Popular talk show host Xolani Gwala’s death last week, while shocking, was not unexpected, although everybody hoped that he had finally turned the corner on his colon cancer.
Gwala, 44, had announced his condition on air in 2017, going off air shortly afterwards to seek treatment. His courage and stoic dignity won him legions of new admirers.
He returned to the mic on Talk Radio 702 last August after a period in seclusion to reveal he was now in remission and recovering well.
His wife, banker and former beauty queen Peggy Sue Khumalo, noted in an open letter yesterday that he had taken part in a groundbreaking Israeli treatment between February and June this year, but when this failed to yield the necessary results, he returned to be with his family and live out his last months quietly with her and their two young daughters.
Gwala’s popularity, built on professionalism, respect for others and an innate, unfeigned, humility was evident in the slew of condolences on social media platforms following the news of his death.
He was mourned as much by journalists and broadcasters as he was by politicians and the public from across the South African spectrum, which is testament to his ability to effortlessly and genuinely cut across class, creed, colour and language.
Born in 1975 in Impendle, 60km west of Pietermaritzburg, Gwala was the eldest of a family of three brothers and a sister. He matriculated at St Mary’s Secondary School in 1993 and then attended what was Natal Technikon in Durban, where he studied public relations management, graduating in 1995.
His first taste of radio was on campus radio before getting an opportunity as freelance bulletin producer/ presenter on Radio Zulu (Ukhozi FM) in the mid-1990s.
He was soon offered a permanent position working at P4 radio station before he branched out into field reporting in English and isiZulu for SABC radio news countrywide, and producing and presenting news bulletins.
He was the first black journalist to read the news on SABC’s Radio Lotus, remembered former SABC regional radio news editor Judy Sandison.
He moved to Johannesburg, where he worked as a reporter on 702 before re-joining the SABC and working for the short-lived SABC Africa and hosting News Hour on SABC 3.
When SABC Africa closed, Gwala accepted a position at RAM FM, broadcasting out of Ramallah in Palestine, where he was news editor.
Returning to South Africa, he worked at the SABC again, hosting the talk show PM Live on SAfm as well as the TV chat show Asikhulume on SABC1.
After hosting the morning show on SAfm, he accepted an offer in June 2013 to return to 702 to take over the afternoon drive slot.
Last August he took to the mic to evangelise on the need for the early detection of cancer and to thank the many colleagues, friends and fans for their support.
Speaking on SABC’s Morning Live, he admitted that his battle against the disease - which included many operations and six cycles of chemotherapy - had been “hell”.
The lesson he had learnt, he said, was to be grateful - for the support he received and for having had the ability to afford the treatment.