Eusebius McKaiser — Brilliant, cocky, unapologetically himself
Broadcaster Eusebius McKaiser has died, far too young, at 45. Rebecca Davis pays tribute to her friend.
Eusebius McKaiser was a freak. For a start, there was that preposterous name — Eusebius! What a name with which to saddle a baby boy. And yet now it is somehow impossible to imagine Eusebius being called anything more prosaic. That name has the same heft as the man who carried it. It exudes a certain pomposity, too, from which the man himself was certainly not immune.
Eusebius McKaiser was a freak. He came from a bleak, impoverished background to take his seat at the finest university in the world. To win acclaim on the international debating circuit. To write columns for the New York Times. He entered these elite spaces as if he was born to do so — even though the gulf between his childhood and his propulsive adult trajectory was so vast, it was almost inexplicable.
Yet he never displayed a shred of self-pity about where he came from. One of the ironies of his life is that the type of person who was most apt to find Eusebius enraging should theoretically have been most keen to champion him — because his was a story of extraordinary personal resilience devoid of victimhood. He could have been the poster boy for the dream of a meritocratic society, except that he had no time for such fantasies and those peddling them, and the feeling was usually mutual.
At Oxford, where Eusebius and I became friends, he faltered — as did many of us, as homesick South Africans forced for the first time to really fight for our intellectual places. The environment felt cold and alien; we clung together and drank too much. Both Eusebius and I were perpetually broke. When we got our paws on some money, we would buy a papsak and spend hours on YouTube karaoke, crooning along to drippy songs. Eusebius’s taste in music was always irredeemably cheesy. In general, in fact, he was corny as hell: I could never muster quite the same level of hilarity as he in response to the memes he loved to spam his friends with on WhatsApp.
Absent from most of his obituaries is the fact that Eusebius, making precious little progress on his Oxford DPhil, chucked it in for a stint at McKinsey back home. The money, obviously, was the lure. But what he really craved was a public profile, which the lucrative world of management consultancy could not provide; he said once that he would rather be poorer, but have the checkout ladies at Checkers know his name.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Broadcaster, analyst and journalist Eusebius McKaiser dies, sending shockwaves around the country
And they would indeed, in time, together with most of the rest of the country. Eusebius loved being famous; loved being recognised by the drivers of the endless Ubers he took. He never learned to drive, with his relatively late diagnosis of epilepsy providing a convenient excuse. For someone who projected himself to the world as unremittingly confident, he had pockets of deep insecurity. When you realised that, it made him far more lovable.
Being Eusebius’ friend was simultaneously a flex, as the youth would say, and a liability. It was a flex because seemingly everyone knew who he was, many people adored him, and many people were intrigued by him. It was a liability because he managed to offend so many people, often over relatively trivial matters. In the workplace, in particular, he could be a petty tyrant. It made my life slightly harder that some of the other people I respected most in the world had beef with Eusebius.
He always inspired strong reactions, because he was so unapologetically himself: unapologetically clever, argumentative, cocky. It is impossible to quantify exactly what he did for the cause of social acceptance of homosexuality in South Africa, for instance, but I suspect it was significant. He simply refused to allow his sexuality to be anything other than a given, and he constantly pushed his relatively conservative, middle-class broadcast audience out of their comfort zones.
Before Eusebius, it was impossible to imagine a mainstream radio host holding discussions of philosophical issues — as in, issues central to the academic study of philosophy — during primetime. He did it routinely, and he raised the bar for everyone, in a notoriously anti-intellectual country. Despite the fact that his biggest fame came as a political analyst, philosophy remained his first love.
Like all of us in media, he was sometimes guilty of pursuing low-hanging fruit: the politics of outrage makes for viral content, and Eusebius was pursuing virality as much as anyone. Although he had warm personal relationships with several individuals within the DA, he particularly enjoyed baiting the leaders of that party — but also dined out on the story of how Helen Zille’s husband had sheepishly arrived at one of his book launches to have his copy autographed.
Over time, like most of us, he mellowed in certain ways — a softening I attribute at least partly to the influence of his almost inexpressibly kind partner, Nduduzo Nyanda. Over the past few years, I knew of a few occasions on which Eusebius held back on publically expressing his true feelings on a matter because he did not want to hurt someone he cared about: a concession which would have been almost unthinkable for him about a decade ago.
To his friends, he showed a side of him which was far, far warmer, more generous, more loving and more loyal than one might expect from his public persona. It was an incredibly endearing quality of his that although his rocketing profile brought him into contact with influencers and celebrities of all kinds, most of his closest friendships were with long-time pals who were not public figures.
This is a strange thing to express, and it will seem overwrought, but South Africa without Eusebius McKaiser in it seems somehow a little less…safe.
A mutual friend messaged me yesterday: “It’s weird — he is one of those humans whose death makes it hard to imagine the future. Who is going to be around to call bullshit and shout at charlatans?”
There will be others, of course. But nobody quite like him. DM