MY BOSS BARRY; THE BEST MENTOR I EVER HAD
Barry Leitch, known to the Zulus as uMkhomazi (Zulu Praises: Umkhomazi ogcwala ngomoya –“the Mkhomazi River that floods with wind”) is a renowned Zulu cultural expert and entrepreneur, who, together with Kingsley Holgate, created Shakaland, the cultural experience near Eshowe. Shakaland was originally created as a filmset for a movie series: Shaka Zulu…the movie documented the life of the Great King Shaka, the most influential leader of the Zulu empire, credited with uniting, through his military genius, many of the Northern Nguni people. Barry was a driving force behind the creation of that movie. His other interests, besides tourism, Zulu culture and heritage, included marketing & advertising, and Nguni cattle farming. He grew up with the Zulu people, learned to stick-fight, to Zulu dance, and about courtship at the river; just like a rural Zulu boy would do. There is nothing a rural Zulu boy did that he didn’t or couldn’t do. He ate, drank, and breathed Zulu culture.
Barry graduated from UCT with a degree in anthropology. I am told that, as a child, he had to repeat Grade One at school because he couldn’t speak proper English. Astonishing as it may sound for a white boy to be more fluent in Zulu than in his mother tongue, I’m afraid this is the truth. Barry is what I would call a living legend, a Zulu language and cultural expert who would at any time during a conversation surprise you with a Zulu proverb you’d never heard before. He did this often and without any effort. His Zulu is impeccable and he is a marvel to listen to. He is also the greatest marketer I’ve ever known ---one insanely creative and funny; and he simply has a way with words. As a marketer, he never took consumers and clients for granted. One piece of marketing advice and consumer insight he shared with me when I worked at Simunye Zulu Lodge around 2007 was that guests were not there for the food, accommodation, Zulu cultural experience, etc. --- all they bought and paid for was the “feeling”.
HOW I MET BARRY
In the months leading up to the democratisation of South Africa, Barry Leitch founded a lodge, building it right on a cliff face: Simunye Zulu Lodge. Simunye is tucked away in the magnificent Mfule River, deep in the heart of Zululand, in the area known as Melmoth. The lodge is coupled with a cultural village offering tourists the opportunity of spending the night with and amongst the Zulus; to partake in a cultural tour of the Zulu village, and to watch some traditional Zulu dancing. It is here that I was introduced to Barry when I was a boy, at the tender age of 11. Little did I know that this was the beginning of a long journey of mentoring.
It is in this very place that I was to meet famous people like Vanessa Williams and many others. Vanessa Williams taught me as a child, together with my fellow dancers, a song; “To Be Young, Gifted And Black” and she would sing this song every evening until she left the lodge. This was when she was at Simunye for the filming of "Woman Of Colour". It is also here that the lotto slogan “Tata ma Chance Tata Ma Millions” originated, where Uthingo (the then lotto Management company) held their conference. I had great fun, from being a Zulu dancer to being a director of the very lodge where I had started as a dancer, earning R6 per show. In between, I had held the position of Front Office and Reservations Manager, General Manager, and Production Assistant for New York Times/Granada factual during the filming of “World Wedding Day”. Had I not met Barry or had the privilege of being mentored by him I would not have had all these opportunities and experiences.
Barry had an inexplicable faith in me. What he taught me has remained with me throughout my life. I remember working for him as a trainee at his below-the-line Communications Company, Ingwe Communications (which he later sold to FCB South Africa). Here I trained as receptionist; however, I was also involved in the exciting stuff. It was here that I learned “telephone etiquette”, to excel in typing, and how to use computers in general – I was a fast learner, although I made many mistakes in the process. I remember there were two gentlemen that used to call looking for Barry. Both of them were named Victor. When they asked to speak to Barry, my response would be something like this: “We have Victor from next door and we have Victor who is a Unilever client: which one are you?" That was my way of screening Barry's calls: it was poor etiquette and rather rude. Barry didn’t shout at me - he found it funny. He allowed me to make those mistakes in the knowledge that I would learn from them. Luckily, the two Victors were not offended. There were many other mistakes that followed, which of course were forgiven.
It was also at Ingwe Communications that I met my “first” girlfriend, Nombuso. By any standards Nombuso was beautiful; there was nothing that gave me more joy than the feeling that she was beautiful and that she was mine. But I remember how Barry sat me down, (unexpectedly) to have that serious conversation, as a father would to his son. He called me in. The conversation went something like this: “I know that you’ve met a girl and that she’s a most beautiful girl; but my advice to you is to be careful not to let this distract you and destroy your life”. I came out of that “discussion” feeling worthless. However, that was tough love; it is a conversation along the same lines that I will have with my sons when the time is right!
Barry, throughout my career, was to play that fatherly role. Most of us referred to him as “ubaba”. Come to think of it, I never discussed father-son issues with my own father. The only serious discussion I remember having with my father was when I was about 24, a year before I was married. I was ready to pay ilobolo (a herd of cattle given to parents-in-law by their son-in-law, as thanks for bearing him a wife, to cement the relationship between the two families. This is also, in paying for cattle, a way of proving that the man will be able to care for their daughter). When I told my father that I was preparing to pay ilobolo to the Biyelas, his first reaction was “Ungabe ulahla izinkomo njengobaba wakho omdala uDlawu” --- loosely translated as: “I do hope you’re not wasting/ throwing away cattle like your uncle Dlawu did throughout his life”. That was the only serious conversation I remember having with my father; however, there were many conversations I had with Barry.
Another story about Barry that comes to mind is that he believed in people more than they believed in themselves. I remember his domestic worker, Manala, one of the most talented beaders I know. Manala couldn’t speak English at all, but one day Barry left his cellphone with her, requiring her to answer it for him. He told her what to say to people looking for him. The wording was quite simply: “Barry is sleeping in”. I happened to be the one calling. All I heard from Manala was “Barry sleeping in!”. As funny as it was at the time, it shows the confidence and the belief Barry had in people, taking them out of their comfort zone and making them see that they could do more!
Barry instilled humility amongst all his people. He is genuine; he is unassumingly engaging. During the construction of Sibaya Casino, a project in which he was very instrumental, I would accompany him to all his meetings, including those where the likes of Peter Bacon (ex CEO Sun International) would be present, as also many other important people. At no time did Barry ever introduce me as his PA. He always introduced me as his colleague. He never saw colour; he treated people the same, regardless of their age, colour of their skin, status, gender, etc. --- come to think of it, I think he is also a feminist.
Barry is one of kindest, greatest mentors I’ve ever known. A force of nature who believes in people. I’m forever grateful for his guidance, and for using his resources in the advancement of my career, as he would have for his own son. Barry paid for my Business Management course, my Computer training, and my Marketing Management training. I have to add, however, that I didn’t copy his dress style:-).
I’m also grateful for his amazing and true stories, some of which formed part of my growing up. Right now, I’m chuckling as I remember “Ngema and the condom story”, in which Barry gave Ngema advice about wearing a condom to prevent STIs and HIV. Ngema wore the condom for 48 hours, only removing it to pee or to bath. On the third day Ngema came to tell Barry: “Mkhomazi, iyangilimaza lento --- this thing you asked me to wear is hurting me”.
This is the man who understood the true meaning of mentorship, having mentored hundreds of other people from all backgrounds. He believed in transferring skills. This was his passion, and he offered his assistance without expecting anything in return. He is a legend and an absolute original who should be emulated by all…but whatever you do, do not copy his fashion style!
If this story about Barry's great service to this country, particularly to rural communities fails to move and inspire you, it is not because Barry failed in changing lives, but because I have failed in the telling of his story.
By Soka Mthembu