Nkwenkwe Nkomo

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This profile of Nkwenkwe Nkomo appeared in the June 1996 edition of Out There magazine.

Leader of the Pack

Nkwenkwe Nkomo is a Chief Scout for the new South Africa. Bridget Hilton-Barber interviewed him.

Not even that old scout motto can quite prepare one for Nkwenkwe Nkomo. He is seated behind the desk at a high-powered advertising agency, wearing blue jeans and a jaunty attitude; a little badge of the South African flag is pinned onto his velvet fez. The phone is ringing, the printer is printing. On his office walls are movie posters and a photocopy of "The Most Famous Jazz Photograph in History". It's hard, at first, to see a scout in all this.

Nkwenkwe is Xhosa for "little boy", he explains, and Nkomo means "cow"; his name means "cowboy", and the story of how he's tamed the prairies of scouting, advertising and politics reveals that Nkomo is riding a horse of unshakable faith.

He says, "As Chief Scout I am chief servant", which is disarming coming from the mouth of the deputy chairman of Lindsay Smithers. Even more disarming, considering he must be one of the very few of Akela's servants to have spent time on Robben Island for "conspiring to overthrow the State by violent means".

Nkomo spent six years on Robben Island and two years in prison while on trial. Arrested in 1974, along with the likes of Terror Lekota, Barney Pityana and Mweni Musa, he was part of the legendary "BCP SASO Nine". Nkomo was National Organiser for the Black People's Convention, cutting his teeth at a very crucial and pioneering stage in black politics - the era of Steve Biko, the banning of organisations and newspapers, state repression.

To Nkomo, the point of black consciousness was to help people reclaim their dignity, self-esteem and worth. "With the kind of people we had", he says, "we could have moved the country."

The years spent on Robben Island "running the offshore business with Nelson Mandela", were incredibly formative. The connections made there still hold firm. "I got out on the 20th December 1982", recalls Nkomo, "supposedly as a Christmas gift to the family." Today, some 14 years down the line, Nkomo is a powerful force. His attitude is one of no regrets - he maintains the moral high ground. Nkomo is enthusiastic about life, he's positive, he's up. And of course, he's Chief Scout.

In describing himself as a young cub, the humanity is plain. Wide-eyed and some seven years old, making his promise to serve the community, Nkomo joined the Daveyton 7th in 1957, and still speaks fondly of his leaders "Skipper" and "Badger". He paints a picture of doing good deeds and odd jobs for the locals which could be straight out of the pages of a Boys' Own magazine.

But it was more than just dib-dib, dab-dab stuff. His troop was the seventh in the Benoni area alone, he says, reminding us that scouting has always been popular in South Africa. He describes what he got out of scouting as "lifeskills"; team work, leadership, empowerment, a strong sense of community. His involvement with the "movement" as he calls it, was to last more than a decade. His graduation from cub to scout coincided with the growing political consciousness of youths all around him. Scouting itself was not untouched by apartheid. There were four separate associations for whites, coloureds, Indians and blacks (whose association was called Pathfinders), although there were people around, says Nkomo, who believed scouting shouldn't conform to political dictates.

"I recall quite distinctly, it was either in 1966 or 1967, that State President CR Swart was coming to a school opening or some ceremony, and we were told we couldn't go there as scouts with white boys from Benoni and black boys from Benoni in the same uniform. The master in charge, Keith Crossley, put his foot down and said we were either going to go there together as scouts, or go together as school children."

The spirit of scouting to Nkomo had "always been a brotherhood". And by 1971 when "bureaucracy in the movement started getting the better of what we were doing as young boys", Nkomo left the pack.

"Before black consciousness," he says, "I was a scout." To both politics and prison he took the fundamental skills he'd learned as a scout. Although he jokes "that advertising is more honest than politics", the same skills no doubt assisted his rapid rise in the company. In 1983, following Nkomo's release, he joined Lindsay Smithers as a trainee. "I had no idea what advertising was about at the time", he says, and worked there in the creative field while continuing political work in Daveyton.

He was chairman for several years of the Daveyton Residents Committee, formed to "get the community together and do something that would benefit them". They had a projects committee which identified needs in the area and raised funds for development.

Call it karma, but one of the requests presented to the committee was by the scouts. When their presentation failed to meet standards, it pushed Nkomo's button. He helped the scouts re-work their presentation, resulting in the committee's decision to build a scout hall in the community.

In 1991, he was approached by Colin Adcock, then chief executive of Toyota (one of Lindsay Smithers' clients) who'd been asked to put together a marketing programme for the South African Scout Association. He met and began working with a lot of the "senior guys" in scouting; made a presentation to a scout conference, and was then asked to "re-join the movement", as Assistant Chief Scout. It was a natural coming together of interests.

"One of the reasons I agreed to return to scouting," says Nkomo, now one of the voluntary chiefs of SASA, "was the challenge to take it back to the community. Scouting is a premium youth movement, there to enable us, especially now, to move towards healing this country, to train leaders and empower people." To Nkomo, scouting is not only an obvious way to provide community services in both rural areas and townships, but it offers the kind of value system that promotes a basic goodness through its promise to serve the community.

"Imagine if most of the young boys in this country were scouts, and were taught life-skills like first aid and swimming. Imagine the potential to cope with natural disasters, like the recent floods."

For Nkwenkwe Nkomo, scouting is an extension of what he believes in, a part of his fabric, whether it's politics, imprisonment or pitching to clients. The Daveyton 7th deserves a great deal of credit.