Zavion Kotze-Brereton on the night the weddings stopped

Zavion Kotze-Brereton. (Photo: Brendan Croft/Netwerk24)
Zavion Kotze-Brereton. (Photo: Brendan Croft/Netwerk24)

It wasn't just unexpectedly deathly quiet, but also dark on the first Friday night of South Africa's Covid-19 national lockdown at the Inimitable Wedding Venue in Gauteng where usually candles, glitter balls and sequined dresses would brighten the evening until late past midnight.

It was so quiet and surreal in fact that the hoot of an owl was the only thing that pierced the crisp Muldersdrift mid-autumn evening air where the clinking of champagne glasses, wedding band ballads and laughter were the happy weekend sounds you'd typically hear.

That was when South Africa's celebrity wedding specialist, Zavion Kotze-Brereton stood outside and thought: This is really happening.

The global Covid-19 novel coronavirus pandemic has had a sudden, unexpected, and utterly devastating impact on the entertainment industry. Events companies and organisers, as well as wedding planners and corporate and private events, are incredibly hard-hit as their carefully diarised and executed joy-creation sudden dried up and disappeared.

What a difference only two fateful months made. The twin year of 2020 "was a banger of a year to start with," says South Africa's wedding planner to the stars, Zavion Kotze-Brereton.

The Zavion Kotze Events Company and Inimitable Wedding Venue – owned and run by him and his husband John – remain the toast of South Africa's showbiz town when it comes to wedding events and planning.

The country's two biggest celebrity weddings so far this year – each multi-day celebrations that saw the who's who under the glitterati in their finest descend to toast the happy couples – were both planned and organised by Zavion Kotze Events Company.

The 4-day wedding event in January of Demi-Leigh Nel-Peters and Tim Tebow in Cape Town was quickly followed up by Somizi Mhlongo and Mohale Motaung's over-the-top wedding also in January – two large celebrity weddings in the same month. South Africa's celebrity wedding season rarely gets bigger or better than this.

But it was barely weeks later when Zavion and John realised that ominous clouds were gathering that could severely impact not just their celebrity but all of the planned future wedding celebrations pencilled into the diary.

'We realised: It's here.'

It was already in mid-February when Zavion and John realised that words like "Covid-19" and "coronavirus" – at that point not even declared a global pandemic – was going to affect them and their wedding events business, most likely sooner than later.

"My husband John was definitely at the forefront of information and what's likely going to happen. Before there were even any limiting regulations or announcements, we had already imposed rigorous sanitising regimes, and we made sure that all the restrooms stocked with the proper hand sanitisers and we sprayed the surfaces. We tried everything possible from our side.

"The turning point was on 15 March when South African President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a limitation on gatherings. That's when it cemented our worst fears. We realised: It's here. It's going to affect us.

"My husband and I and our general manager that night right after the president's announcement sat and put together a press release immediately and we released it first thing in the morning. So, all our couples planning their weddings knew. We were good in the sense that we were prepared every single time that there was something that changed or developed around the Covid-19 outbreak."

There were still couples who wanted to go ahead with their weddings though. People struggled to mentally adjust that Covid-19, a new virus from China, wasn't just going to affect other parts of the world or just some of us. It was going to affect all of us.

"After we explained to them the limitation on the number of people and gathering and the risks involved – a lot of people were very uneducated at the beginning of how it all works and what is allowed and not allowed – they started to understand," says Zavion.

"On Monday and the Tuesday, we still heard from people saying 'Oh we're under a 100 people, we can still have a wedding', but we said: 'Guys, remember we've got staff, and you've got to take that into consideration'.

"Then, on Wednesday, the government announced the limitation on alcohol sales. That made people go into a flat spin since most people think, 'What's a great wedding without a little bit of alcohol, especially some Méthode Cap Classique (MCC) to toast?' People went into a flat panic. And we all know that on Thursday night they announced the national lockdown."

'Emotionally, it's hectic.'

"With us, we got affected on multiple fronts. First of all, it was the fact that the first coronavirus cases were in Johannesburg. We are within a 40km radius of Johannesburg CBD as a business and a wedding venue. That was the primary catalyst.

"The next catalyst was the limitation on the number of guests you could have at a gathering. Then it was the limitation on alcohol sales, and then naturally national lockdown which cemented the fact that people simply had to move the date and postpone their wedding."

Zavion says their wedding events company is paying all of the staffers although the doors are shut.

"We have 90 employees. So, we're not a small company. But what we're doing is that we are looking after our staff – they're all being paid 100% their salaries irrespective of them working. Wages are going ahead unchanged for us as a business because we have a responsibility to look after them.

"They are family. They're an extension of us. We had to make sure that they are looked after during this whole process. That's the most important thing for us – staff and looking after them.

"Obviously, as a business, we got affected massively. On a personal level John and I took salary cuts. We're putting into our account the bare minimum we need for our medical aid contribution to go through so that we can make sure that our staff get paid over this tough time.

"Emotionally it's hectic because every single weekend you're filled with joy and happiness and celebrations. And then I won't ever forget it for the rest of my entire life: We live at our wedding venue which is in Muldersdrift which is sort of the wedding hub in Gauteng," says Zavion.

"Then the first Friday night when the national lockdown came into effect no-one was allowed to have any weddings.

"There were still some wedding venues in the area that were hosting small gatherings. And when the national lockdown came into effect, that first Friday night, it was deadly quiet at nighttime in Muldersdrift. That's when it struck me: This is really happening. You can hear an owl hoot."

'The Forever-Never House'

"John and I now mostly spend our days cutting the grass of our 13-hectare property," Zavion says with a wry laugh.

The pair have been sharing the progression of the construction of their beautiful new dream home through one beautiful Instagram image after another over several months now – a digital architectural photo digest now on pause.

The rise of their dream house is suddenly on hold – the on-site construction abruptly delayed due to the new era of corona.

"Most of our days are filled with just maintaining the venues to make sure that it looks beautiful for when couples come back because the celebrations will be back. This will end, and couples will come back. And we will resume with weddings. We will remain strong, and together we will get through this," he says.

"We've been taking our dogs for lots of walks. Our cat comes along for walks as well, which is adorable. I've been training, I've been running a little bit. We're fortunate to have this space, and we're very mindful that not all South Africans have the amount of physical space that we have. We're in a unique position where we live on our' business premises'. We have space.

"The house building has been a labour of love for John and me. It started last year in August. The house that we live in now is the house that leaks the least. It's a thatch-roof house, and every time it rains, we have to pull out about 32 buckets that we have to put in strategic spots to make sure that everything doesn't flood."

"Some people might think I live this glamorous life with my husband, and it couldn't be further from the truth. We're very down-to-earth people. For us, when we built the venue that came first. We made all of the sacrifices towards that.

"Last year in August that changed, and we decided to build a house. I drew it on paper; John made one or two rooms bigger, and we started from there with the foundations and the whole history that you can track on Instagram.

"At the moment we're sort of referring to it as the 'Forever-Never House' because of the current situation that everyone finds themselves in," he says. "But you know, we're still very hopeful. It's going to be completed at some point.

"Our move-in date is now much later in the year. John is joking on the side, saying '2026'. For us, again, what's important is not to spend money on worldly things that will only benefit myself and my husband but to safeguard our money so that we can still pay our staff salaries so that they can look after their families an pay their bills.

"If we don't pay our 90 people, it creates a ripple effect. That's something that companies – as scared as it is and as difficult it is for everyone we feel a social responsibility to make sure that everyone is looked after.

"If you don't pay someone, they can't pay someone."

'27 weddings postponed.'

"The rest of our days are filled with emails and connecting with clients to make sure that they're still happy. You know, emotionally, all the couples are taking a huge knock in their expectations of when they were going to get married. Which of course is no longer happening now," says Zavion.

"We've had 27 weddings postponed over just this time, which is a lot. Most clients have been able to keep it together when they have phone calls because emotionally, they've already done their crying at home before they phone us."

Careful not to talk out about clients or to divulge any private details, Zavion then quietly admits that there was someone who called him and cried.

"John and I have been very good at calming people down, reassuring them that we're always there for them to still make their dream happen and to make sure that they have the very best day. Most of our job has been about getting everyone new and suitable dates that will work for them."

"One of the couples had a wedding that they booked two and a half years ago," he says.

"They were meant to get married this past weekend. They've had to postpone it to next year in April 2021. So, they've been going through an engagement period for about four years."

'This will pass. We will all get through this'.

Being in the business of creating beautiful things – beautiful things that can't happen right now – Zavion has a message for the wedding biz and South Africans.

"My message to South Africa is to stay safe, stay at home, stay healthy and support each other. Always offer love. One of our company motto's is to lead with love," says Zavion.

"I think it's so applicable for everyone in South Africa to have at the moment.

"In all your actions lead with love – whether it's staying at home. I broke quarantine for the first time two days ago, and I went to our local grocer. I was horrified by the fact that I was one of three people wearing masks in that entire store," he says.

"All the tellers were wearing masks, and they were following the proper guidelines, but people were going on as if life is normal. That is so wrong. John and I believe strongly that everyone should be wearing masks where possible and everyone should be wearing gloves where possible. People should take all of the necessary steps to safeguard each other no matter how tedious it might be.

"To my industry: Stay strong. Convince your couples to postpone. Make sure that you safeguard your business so that you can still create beautiful memories in the future. This will pass. We will all get through this.

"Obviously, at the end of the day, everything is going to change. Everything will be different," he says.

"After this virus, we need to find a better way to celebrate life. As creatives, it's our responsibility to paint that beautiful canvass – to create an even better celebration than what people expected in the past."

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