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My Fellow South Africans: John Kolbie

My Fellow South Africans: John Kolbie served in the Navy for 32 years. Photographed by Henk Kruger (African News Agency/ANA)

My Fellow South Africans: John Kolbie served in the Navy for 32 years. Photographed by Henk Kruger (African News Agency/ANA)

Published May 6, 2022

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“In my humble opinion I think ‘culture’ is one of the greatest dividers of people.”

Retired Gunnery Instructor John Kolbie stands upright and proud, showing none of the pain nor wear of his 32 years of service in the Navy, nor the torment he suffered as a young man.

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“People always say you have to remember where you come from,” he says.

“I want to be remembered as a citizen of the world, a citizen of the globe. That's all I want.”

Kolbie recounts his story to us.

“I’m a pensioner now, but for 32 years I served in the Navy. I was a gunnery instructor. I made so many friends over the years.

“I trained mostly the white guys, they came for their National Service. Sometimes I still meet them, I travel a lot,” he says.

“Sometimes I’ll meet them in Joburg or in the (V&A) Waterfront (in Cape Town). But most of them are grown up now and they left the country.

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“They completed their in-service training, and afterwards left the country because things aren’t going right.”

Kolbie is pleased he fulfilled his childhood dreams.

“When I grew up my dream was always to work at sea, and I ended up working at sea. For the South African Navy.”

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‘Follow your dreams’ appears to be the advice this former ring fighter – you read that right – has for Generation Alpha.

“Do exactly what you dreamt of doing and never give up.”

And about being a fighter in the ring?

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“Not many people know this but I wanted to be like Muhammad Ali.

“I was an amateur boxer for the Navy. I was a welterweight champion for three years until a youngster came along one day and knocked the s*** out of me.

“I gave it up. I said this is not for oldsters, this is for youngsters,” Kolbie recounts with fondness as the corners of his mouth turn upwards at the memory.

We asked him about what he feels is the most peculiar thing about his culture that sets him apart from other South Africans. His answer surprised us.

“In my humble opinion, I think ‘culture’ is one of the greatest dividers of people. People always say you have to remember where you come from.

‘I want to be remembered as a citizen of the world, a citizen of the globe. That’s all I want.’

“Culture and religion are two of the biggest dividers in the world. I really do hate culture.”

What irritates Kolbie about his hometown, Cape Town?

“The thing that gets me is the fact that people don’t know their street numbers.

“I walked all the way down this street to the pensioners’ offices. The offices moved to 125 Buitengracht Street.

“I went all the way up Buitengracht Street and not one person in a shop or street could tell me where 125 is, or what number shop they are in.

“I went into another shop to go buy myself Levi’s jeans. I asked the lady what the number shop was, and she said: ‘I don't know.’

“I told her, ‘you just lost a sale’.

“What if I buy this and something goes wrong and I want to send it back with someone else, how will I explain to them where your shop is? Have you been to Joburg? Joburg is different from Cape Town.”

‘I remember Sharpeville, I remember the shootings. I remember the riots in Sharpeville.’

Kolbie now recalls with some pain his childhood.

“I was born in Joburg, I was born in Sharpeville.

“I remember Sharpeville, I remember the shootings. I remember the riots in Sharpeville,” he refers to the massacre in 1960 which left at least 250 people either dead or injured.

My Fellow South Africans: Retired Gunnery Instructor John Kolbie recounts some of his most painful childhood memories: ‘We were so scared we crawled under the bed and stayed there all day until she came home again.’ Photographed by Henk Kruger (African News Agency/ANA)

“That day of the shooting, my mom still went to work for the white lady, and she said: ‘Don't go, because you know why? Die baas gaan julle skiet (The master is going to shoot you).’

“We were so scared we crawled under the bed and stayed there all day until she came home again. That noise we heard wasn’t crackers (fireworks).

“Brothers, sister and cousins all under the bed. We saw the police running with sjamboks (leather cattle whip).

“I remember that.

“My favourite uncle got shot on that day. Can I carry that hatred in my heart for the rest of my life?

“I will forget to enjoy myself and learn to live if I have to carry that hatred in my heart until eternity,” he recounts, the pain visible on his face.

“What happened should not have happened, but it happened.

“Don't carry that.”

* My Fellow South Africans is an editorial campaign powered by IOL which aims to build a more inclusive society by introducing South Africans to each other.

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