BOOK EXTRACT | Gqimm Shelele: The Robert Marawa Story

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Robert Marawa’s career has exceeded his wildest imagination.
Robert Marawa’s career has exceeded his wildest imagination.
Steve Haag/Gallo Images

As a young, soccer-mad boy living in rural KwaZulu-Natal, Robert Marawa listened to the commentary of local football derbies on a small, crackling FM radio.

As a teenager, he spent hours practising his presenting skills on his family’s home video recorder, reading from newspaper clippings his mother had carefully kept for him while he was at boarding school in Hilton.

Marawa’s dream was to be a sportscaster who would be beamed into the homes of South Africa’s footballing fans.

The award-winning sportcaster sat down with journalist and author Mandy Weiner to share his story:

Broadcasting beginnings

Each time I came home from school for the holidays I was greeted by a pile of recorded VHS tapes.

While I was at boarding school, my mother recorded all the football games for me. We had a poor-quality little television with an outside aerial, but she did her best. I had taught her how to press record, but sometimes a tape ran out and nothing recorded. It was hit and miss.

Every night, as a family, we got down on our knees and my father led us in collective prayer. Once we were finished praying, everyone went to sleep. But I stayed up and watched the games that my mother had recorded for me.

I would literally watch the entire 90 minutes of a game and I was fascinated. If it was Chiefs and Pirates, I watched from beginning to end, and in my mind acted as if it was a brand-new game that was happening live. I got emotionally involved. I got to know the players, and I learnt to understand the dynamics and appreciate the rules of the game. It was my football learnership.

My sister Gugu was also up one night, reading novels, and she saw that I was still awake. She came and sat with me and  we chatted about what I was watching. I explained who was playing and she watched for a bit.

She became a regular feature and started sitting through more and more of the football games and asking more and more questions. She got hooked on the sport and her knowledge of the game grew. My viewing became her viewing too. I couldn’t start a game without her being there.

 On Saturdays, we closed the shop at 1pm, which gave my dad time to watch the game at 3pm. All three of us had a keen interest in what was happening and we watched together. Gugu genuinely became hooked and she developed a passion for sport. She started doing soccer and cricket updates for Radio Zulu, which is now Ukhozi FM.

When I was in high school, my father brought a home a camcorder with a VHS tape that you could pop in and out. I became obsessed with it. If there was a cousin getting married in Klerksdorp or it was my sister’s twenty-first birthday, then I was the cameraman.

I recorded the videos and everyone was excited. We all sat and watched and it was a big deal.

This broadcasting thing was hovering around on the periphery of my life.

If I was done helping at the shop and I had free time, I laid out the tripod, mounted the camera, turned it in my direction and took one of the newspaper clippings that my mom had saved for me and I pretended to be a newsreader. The newspaper clipping was my autocue.

I practised reading and then I picked up the last sentence and delivered it to the camera. I was working to get the fluidity right. I would rewind and then watch it back and look at how I could improve. I would try again and correct the mistakes and improve my delivery. I had no one helping me so I had to frame and crop myself.

This was my own personal mission. My sisters weren’t involved. I remember once my father walking in when I was in the middle of delivering my bulletin; he just looked at me with a funny expression on his face and walked out.

I wanted to be a sportscaster and I was willing to put in the hours practising, doing whatever it took to make me good enough.

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I recorded the audio track onto a TDK cassette on a radio. Then I recorded myself on camera.

I got past hating the sound of my voice played back to me and I kept going. Reading and recording and reading and recording.

I used the newspaper for content to deliver and then I moved on to the back pages and delivered sports bulletins.

I would play it back and see how close I was to the final product.

My aim was to be as close as possible to what Martin Locke was doing on TopSport or what I saw Ahmad Rashad do on Inside Stuff, the NBA basketball show. They both really inspired me and I wanted to be as good as them. I never wanted to imitate Martin but I used his poise, delivery, facial expressions as guidelines.

My mom remembers how I used to obsess over the camera  and how she recorded the games and kept clips for me:

He loved the camera. His dad had a big camera that he used to take overseas. He used to go to New York, and he loved jazz and he used to take pictures there.

So, Robert would take the camera during Christmas when we were all at home and he would be interviewing everyone. It would be a fun Christmas Day because we’re on our own really at Fort Louis. We didn’t have neighbours or anybody.

We saw other families and other human beings in the shop. I used to record the games and keep them so that when he comes on holiday he’ll see all of them as they used to be. It was my way of showing love for him.

He was the only boy and I cared for him because I had already cared for the two girls and they were older. So, he is my little only son going to a rough boarding school at that young age. I was feeling for him.

I had so much respect for radio that I just never thought myself capable of being on air. It wasn’t an option. But television was something that I aspired to and I was willing to practise as hard as necessary.

All that practice ultimately paid off in my future. I was unknowingly following the principle described by Malcolm Gladwell of 10 000 hours of practising something to become proficient in it.

 All the elements built up over the years. Listening to those games on my little radio, Mom keeping the newspapers for me, doing the recordings on VHS of the games, practising with the camcorder, understanding the players and building my knowledge of the game.

Sport is what happens – you can’t script that. All of the knowledge I brought to my career were things I had learnt between the radio, the newspapers and the VHS tapes.

It all eventually fell into place. It was the realisation of a dream.

When I was in high school, Gugu took me to watch my first football game in Johannesburg. We caught the Greyhound bus from Dundee to watch the Bob Save Super Bowl final between Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates at Ellis Park. I must have been around eighteen at the time.

We had bought the tickets already but we didn’t expect the magnitude of the game. There was the intrigue and allure of going to watch a live game in person as opposed to being a farm boy and always seeing and hearing it from a distance.

Gugu and I arrived at Ellis Park stadium and there were thousands of people outside desperately wanting to get inside. We could hear the noise of the fans; the stadium was packed. People were dressed in the outfits and overalls of their clubs’ colours. They were playing those big longhorns – vuvuzelas were not a thing at the time. There was a lot of singing, groups singing together, faces being painted. There were all sorts of creative designs.

Then there was the food. Stalls had been set up outside the  stadium and the smells were very pleasant.

 One stall was selling skopo, sheep’s head, trotters, chicken feet. It was all dripping in cooking oil that had been used a gazillion times. People didn’t care. They just wanted to eat and it smelt so good. There was another selling amagwinya and another selling atchar.

The main thing that people really loved was meat. There were big brisket steaks grilling and they were flying out of the stalls. People were eating and drinking. The smell of ganja was thick in the air. You would see a chap rolling a joint in front of you, smoking, passing it on and everyone was jolly and happy.

Sure, there was rivalry, but there was something about the stadium atmosphere that was electrifying. There was anticipation, there was banter back and forth; people insulted one another, but there was no animosity, no fighting.

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I could hear the speakers from inside the stadium and I distinctly remember, because I had listened to so much radio, it was the voice of Treasure Tshabalala. Treasure was the MC for the day and he was announcing that the venue was full and couldn’t accommodate any more people so those outside the stadium had to head home. He said the game would go ahead but no one else could get in, whether they had tickets or not. It was chaotic because we were trying to leave as instructed, but more people were arriving who were pushing to try and get in.

After travelling all that way, and even having tickets, we ended up listening to the match from outside the stadium. It was heartbreaking. That was my first experience of being at a stadium, but they shut the doors and we couldn’t watch the  game. I was so close to the action and wasn’t able to get in.

We could hear the reactions from the crowd. It was a weird experience. Thankfully, the game was a draw so they had to replay and everyone who had tickets could come back again. It was a bittersweet first experience for me. 

  • This is an extract from Gqimm Shelele: The Robert Marawa Story (published by Pan Macmillan South Africa). The recommended retail price is R272 and the book is available at all good bookstores nationwide and on takealot.com.
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