How do we know when someone has had an influence on us? Do we have to have met someone to have been not only influenced but profoundly influenced by them? In addition to grief and sadness — shock and confusion — these questions tumbled around my mind upon hearing the tragic news of Eusebius McKaiser’s death last week.
After more than a decade of initiating conversations and consistently providing intellectual food for thought, South Africa has lost a tremendous voice, perspective and human being.
McKaiser’s impact within South Africa has been and will continue to be well documented by the people who knew him best. But, the impact of McKaiser — with his passion, eloquence and intellectual bravery — extended well beyond the borders of South Africa.
This dimension of his impact and legacy might not be fully understood by South Africans and is worth adding to the chorus of voices writing about his legacy.
I first became aware of McKaiser’s work in 2012, when he hosted 702’s Talk at Nine programme out of Johannesburg. I was living in Lawrence, Kansas, and a recent graduate from the University of Kansas, working at a laundromat wondering what I would do with my life.
The previous year, I had the privilege of spending a semester studying at Stellenbosch University. My experiences during that semester marked me forever, and when I returned to the United States, I sought far and wide for any kind of connection to South Africa.
I checked out books by Eben Venter, André Brink, Marlene van Niekerk, Niq Mhlongo, Zakes Mda, and others — whatever I could find from the university’s libraries. I listened to Paul Simon’s Graceland so often I thought my roommate at the time would throw my laptop out of the window like a frisbee.
I had joined Twitter in 2012 and typed “South Africa” into the search bar towards the end of July. I didn’t know what would appear in the results. One of the first things to pop up was some tweet from 702 about McKaiser’s upcoming show Talk At Nine. Already a fan of talk radio I opened my laptop and began streaming the show.
It was 2pm in Kansas, and 9pm in Johannesburg, and thanks to the instantaneously flattening magic of the internet, I might as well have been riding down Ontdekkers Road or gallivanting in Melville.
Of course, in instances like this, one doesn’t know when one has stumbled upon someone that will have an influence on them. Part of the nature of what makes influence so remarkable is that we tend to only realise we were influenced after it has already happened.
I don’t remember what McKaiser discussed during the show when I tuned in for the first time. But I do remember that my shift at the laundromat that day was the quickest and most enjoyable I had had up to that point. When the show ended around 5pm in Kansas, I immediately knew I had found my salvation, the outlet with which I would sustain my budding interest in South Africa. When I got home that day I told my roommates and they said something like “finally”.
A few weeks later I readied my laptop just before 2pm and activated the 702 stream, like I had done each weekday prior. It was 16 August.
Twitter wasn’t the addiction then that it is for me now, so I wasn’t aware of the Marikana Massacre. I hadn’t seen that video we’re all sadly familiar with now.
Read more in Daily: Marikana: 10 years later
Obviously, McKaiser began his show with his reflections on the massacre. There were dozens of calls — one after the other — with people expressing their shock, anger, disappointment and all the types of emotions one has when something incredibly devastating has taken place.
In subsequent shows in the following days and weeks McKaiser played court to a frustrated and confused — or, maybe, betrayed — audience looking for an outlet to express their sentiments. I listened to it all, located physically in Kansas, but mentally these shows each afternoon transported my mind to the other side of the world where I so badly wanted to be.
During that period McKaiser facilitated a discussion one evening around the definition(s) of the word “concomitant”, which Cyril Ramaphosa used in an email to describe what sort of action should be taken against protestors. His segment delved into what concomitant could possibly mean in a variety of contexts and why the ambiguity of the word added fuel to the public’s rage over the dozens of senseless killings that took place in Marikana.
This discussion was unlike anything I had ever heard on the radio before. Throughout the broadcast, McKaiser fielded a host of callers who attempted to zero in on the meaning of it.
As the incisive host he is known to be, McKaiser probed people about assumptions they may have been making about the meaning of the word. Some callers exclaimed they knew exactly what Ramaphosa meant; others asked for a definition of the word because it was the first time they had heard it — just like me.
Over the next few months, I tuned in to Talk At Nine each and every day. All of this listening made me realise I needed to apply for a postgraduate degree at Stellenbosch University, so I could return to South Africa and immerse myself in a country that imprinted itself on my psyche.
I did just that in January 2013. By then, McKaiser had moved to the newly established PowerFM, and I tuned in in real-time, from Stellenbosch. Like many others, I followed him from PowerFM back to 702, read his opinion pieces and subscribed to his podcast. I looked forward to all of them.
For all that McKaiser influenced me over the last decade, I came to understand and appreciate what his influence on South Africa’s public discourse was more broadly. The man occupied a colossal space in South African discourse because of how we navigated South Africa’s social conservatism.
McKaiser’s open-line segment stood out to me and became something I looked forward to — whether I was in Kansas or in Cape Town. The open-line segment fascinated me because of the range of the callers as well as McKaiser’s quick-witted ability to facilitate so many topics of discussion without warning. Little did I know that this type of engagement between a host and their listeners was not unusual in the public space of South African talk radio, and something I have come to enjoy immensely.
His show was more than just random callers too. Over the years as a host, McKaiser devoted significant attention on his shows to gender-based violence, sexual assault and rape, in addition to race, racism, inequality and a bevy of other significant themes in South African life.
He also consistently hosted prominent people within the public and private spheres who had experiences with and insights into these topics. Sometimes he hosted people who failed to promote safety and equality in order to try and hold them accountable. Through the flexibility offered by the form of radio, McKaiser shone a bright light on the reality — the pervasiveness — of these issues.
I never had the privilege of meeting McKaiser in person. If I did I probably would’ve gushed like I was meeting my favourite musician or celebrity. Nevertheless, I will miss his voice and perspective, his writing and opinions. He wasn’t short of them and while I didn’t agree with everything he said, I appreciated his willingness to say things others usually did not.
His perspective influenced me to be analytically and intellectually curious. His voice encouraged me to want to understand something instead of simply knowing about something. Without finding Talk At Nine in 2012 I’m not sure I would’ve had my interest in South Africa sustained in the way that it was.
Public discourse in South Africa will be poorer without McKaiser’s contributions. We should not forget the multifaceted roles he played as a radio host, writer, facilitator and author by encouraging people to think and talk about difficult topics and consider the diversity of opinions South Africans have. DM