If you want an antidote to the echo chamber of misery in South African, speak to GG Alcock. Or get his latest book. Greg Ardé spoke to the author.
GG Alcock is a big, smart, friendly dude who recently released a revised edition of a compelling book about growing up as a white boy in deepest, darkest Zululand.
Third World Child was the first and least known of his books, which I expect will change after the recent release of Born White, Zulu Bred.
For good reason, the author is best known as an informal market specialist.
Thanks to his books Kasinomics and Kasinomic Revolution, and his advisory work, he is a feted speaker and specialist on township economies.
But, unless you have read Third World Child you don’t realise how he came to be where he is today. GG wrote that book for his children.
He decided to revise it when the first edition went out of print and in doing so he updated it, incorporating newly written chapters on the informal economy or Kasinomics as he calls it.
All told it is a spectacular and utterly absorbing story.
GG’s extraordinary upbringing and experience give him unparalleled insight.
Alcock and his brother Rauri were raised by their parents Neil and Creina in a mud hut in Msinga, one of South Africa’s toughest neighbourhoods.
They lived with no running water, electricity or modern conveniences, a sacrifice born out of their upliftment work in a dirt-poor, barren area that literally translated from Zulu means vortex.
The boys grew up speaking fluent Zulu and, as GG writes, forged bonds of brotherhood with the Mthembu and Mchunu tribes in a deprived region of the Tugela River valley.
Neil was one of five men murdered in Msinga in 1984, in what police at the time called faction fighting.
GG writes that the only coffin long enough for his dad’s tall frame at the Weenen Coffin Makers was a reject his brother found in the shop corner, its lid stained half black and half white.
“It’s a sign,’ said Mabaso, dad’s friend, as he and the boys bought the coffin.
“Numzaan was half white and half black.”
“His cheap, cracked pine coffin was laid in the raw rocky earth, his head facing over the cliffs, down the Tugela valley towards the towering mountain of Lenge, the river he loved so much roaring below. Hardy thorny ugagane bushes and prickly aloes surrounded the grave, their purple and orange flowers flashes of colour in my new dark world.”
Creina Alcock, an exceptionally talented writer and former journalist, still lives in Msinga, near the river, which, GG writes, “splits the hills in two in an angry gash”.
GG and Rauri move between black and white, seamlessly inhabiting separate worlds.
“It is our birthright, that we pass like silent shadows …blending from one to the other with the ease of chameleons. These two worlds, their conflicts, their warm embraces, and their battles to the death have shaped us as surely as the river shaped the valley we call home.”
The childhood of hunting and herding in the hills is recorded in vivid detail in GG’s book. He tells how his mother taught the boys at home for the first seven years of school under an ancient acacia tree: “stone slabs for desks, our butts stung by scorpions through the threadbare material of our shorts while we sat on old upturned packing cases.”
GG’s mother has been a critical adviser on his books, urging him to tell the stories of real people, giving space for his natural storytelling.
“It doesn’t help to be rich in data but poor in insight.”
The central message of Born White, Zulu Bred is that things aren’t as bad as they often feel because in South Africa amazing people are doing incredible things – many of them in the informal sector, invisible to so many.
“I can understand why people are inclined to extrapolate negative stories. Take informal housing, for example, it is absolutely shocking that 12% of people in South Africa live in informal housing, but it’s not 80%.”
To unlock potential we need to nurture the informal economy rather than spurn it. Help the hustlers, the kasi-kos restaurateurs, spazarette superstores and backroom rental barons.
“I visited the US for the first time in 2019. I marvelled at the hot dog stands in New York. It is a celebrated part of their culture. In Durban, a vetkoek seller is chased away like a nuisance.”
GG tells the story of one company in South Africa that has over 80 000 point-of-sale devices being used by informal sector merchants. That company alone processes R2 billion a month in transactions.
“The informal sector easily does turnover upwards of R500 billion a year. Imagine if they could flourish; if these people could get better loans; if this sector grew by 5%. Most people can’t access house bonds because in townships they seldom have title deeds.”
GG tells the story of a woman who makes R150 000 a month from backyard rentals in Soweto. She can’t get a loan to build more rooms to grow her business and yet she easily got finance for a Mercedes-Benz.
“This just tells you how we are dealing with people in this space. We could really move the needle with the right focus. The government is changing in some areas. But we have a way to go.”
Born White, Zulu Bred is the fascinating story of a childhood that propelled GG into the world he now occupies, which is a rare space in a country hobbling towards reconciliation and constantly beset by divisive politics.
GG is where he is today because his parents rode into the Msinga vortex.
“No Harvard degree or MBA brought me here; my path to success was assured by a golden grass mat, an ironwood branch, a slaughtered bull and a mock charge at the head of an impi…The ride into that valley of red rocks, arid heat, poverty, love and violence,” was where GG and Rauri were Zulu. It was a gateway into other worlds, hidden from the formal world.
GG says that like Msinga, South Africa is inhabited by tribes of survivors, of kasipreneurs, of table top traders, hawkers and more.
“Go among them, give them respect, for they are the future … a KasiNomic power unleashed.”