James Bond, a violin & a taxi rank in Benoni - Vusi Thembekwayo

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Vusi Thembekwayo 14 February 2020

Brendon had these sharp blue eyes with thick and silver hard set hair and dark brows that contrasted so beautifully you had to look at him twice. He had the Clark Kent chiseled jawline and the small but pouty lips. He walked with a slow but firm pace & always took his time getting up from the chair. You got the sense that, unlike all humans, time seemed to wait for him.

Brendon had this beautiful office in Parktown, at the ABSA Park, adjacent the Wits University sports grounds. His office was decorated with deep mahogany furniture. He was clearly at the executive wing of the building because the lobby was a long walk with framed pictures of old white men. His administrative assistant, Kate, had long brunette hair and a coy but firm smile. She was always kind & courteous and dressed in the corporate uniform of pencil skirts and black high heels.

If you haven’t got the sense yet, Brendon exuded this James Bond energy. He has a sense of warmth & mystique that I’ve never seen another man pull off quite so well. You could understand why he was the Head of ABSA Private Banking and led a team of executives.

I met Brendon while competing in the ABSA National Public Speaking Competition in 2002. When I won the competition, Brendon took to me and me to him. Our relationship was quasi mentor-mentee with a dash of “I really wanna be like this guy.”

Brendon felt that I should be studying Law at Marties. He felt that my gift of the gab, ruthless argumentation skills, an enquiring spirit & sharp analytical mind would be a definite advantage. It was always obvious to me that I was either going to study overseas or at Wits, close to home. I didn’t want some version of distance but, if I am honest, I wasn’t sure I could survive Stellenbosch.

The other truth is that I didn’t have any interest in law. There is a natural inclination by people to expect naturally gifted speakers & debaters to take up law as a profession. I had watched all the seasons of Allie McBeal & The Practice, and while I agree that a closing argument from Bobby or rebuttal from Eugene was always a treat, I didn’t want to earn a living through billable hours.

Brendon was always dressed meticulously in hand-stitched and well-fitted Italian suits. He was still more prepared than anyone else in the room. To this day, he is the model I have in mind when I prep for board meetings.

Lesson: Bring your best to every encounter.

Keith was a certified financial planner that lived and advised clients in Benoni. He drove a deep green first-generation Audi TT. He bought the car when they had just launched it. It was such a head-turner. Keith was also a member of the Benoni Aurora Rotary Club. They met weekly on a Tuesday at 7 am. I get ulcers thinking about how early those meetings were.

Keith and I met when I was competing in the Rotary International Public Speaking competition. The competition was syndicated across 59 countries where Rotary has a presence. Keith was an interesting character. He had a substantial set of non-negotiable principles & if I am sincere, tended to be quiet anal about it. He was uncomfortably overweight, a chain smoker, and yet very mobile. The paradox was never lost on me.

Alan Kock, or should I say Doctor Alan Kock, easily left the most telling imprint on my early life outside the dojo. He was the founder of the East Rand Boys Choir & later the Eastern Gauteng Boys Choir. My first to Durban and Cape Town were with Alan on many of our musical tours with the choirs.

Alan was a musical genius with a work ethic that left me in awe every single time. First and earliest in the room, the most prepared, would work enthusiastically and leave last.

He built a music academy in Boksburg and took in kids from across the divide. He came and recruited me at Benoni West when I was in grade seven. I remember the audition. I sang Moon River. I sang at the top of my lungs with deliberate intent & he just looked at me and said, “okay, we can work with this.”

I was so privileged to be part of his work. So picture the scene: I would walk from my home in Wattville to Dunswart station. Alan’s mom, Barbie ran a free shuttle service & would meet us at the Dunswart to drive to the studio past the Teasers, Africa Cash & Carry and Industrial area, some 11 kms away for rehearsals. At the corner of 7th street was a shebeen and a bottle store. The music was always in full volume. It had a pink elephant at the top of the entrance. I never understood what elephants had to alcohol. I mean, elephants do not drink liquor as far as I know.

As soon as we arrived for rehearsals, you had two choices, buy a hotdog from Uncle Syd or make your way upstairs for rehearsals. Uncle Syd was Alan’s dad and had this loud voice, a tremendous character, and a big nose. He was a legend. Alan’s grandfather would sometimes be at the rehearsals too. Oupa was frightfully quiet & had lost his leg during some war. That was the story. That’s all I remember.

As soon as you made your way upstairs, you’d find the rest of the choir boys warming up in Latin phrases. Fact, I still use this technique today before I speak. It lubricates and stretches the cheeks while exercising the diaphragm. After the rehearsal, we would jump straight into a reprise & study the full Carmina Burana opera. For a boy from a small non-descript township in Benoni, this was incredible exposure. O’Fortuna!

I remember performing at the State Theatre, theatres in Cape Town & Durban before I was 14 years old. I sang lead in front of Nelson Mandela when Madiba was launching the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund. I can’t remember the song, but I do remember the KTV interview afterward.

Only 80s babies would remember KTV, Kideo, and Mr. Chinwag.

Point: God always had me at the front of the group, leading the charge, driving the performance, and setting the tone for the rest of my peers.

That early training influences how I show up today. It’s a significant part of the reason I think I am capable of leading no matter the challenge, context, or problem.

Today, my businesses across asset management, venture funding, consulting, and tech are all managed by leaders that are much older than me. Yet, I am the one they call on when they need direction & stewardship because of that early training.

Leadership is often about the energy we exude & how prepared we are. What I call the “show-up factor.”

I was awkward. I was the outsider, the uncool, the other. I had just enough social capital fit in but was never part of the cool-crew.

Any time you stand out, the rest of society will tease you. My peers made fun of the singing, the public speaking, the karate, the kung Fu, the violin, the obsessive reading, all of it. If you’re not being teased or ridiculed, you’re blending into the background of averages.

Mrs. Buchanan was an English teacher at Benoni High. She identified my gift of the gab when I was just 15 years old & trained me to go on being the best speaker in the world. Twice! I used to practice with her 4x a week for 2 hours every day of every week.

Mrs. Buchanan drummed into me the single most essential formulae for active growth and attaining mastery:

1. Train
2. Compete
3. Diagnose
4. Make a plan to improve
5. Sleep
6. Repeat

This is the single most effective formulae for attaining mastery.

Her expression, “excellence & perfection, are attainable”. Mrs. Buchanan also kept the cleanest class of any of her peers. She had the tables and the wall to her classroom painted baby blue. She used to call the tables her blue virgins, and students weren’t allowed to leave any pen or pencil markings on the table.

She, and the fact that my mother was ridiculously tidy, is the reason I am such a clean-control freak-perfectionist today. And yes, I am fully aware that the last phrase doesn’t turn nicely at the tongue.

Mrs. Buchanan was 5’5 & more a mother to me than a trainer. She took me in. Nurtured my talent & made sure that I was always present & prepared. I always laughed at the fact that her husband was 6’4 & towered over her. Funny how love can transcend all differences, including height.

Jeff was a partner at a Boksburg based law firm. Jeff was 6’6 and drove a navy blue SAAB Turbo Convertible. He had this dry sense of humor & was more of a “boet.” Jeff also sponsored the gift of the gab prize at Benoni High. Naturally, I won that prize more than once. To this day, I get a daily email from Jeff. He runs a mailing list & sends thought-provoking quotes daily.

Sifu Claude ran the Midway Kung Fu in Benoni, where he taught Wing Chun & Jukundo. He was a short Frenchmen with a calm temperament & the hardest hands I have ever felt. If Sifu punched you, you FELT it. He has fluffy grey hair and was reluctantly balding.

Sifu Claude insisted that I arrive at the center earlier than most students so that I could run my dummy routines. The dummy is the wooden manlike structure that you see Bruce Lee train on in the biopic. It’s a station to practice your most basic movements and get the technique to fuse with your instinct.

He would make me work on the dummy twice as much as everyone else. “Harder, Vusi! Faster, Vusi!” he would yell.

Sifu Claude also introduced me to Chinese philosophy. He turned his students into students of the game in search of excellence. He immersed you in the culture & the structure of Kung Fu. Movements were carefully broken down and studied so that they could be understood for the philosophy and not just the impact.

He took me beyond combat.

He was deep and insightful. But if I’m honest, I don’t miss those 10 minute horse stances & wall pressed splits.

Sifu taught me the way of the righteous man: look beyond the surface of any pursuit, and its true beauty will reveal itself.

Keith bought me my very first suit. He had a friend who owned & ran the Hyde’s Man’s Store at East Rand Mall. Butch hooked me up with this stunning blue blazer & charcoal pants that made me look like a young diplomat in training. I was killing it at 17!

Alan, God rest his soul, was unbelievable. He treated us like family. We taught us musical theory for free and is the reason I took up & played the violin. When I first started, it was for points with the girls. But then, I enjoyed the instrument.

My violin teacher, a former Benoni High boy himself, Hendrik, lived in a suburb outside the center of Benoni. I used to attend lessons twice a week, once mid-week and then on Saturday mornings. The taxi would drop me off at the station & I would walk 8 kms to his house.

I don’t miss those walks during the sweltering summers. Sometimes the plan doesn’t have to exist. Follow the path, and the destination will reveal purpose later in your life.

All the people that played a role in my formative years taught me the same lessons:

1. It’s okay to be awkward. Being average is dangerous & the preserve of non-descript people.

2. Discipline will trump talent any day.

3. When people believe in you, you still have to do the work. And before you do the job, do the work on yourself to believe in you.

4. Always dress for the occasion. How you appear has a lot to do with how you are perceived & treated.

5. Never let your environment determine how you see yourself. Take yourself seriously. It’s important.

Vusi Thembekwayo
Global Speaker | Venture Investor | Leader