Cape Town - Quietly and confidently Xolani Gwala is building the breakfast show into a whole new experience over at Talk Radio 702. He’s an astute analyst, a listener and the host with the most heart, but what shapes the man behind the voice?
‘Radio is very personal,” says Xolani Gwala when I ask what the bottom line is about his job. “Even more so when people put in earphones and you’re stuck in their ears. So, your first obligation as a host is to understand that there’s a personal connection and that people are allowing you into their private space. Treat it as a privilege – that’s the basis.”
I’ve met the breakfast host before. When he was on 702 in the afternoons and I was producing the drive show at a rival station, I’d rush out of the door to catch the last hour of his show. It was my daily routine and a bit of a cheat. This time around, the meeting is different. We’re at the 702 studios and he’s on the breakfast slot.
“I’m here at 3.15am at the latest ... I usually get to bed at around 8pm because [the rest of my day] involves things like meetings and gym. But I had to train myself… I’m not really a social person and don’t really go out that much anyway, so the shift wasn’t too difficult.”
I have been watching him work, trying to remain invisible, experiencing his focus and his politeness first-hand. He extends the same to his team. There’s Darius Mothibe, the sound engineer whom Gwala introduces as “the boss”, EWN sports editor Cindy Poluta and Mashudu Masutha, who delivers the business report. They move in and out of the studio on a morning when the versatile Gwala’s big stories are the Chris Hani memorial of the day before and the ignorance of politicians on the effect the credit rating downgrades will have on the economy.
“A morning show is intense, there isn’t time to do the banter that we had in the afternoon,” he tells me when we sit down after his show. “By 8am everyone wants to walk into the office understanding what’s really going on in the country.”
Those who have worked closely with Gwala in his over two decades in broadcast journalism say he prepares for his shows much like an athlete for a race. (Fittingly, his relaxation is to run every day and he’s training for a 42km marathon.)
“I need to be comfortable. I need to be happy that I have a sense of what is happening. When you go in there you must know your story because you’re dealing with people who are in the know. You can’t take anything for granted. I don’t believe in taking anything for granted at all.”
When I ask him, towards the end of our morning stint, what advice he gives to young people wanting to fill his shoes one day, he says: “Awareness. You should know what’s going on around you. Read and listen as much as you can, observe as much as you can. You deal with people’s lives, so you want to make sure that the information you pass on is the right kind of information. Be curious, otherwise there’s no point.”
The art of the interview
When the tables are turned, Gwala looks slightly uncomfortable being the interviewee, but manages to answer each question in the manner of a storyteller.
He has interviewed world leaders, but maintains that the greatest stories most often come from the regular people on the street who make for the best interviews.
“Ultimately, a good interview should be an interview where you are able to drain as much information from the interviewee for the listener. It’s not an interview where you as the host sound and seem like you know more than the interviewee.”
Later, he tells of his first encounters with radio. “As a boy, I used to listen to a guy called Cyril Bongani “Kansas” Mchunu at Ukhozi – whom I ended up working with. But what used to bother me about him was that he had to tell us his name every five minutes, and I thought that was arrogant that he kept saying, ‘My name is Cyril Bongani Mchunu!’ I liked him, but I just thought that he was making his name more important than anything else he was telling the country.”
Gwala grew up in a place called Impendle, about 60km outside of Pietermaritzburg. “It’s a rural town, but I went to a Catholic boarding school in Ixopo. What was easy about the boarding school was that they had a way in which they made us all feel the same. It didn’t matter whether you came from a rich family or a poor family … which was something important to experience as a child during apartheid. It built my confidence.”
Many can relate to some of the tear-jerking moments on the show when Gwala handles the pain and concern of callers with the attention, grace and sensitivity they deserve – a reflection of the genuine ubuntu he extends.
“In South Africa, people have not always been treated with dignity, so it’s important to remember that we are people first. It’s not something that I think of, but it’s something I know is important. What do we want? We want to be treated as human beings and not be judged on some preconceived ideas that don’t exist – until, of course, we prove we aren’t worthy of that.”
“These are difficult times for this democracy. There’s anxiety and panic,” says the man with his finger on the pulse of the national psyche. “Sometimes I get a sense that it’s better that we go through this now and then effect whatever changes are necessary than to let things go on for 36 years like in Zimbabwe.
“Every single day you open the phone lines and you can just get the sense that people are hurt by the direction that the country is taking. They are personally hurt and quite correctly so because these are the people who not too long ago were personally involved in changing the direction of the country. People want to make sure that there is stability in the country. You can’t have the current situation go on forever.”
He believes that politicians and people have forgotten where we come from and that they can be reckless with their words. “I hope that somebody somewhere will remember the violent times, because we forget too quickly about the pain that people went through to construct this constitutional democracy. Lots of people died in this country, lots of people sacrificed to make this country what it is. So, we have an obligation not to allow an individual or a group of people to take it off track. We have a responsibility to make sure that those sacrifices were not in vain. And when I say we, I am talking about all of us as South Africans. All of us across all sectors.”
Tune in to the 702 Breakfast Show with Xolani Gwala, weekdays at 06:00 to 09:00 on 92.7FM.