Ordinary People

This letter, which appeared in The Star last week, struck a chord with me that, like a tuning fork, has reverberated ever since:


This is a tribute to Sipho Mbatha.  I did not know Sipho well, but he had a profound impact on my life, my children’s lives and, I’m certain, on many hundreds of other South African’s lives.

Sipho sold newspapers on the corner of Jan Smuts Ave and Chester Road in Parktown North.  He was killed early last month. Sipho was a great South African, a truly great South African, and South africa is a poor place with his passing.

He surely touched the heart of everyone who travelled this route in the mornings because he brought this intersection to life, weaving his magic as he got into your soul with his happiness, his smile, his energy, his demonstrative love for all people and his entrepreneurship.

What amazes me as I look back was the juxtaposition between the headlines of the newspapers he so magnificently sold with their stories of greedy politicians, pathetic government leaders, divisive people, shallow people and the person he was – the person selling those stories.

He had the gift of giving.  I don’t think a day went by when I did not think how remarkable it was that here was someone who had little in a material sense, but was able to inspire all of  us.  Here was someone who demonstrated absolute happiness, care and love to all.

He was always waving, stopping to say hello, providing friendly fist bumps.  All those who interacted in some manner with Sipho will miss him deeply.

Thank you, Sipho, for allowing us to interact with you and for playing your part in helping to make South Africa great.  You and your life message will not be forgotten.

I just hope your family and those who loved you are aware of how much we all loved you and, importantly, what we learnt from you.

Rest in peace – you lived a meaningful life.

Malcolm Hyland, Jo’burg


I didn’t know Sipho.  His ‘corner’ was not on my regular daily route.  I wish I’d known him as I feel sure he would have enriched my days as he so clearly enriched Malcolm Hyland’s.  I don’t know Malcolm Hyland either but I’d like to for several reasons:  Firstly and most importantly, he recognises like I do, the astonishing ‘goodness’ and capacity for joy that exists in this country among people at grassroot levels, and secondly, because he took the time and effort to record and acknowledge this in a letter to The Star.

What many ex-South Africans and many foreigners may not appreciate is that we all know people like Sipho.  We do not all live fearful, buttoned-up apartheid-era lives anymore.  And the stories that all our public  spaces are no-go areas could not be less true; the people of this country (all of us) have taken back our parks and open spaces.  We walk in our neighbourhoods and interact with each other and life is, in a myriad small ways, so, so much better than before.  That is not to say we don’t worry about crime, our crumbling infra-structure and current leadership. We do.  But now it’s everyone’s concern; not just our little sector of the population.  We all worry about it and we all talk about it.

So I’ve been searching the letter’s page for the past week, wondering if someone would respond to Malcolm Hyland but so far there has been nothing.  Perhaps I should write my first-ever letter to the press…

What I particularly like about this letter is the paragraph about the juxtaposition between the headlines and stories of “greedy politicians, pathetic government leaders and shallow people” and the person Sipho himself was.  And I realised that this is something very much on my mind daily in this country. And perhaps it is very difficult for outsiders – maybe especially ex-South Africans now living abroad – to grasp.

Below the politicians and their questionable policies, there exists in South Africa a vast, rainbow-coloured belt of very ordinary, very good people who are all striving for happy, peaceful lives.  Yesterday I attended a talk on the sprawling township of Diepsloot and the message the speaker wanted to impart was that its population is mostly made up of  hardworking, entrepreneurial people aspiring to better themselves against the most daunting odds.  It is these people who are mostly forgotten about and ignored by scare-mongers in the media and abroad.

I may not have attempted to articulate any of this at all but for seeing Busi this morning.  Busi is a lovely young friend of mine who lives in Soweto.  She is married with two young daughters and she and her husband have recently bought their first home.  I love seeing Busi. She is never anything but joyful and enthusiastic and she provides me, from my white, upper-middle class perspective and suburb, a fascinating window into her Soweto life.  This morning we talked about Madiba and the long struggle he is enduring in hospital.  He is foremost in all our minds at present.  And to my dismay,  Busi told me that several of her ‘white-like-me’ clients have told her of their fear that South Africa will descend into anarchy the moment  Mandela dies.  I was equally dismayed and disappointed to see that the Independent On Line ran a similar report yesterday but was inclined to write that off as being the surmising of ignorant outsiders.  So to hear it today from Busi, who works in my part of town, was really disheartening and made me ashamed of some of my white South African counterparts.

I’m bothered by this bizarre perception of hate and bloodshed hovering in the wings of Mandela’s stage:  I’ve been mulling over it all day and realised that there is a connection with Malcolm Hyland’s letter because I believe – and I imagine he does too – that nothing of the kind will happen.  The majority of people in this country count themselves privileged and even blessed to have had Mandela in their lives.  Were it not for him, Nadine Gordimer’s terrifying scenario in “July’s People” may well have become a reality.  We would certainly not be where we are now and on the most fundamental level, I would never have met someone like Busi and counted her among my friends. I’m prepared to put my head on a block to say that (perhaps with a few sad exceptions) the people of this country will behave exactly as they believe Madiba would wish them to: with the dignity and respect that his legacy deserves. The grief – and its outpouring – will be overwhelming as will be our huge sense of loss.  But overall, we will all give thanks for  his life and we will try to do him proud.  If left to the wonderful men-and-women-in-the-street like Sipho Mbatha, I have no doubt that this will happen.

2 thoughts on “Ordinary People

  1. Great post. I think it would be really good to write your letter to the editor and continue to get the message out that public spaces, etc. are safe and that spending more time getting to know one’s community might enrich everyone’s lives.


  2. Jacqui, I loved this! You have described my sentiments so eloquently.
    Sipho certainly touched my life. My shame is that I didn’t know his name or that he had been killed. He was a joyous man and never failed to uplift my mood and make me smile and feel good about the world. Our country is, indeed, a poorer place without him


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