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Authors: Lucas Radebe, Sean O’Toole, Justin Fox, Neil McCarthy et al
My Dad – by South African Sons examines the relationship between South African men and their fathers over twelve insightful and entertaining chapters. Written by authors from a range of different cultural and religious backgrounds within South Africa, these are sometimes joyful, sometimes tragic, investigations into the relationship that plays such an important role in defining every man.
Saturday Star (Kevin Ritchie)
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
Quietness is a word that could be used to describe most father-son relationships. Quietness in the literal sense, that is. It may be tempestuous, volatile even, but the father-son relationship is seldom a particularly talkative one. And so it is that the things not said are often more telling than the things said.
Not so with mothers and daughters. The constant hand squeezes, the smiling whispers, the streams of mutual self-assurance - they are not so familiar to father-son. Sure, there are a few who know the hug-me-son-we-have-the-perfect-bloody-relationship. But most smile, nod, then wake up decades later and wonder if they’ll ever have a conversation about something other than sport. Or bad service.
We know we’re supposed to say certain things - as we’re told by the women, weepy films and others who know best for us - but the truth is we’re happy to bumble along, happy enough in our close-yet-not-so-close relationship. After all, you can’t be a chip off the old man’s block if you take things too seriously.
Usually it’s a straightforward-enough relationship, with a definable course. You’re born, and your dad thinks you’re the greatest thing to ever breathe air. Once you know what’s going on, the feeling is re-turned: dad is Superman. He lifts you up, he spins you, he’s strong. He reaches where you can’t reach. He’s everything those adverts say. „My dad will beat up your dad,“ you tell your playground antagonists. Then you realise he’s fallible. Your friend’s dad spins your friend around, too; he reaches up high, too. Hell, he might even do it better. Your dad’s not the only one with super powers.
Suddenly you’ve grown a bit stronger, and, like a buck with hardening horns, you need to challenge someone close. For dads to see their sons emerging to question them, then eventually stand up to them, it is a mix of pleasure (That’s my boy!) and confusion (Who do you think you are?). The young buck is breaking away - but must he do it like that? Early on in this stage your dad would win a fight; later on, as you got stronger, it might turn. Hopefully it’s not an actual fight - but perhaps it is. Either way, both of you emerge, sullen, licking your wounds, happy in a relationship vacuum for a few years more.
The women swap clothes and giggle over salads and sushi, while for you and your dad it’s going-through-the-motions time. And then one day you look up from a beer at the pub or around the braai and realise - remarkably - that it’s suddenly two men talking to each other. Nothing to prove, nothing to put down; there might even be a tentative hug or backslap as the Boks score a winning try. Easy now.
And that’s when the strong, invincible figure of your younger days returns. He always does. Of course he’s weaker and he’s fallible, but in your eyes he’s the big man again. Even as the relationship turns full circle - and he’s leaning on you, not the other way around - the dad is the dad and the son is the son.
This book is a collection of stories by men who have faced up to their fathers and done more than just nod and smile. It’s a collection of stories about things said and not left unsaid - even if it’s sometimes after the fact. The fathers you will find in these pages are normal men, like your old man, like mine. Honest, loving men; stubborn, difficult men - men with good qualities and bad. Equally, the sons you will meet are, in this context, men like you and me - and their memories will help define their fathers’ legacies.
Neil McCarthy starts things off with a dive into the ice-cold Atlantic and his father’s often unspoken past, and discovers that their personalities have become more and more similar as time has passed. It is an unexpected revelation, yet it is a theme that recurs throughout the book.
Then come the recollections of two once-aspiring soccer players: one, Lucas Radebe, achieved greatness in the sport, and the other, Kevin Fine, eventually made his name in radio, while his soccer career took a back seat. For both, though, the beautiful game played defining roles in their upbringing and the relationships with their dads.
Like many of the fathers in this book, Grant Warren’s believed in the disciplinary effect of a healthy beating from time to time. That was the way back then, and in Grant’s case, he assures us, it was usually warranted... His account of family life on a ‘70s smallholding near Fourways is fascinating, funny and - for a change - true.
It seems logical in a book about fathers to complete the parenting circle, and Grant Schreiber, who recently became a father himself, reveals his new-found insights on the effect this has had on his own father-son relationship. As Grant explains it, and as all fathers know, the revelation of parenthood „lies waiting for you; it is a moment that you cannot comprehend until the time comes“.
Sean O’Toole’s relationship with his dad is one that many of us can relate to; in introducing their favourite topic of conversation, Sean considers the manner in which his father and he „talk about things that are only vaguely related to the things we really want to say“. Know the feeling?
Ajith Bridgraj’s father died in 1983. As with several stories here, theirs was a relationship that was heavily underscored by the times in which they lived. No surprises, considering South Africa’s history. Two decades on, Ajith’s dad still plays a vital role in his son’s outlook on life and in his own relationship with his kids. Similarly, Arnold Geerdts believes his father has also taught him important parenting lessons. While, it has often been a method of learning from past mistakes, Arnold’s affection and appreciation is always obvious.
The subject of paternal discipline, particularly corporal punishment, is touched upon at regular intervals in this book, with varying view-points: most writers simply accepted it as a part of the times, while some even looked back on the occasional smack with an element of fondness. Abdul Milazi’s childhood recollections are indignant. Raw, honest and revealing, his is a story of redemption gained for the memory of a bitter, often violent man, to whom he has always felt he owed a filial debt. In some ways, his seemingly unjustified loyalty to his father most tellingly defines the enigma of the father-son bond.
Of the varying cultural backgrounds on display in this book, Ierephaan Abrahams’s is quite possibly the most intriguing. As a young Muslim growing up in the vibrant Bo-Kaap, he suffered the indignity of losing his family home due to the divisive politics of the time. At the same time, his father worked for the notorious Here Sewentien club, a bastion of apartheid-era cronyism, and reconciling that role with his father’s heroic central figure persona was understandably difficult. And yet the memories of his „Derre“ are among the fondest and most heartfelt you could encounter.
The multi-talented Justin Fox ends it all with an eloquent, elegiac sampling of his late father Revel’s life. Revel was a man who left his mark on the South African landscape and in its past, and Justin’s words are fitting testimony to his father’s influence in his life.
In the pages to come, you will find relationships to identify with and relationships you don’t recognise. Perhaps you will sympathise, perhaps you will empathise. You might even learn a little something of yourself - and something of your father.
Kenneth Frederick Geerdts, born 18 December 1938.
Nothing glamorous, and certainly not something that will make the world stop and take notice of Geerdts’s theorem. But when it comes to raising children, having relationships and learning to ditch the bad habits you pick up as you go along the path of life, then my theory is quite important – to me, anyway.
So here goes. I pull into this parking lot. The guy who’s parked in the space next to the one I aim to occupy has stopped with both wheels over the white line, intruding into „my” space. So I’m forced to park the same way. The next driver has to do the same… and a chain reaction follows. Get the picture?
So this is my theory: if we raise children with a certain idea about something, and that idea isn’t right, they then go into the world perpetuating this wrong idea to their children and others whose lives they touch – the „parking over the white line” theorem crystallised.
For instance, my mom and dad would have a disagreement and then not talk to each other for at least three days at a time. My dad would set the „Ignoring War” in motion. For years, I thought that was the way to handle conflict. My old man had parked over the white line. And I started parking over the white line too. At work. At play. And certainly in my marriages.
Oh, you noticed the „s” at the end of that big word? Yep, two of them. And no, I’m not blaming my dad for them. I was half of the relationships; I’m 50 per cent responsible for the failures. It’s taken me a long time to understand how these white-line incidents have repercussions.
Here’s another one: „You’re too soft.” So when you’re young and full of testosterone, your thought process is: take a stand, come hell or high water.
I know my dad did the best he could. Forty-odd years ago, there weren’t myriad books on child-rearing; there was no Dr Phil on television to tell us how to find forgiveness – or, horror of horrors, give it. There were no marriage courses to help you not only understand your spouse better, but also improve relationships with others who cross your path. Besides, my father would have rather poked out his eye than gone to marriage counselling. They taught us about the Great Wars, how synthesis occurs, the intricacies of maths. But they didn’t teach us how to have successful relationships, did they?
I have the most unbelievable memories of my old man: a strong man who was and still is proud; a man who thought saying „I love you” showed weakness; a man who was – and is – known for his truthfulness (to a fault, actually), even in an industry as tainted as the second-hand-car business. Dad taught me to be proud of our name. In fact, I know that when all is stripped away, that’s all you have: your good name.
One day, when I was about 30, out of the blue, it hit me: my old man wouldn’t be with us forever. So I decided I would hug and kiss him when I said hello and goodbye. It took a few years before he got used to the idea. These days, he reaches out first. For once, I parked within the lines… and he followed!
When I do hug him, he still smells like cigarettes, Old Spice and something else. I’ve never quite been able to identify. I think of it as a hero smell, the olfactory surround-sound of someone who’s large, not in a physical sense, but in your head. Know what I mean? Sons and thus admirers everywhere! I remember the thin toy men he’d fold for me with his white pipe cleaners. Or the ball bearing he’d wrap in the tinfoil of his cigarette box as a toy for my sister and me. The little ball would roll around in its cocoon like it had a life of its own, fascinating me for hours.
My father taught me much of what I am. And I know that he’s proud of me – not because I’m a television presenter, or possibly better known than the next man, or because I get recognised in the supermarket. I think he likes the way I’ve turned out. At least, I hope so.
See, my theory also holds the other way; or, in proper Engels, the converse is true: the good things we were taught make us think that perhaps we shouldn’t park over the white line in the first place. The rights and wrongs of life. What would be honest and what would not?
In a recent marriage course that my life-saver and best friend, my wife Lily, and I did, I learned that „it’s better to let go of the right to be right, and own the right to be happy.”
You see, I think men are besotted with being right – why else don’t we ask for directions when we’re lost? And if you’ve been parked over the white line a few times in your very impressionable early years, then you’re not going to ask for directions if you’ve been led to believe that that would be showing signs of weakness.
My dad and mom have been married for more than 44 years. They’re still together and will die married to each other. And that’s another factor in my theory: despite my old man being as stubborn as a bull elephant with a big thorn stuck in its foot, my mom has hung in there. She’s loved him and supported him through the loss of a lucrative business, difficult financial years and many of life’s other storms.
I’ve learned another one of the white-line truths from that: to accept other people for who they are; to make allowances for their weaknesses, just as they should for yours.
My dad was always hard-headed and impatient with what he saw as weakness. Performance was all-important and today, in my job, I still try and live up to that standard. My bar has been set, and my white-line training here has been good.
Dad always prided himself on being a pro at his business. He provided me with a very distinct set of rules for being at work and being ready for whatever happens. That white-line parking has kept me at the forefront of the television sports industry for more than 21 years.
Ken Geerdts had to leave home when he was little more than 13 years old, with all his earthly possessions in an orange bag. He didn’t meet his biological mother until he was 21. He had to fight, scrape, sell and charm his way into a lifetime of selling cars – and at the age of 67, he’s still doing it. Just a few months ago, he broke all records at the Audi dealership he now represents, kicking younger men’s butts – in fact, guys who were three times younger than him. He outsold them, hands-down. I’m proud of him, too.
I’m also very proud of the fact that I’ve got his name. I’ve met people on planes who’ve asked, „Are you related to Kenny Geerdts from Springs who sells cars? I’ve been dealing with him for 22 years, wouldn’t buy a car from anyone else.” He has some clients who’ve been driving around in vehicles bought from him for more than 35 years.
That leaves me feeling that the things the old boy stands for allow people to trust him. He’s established respect, like the family doctor. People want to buy from him knowing they’re not going to buy some car that will leave them in the lurch. He’s always sold on the premise that he wouldn’t sell it if he wouldn’t drive it himself.
My earliest memories are of something I dearly love: test and provincial rugby, which I learned from my dad. Him lying on the bed, me on the carpet, listening to the radio, broadcasting Gerhard Viviers’s rich, melodic voice singing the praises of Dawie de Villiers, Frik du Preez and Piet Visagie. Today I know some of these men. I’ve interviewed them, played golf with them, and realised that they’ve also experienced some strange parking.
It was my dad who took me to the Springs Country Club every weekend and holiday morning to play golf, who made me save and work until I could buy my own set of clubs. I loved them so much, those woods slept in bed with me for the first four weeks that I had them. I loved them, cleaned them and admired the beautiful persimmon-wood gleam on them, because I’d worked for them.
Dad didn’t just give them to me, even though he could have. He thought about what was best for me; he knew I’d appreciate them more if I sweated for and earned them myself. Another white line, this time parked smack-bang in the middle. Got the idea, Dad, thanks! (And, by the way, I still love my golf clubs dearly, even though I get them free from a sponsor these days. Clean them myself, too, every opportunity I get.)
I cajoled, begged and pleaded until my dad took me to see Gary Player for the first time. Seeing Player stride down the fairway at Houghton in his all-black clothing is a memory that will never dim. In his strange, detached sort of way, my dad probably fostered this deep love and passion I have for sport – and thus my job.
Dad taught me to drive. Chapter One, Verse One of the first gospel of driving according to Ken Geerdts goes: „Remember: Every Other Driver On The Road Is An Idiot!” That’s saved my life a few times.
So how does this affect my rearing of my own two boys? How has my parking been with them? Well, it’s not been ideal, because I’m a divorced dad. But I’ve learnt that not giving reasons, but just telling a kid, „This is the way it is”– like my old man did, and his dad before him did – isn’t the constructive
Hitting first and then asking questions: also not. Listening more and talking less is (sometimes) a whole lot better with kids – and sometimes a whole lot of talking is also necessary. The art, I think, is to know when to apply what. Am I keeping within the lines here?
My aim with my two guys, Corbin, aged 16, and Kinah, 5, has always been to be their dad first, and then their best friend. To be both at the same time would mean not being their father first. I know that as they each reach an age of better understanding, we’ll be mates, but in the meantime, until they do, I know I should be a father figure, a trusted advisor and – hopefully – an amateur sports coach.
I’m also painfully aware of how the relationship between my father and me has affected my ideas about God, how it has skewed the way I see the Almighty. And I guess it’s like that with all of us who try to live a godly life, if you think about it. Our earthly fathers set in our minds the way we see fathers, our perceptions of fatherhood. But with all the respect and love I can muster towards fathers everywhere (including me), our earthly fathers are human, fallible, prone to making mistakes. That’s the wallpaper we see fathers against. So it’s easy, acceptable and quite normal for us to think that God will be the same. He will make mistakes. The Almighty, after all, is surely just like our dads? He is our Father, after all. That’s all we have to compare him with.
But that’s where our perception is all wrong. God is love, good, and the perfect father. He wants what is best for his children. He knows best and always perates in that fashion. God intends for us to live close to him, to love him with all our hearts. He’s always there. He’s all-knowing, Great.
Your father and mine obviously could never live up to all of that. My perception of God changed immensely when I understood this. You can never see fatherhood here on earth as the fatherhood we receive from above.
Last year, a good friend of my dad lost his wife. She went peacefully in her sleep. I went to the funeral with my folks. As always, Dad was as strong as the Rock of Gibraltar. Not a peep out of him during the service. Typical. But afterwards, when he had to shake his friend’s hand and hug him, my old man broke down. The man who never shows much emotion shook while he cried like a baby. I comforted and consoled him, felt how small he seemed in my arms.
In the car on the way home, I asked him about it. „No, my boy, now they’re cutting down the trees in my part of the forest,” he said, with his typical candour and strange turn of phrase – his way of seeing things. That’s my old man. He’s always said and done things his way.
Hopefully, what I’ve learnt on my walk with my dad has meant that I can be a better dad than he was. Not that I think he was bad father. It’s just that he parked over the white line a lot. I trust that I can park my boys smack-bang in the middle.
Arnold Geerdts was born and bred in Springs on the East Rand. Having started out at the Brakpan Herald, he began reporting sports news on SATV in 1985. Twenty-one years later, the award-winning television presenter is a widely recognised face on SuperSport. He is also a commentator, speaker, producer, writer, voice-over artist and master of ceremonies. He’s married to Lily and has two sons, Corbin and Kinah.