action. GG Alcock was 14 when his father was assassinated during peace negotiations, his murder never properly investigated.
The stories move on to Alcock’s time in the army and his struggle with finding a role to play in the shifting political scene of the 80s. He identified with black South Africans and supported the ANC, yet was forced to serve in the army and often found himself in white social circles completely disconnected from his other life. He grappled with different approaches to community building and became impatient with both politics too. He turned to experimenting with business ad eventually found a niche for his skills in marketing. He founded Minanawe, one of the very first marketing firms for black people, using his cultural fluency and connections to set up brands and events in townships. This led to newfound success and wealth, but crime and violence became an omnipresent threat and Alcock took to carrying a gun and calling on his rough upbringing to defend himself.
The book’s remarkable stories unfold in close detail and technicolour, featuring larger than life characters ranging from revolutionary priests to thick policemen, from gangsters and township girls to rural Zulu communities and traditional kings. Each story is told from Alcock’s perspective, from inside the action, but over the course of the book larger themes and threads start emerging.
Violence Around Each Corner
Violence is ubiquitous. Blood greases the axis of the action in almost every chapter. Whites killing blacks, blacks killing each other, Alcock being attacked and pursued, Alcock as the attacker. Blood and vengeance, just deserts, violence returned tenfold to right a wrong, between individuals, clans, and on a grand scale between Inkatha and the ANC. The book provokes questions about peace and war and whether violence or forgiveness is the better response to violence, and whether the two paths are mutually exclusive. Alcock grapples with this huge question, torn between the legacy of his peace-making parents and his own inclination to take an eye for an eye. Many of the stories end with Alcock outmanoeuvring an attacker or chasing a thief down with a gun. He recounts his own rage and bloodthirstiness as he pursues attackers, thieves, and killers, haunted by the unavenged murder of his father. Reading such frank accounts of beatings given and taken, accounts that are true and neither fiction nor court-case material, is jarring. Alcock is unflinching in his descriptions, neither glamourising nor vilifying the brutal parts of his world and his life, but looking at it frankly, with humour at times. In Third World Child violence is a kind of currency, built into the rules of the game, a key part of Alcock’s life and identity. The book closes like this: “In this world I sleep peacefully at night because I do not sleep under the bed or call the police but go out into the darkness, even if it is only with rocks in my hands, to defend what is mine”. It seems misplaced, but Alcock is closing his tale with a nod to his inner inkani, a quality of Zulu men. Inkani means “stubbornness and arrogance, a willingness to stand and fight against the odds”.
Questions of Identity
Identity is a major theme of the book, particularly questions of kinship and belonging. Alcock’s father felt that the Zulus were his real people, his real tribe, far more than white South Africans. Growing up to be a white Zulu placed Alcock in a lonely land: the impossibly tiny area of overlap in the Venn diagram of whiteness and blackness. Alcock is able to see and feel from both sides, identifying in both directions, and finds himself at different moments an insider and an outsider in both worlds. A narrative told from this vantage point throws South African certainties of the links between race and identity hopelessly on their heads. It questions how and who we identify with and pokes holes in the barricades between self and other.
Alcock narrates stories of white and black South Africa, incorporating parts of each into who he becomes. He describes the ceremony of bringing home the spirit of his father according to custom and guided by the Mchunu and Mthembu elders to appease his father’s spirit and assure the future. Another story recounts how a local umfundisi (Zionist priest) dreamed of people plotting Alcock’s death in a distant province.The priest instructed his mother burn holy candles, bathe in the river, and send a piece of his clothing to the priest for blessing to protect his life, which she did. Alcock came close to death that day but survived. African traditions and teachings are central, blended into the story and Alcock’s identity.
Language Is The Key
Throughout, Alcock’s fluent Zulu fuels the action. Language is a motif, a gateway, a path through the different worlds. Without the language the story would be impossible: a clue to the importance of language in keeping South Africans separate or allowing them to know each other. The lyricism and metaphors of Zulu give the English writing rich imagery, the text peppered with Zulu words and phrases, sometimes not directly translatable. Alcock’s style blends vivid, almost romantic description with a wild-west galloping rhythm and verve, moving from poetic odes to the valley of his childhood to a skop, skiet en donder style well suited to high-speed action scenes.
The New South Africa
Times change and Alcock ends up living in the affluent suburbs of white Joburg, a disjuncture with the part of him that identifies with Zulus, particularly the poor rural Zulus of his childhood. In the new South Africa poor Africans have become invisible, Alcock notes. “My passport is my language, my cultural understanding; I’m a third world child, citizen of an invisible land. My invisible country is as scary and unknown today to both well-off black and white people, enclosed in their little Tuscan style townhouses ringed by razorwire and protected by armed security companies. South Africa today is not about black or white, it’s about class”. Money and material wealth sitting uneasily alongside a poor, forgotten majority: Alcock’s life and jangling identity is a parallel of the larger South African post-apartheid story.
Rian Malan described Third World Child as “Astonishing. Alcock has written the first report from the next South Africa”. Alcock’s South Africa is one that most of isn’t easily imagined, never mind inhabited. His book is a rampage through the last three difficult decades, upending familiar scenes, narratives, and archetypal roles, tearing a new path. It is a challenge to think differently about identity, race and belonging, and splits open a little window of possibility in a place that still holds surprises.
Review by Abigail McDougall @AbiMcD