I had a working-class upbringing – my mother was a teacher at a government school and she died when I was six. My dad then pulled strings in Port Elizabeth to get me, my older brother and later my younger sister into a multiracial school. This was in the mid-’80s; hectic times. I have a lot of memories – memories that all township kids my age must have – of masses of bodies in the streets, toyi-toying surrounded by Casspirs, the air filled with tear gas, singing all the while. There was a sense of solidarity, community and togetherness.
My father was Catholic, and he was a skills instructor. He never told me what apartheid was and he never told me to be against white people, which I find quite amazing. So I never had any negative feelings towards white people. I went to a Catholic school run by Irish nuns. The black kids would take part in “stayaways” as a form of protest, but I didn’t know what it was about.
My upbringing was a bit schizophrenic in that there was this dichotomy between my dad’s earlier religious stance and his return to his traditional upbringing later on. He became very Afro-centric, very Xhosa. There’d be all these things happening at our house: sangomas, animals, rituals, and ceremonies where he’d be brewing beer.
I’d be at the convent singing Ave Maria during the week, only to return to this very traditional happening at our house for the whole weekend. These people would take over our house, singing and dancing into the night. I enjoyed singing in the ceremonies, as there was such an energy about it.
Growing older I realised that we didn’t live in London – just near East London. I was involved in my own teen “stuff” though, so didn’t care too much about what was going on. I remember a joy around the “New South Africa” when I was 13, but I still don’t think anyone sat me down and said: “This is why Nelson Mandela has been freed, this is what he’s been fighting for…” At the time I was still more concerned with tuckshop money, which I never got!
I was very shy on the one hand, and then very extroverted on the other – to deal with my soft, insecure side. I was an average student who always got the “could do better” remark on her report card. I was good at public speaking, though, and at being on stage. In high school I started doing plays. My drama teacher convinced me to study drama after school, so I applied to UCT and made it in.
In my second year at varsity I met some musicians. They had seen me sing in a play, and so they called me up on stage at one of their gigs. I improvised something and it went well enough for me to start coming to their rehearsals. And that was the beginning of Freshlyground.
I’ve had an amazing life and I hope to continue to. I’m grateful for my upbringing and the way my dad made me feel. He gave me the belief that things would go my way. And I think that belief is incredibly important. To impart that to a kid, to make them feel they can do it, is amazing. And I don’t remember it being articulated – he gave me “life lessons”. Maybe it was just the way he was; the way he is.
My mother is more of a “ghost figure” in my life, a faded picture. When I was working at Makro in matric I met a woman who’d been taught by my mother. She started crying as she said that my smile and my hands were just like my mother’s. My father never spoke about my mom as it hurt too much.
Do you share your story with kids still at school?
I do. I speak about how I also came from a township, and about “knowing” that you have the ability to get there. How it’s important to have that self-belief. The things I hear most from kids when I visit a school are “can I have a picture?” and “can I have a hug?”
Being on stage
That hour or so of being on stage is about connecting with your audience and the rest of the band. And I think I do a pretty good job of it. The interconnectedness of us all is something to zone in on, which is always better than zoning out.
Do you consider yourself a leader?
I don’t know if it’s for me to say. There are situations when I’m called on to lead – like on stage – then I’ll lead the band and the crowd, trying to get them to follow. And then there are situations when it’s more natural for me to follow.
I’ve never been a conventional leader. And there was a stage in my career when I found leading the band a burden. Almost like being the captain of a team; it’s hard sometimes to keep everyone enthused. Over the years though, other members of the band have learnt to own that role.
What is leadership?
Having a vision, then conveying that vision to people; getting them on your side, and following through with it. Leadership can also be more manipulative and behind-the-scenes – which is probably the kind of leader I am.
Leadership in SA?
It’s not obvious the government is doing an amazing job of leading us in the right direction. We could probably have a lot more ordinary people taking the lead, and I think that a lot of people are starting to. For example, the Right2Know campaign – ordinary people like that.
Are you hopeful?
We went on a nationwide tour last year, and I wasn’t filled with hope. We saw a lot of poor people with nothing to do but sit and drink, and I think that’s a recipe for disaster. What did give me hope was seeing little towns – towns like Colesberg – where you’d see the rich “madams” alongside coloured women (who obviously didn’t have two cents to rub together) that had been let into our gig for free. You had these very different sectors of society; and there’d be these moments where everyone would be dancing and happy, looking around and noticing how novel it was for them to be having this experience together. And how good it was. That gives me hope.
What do you still want to do?
I still want to have a kid, maybe two. I still want to teach kids. I still want to study further, which I’ll need to do in order to teach. And I want to finish building my dad a house – as soon as council approves the plans!
l Justin Nurse is a freelance journalist and founder of Laugh It Off.