Last week you made headlines across South Africa – and in other parts of the world as well. I found out what happened on the Kilimanjaro climb from an online news report that was forwarded to me, asking if it was true.
I could only imagine that somehow, in some way, someone had got it wrong. I scrambled to discover the truth, but report after report meant it just could not be wrong. Not that many.
Instead of seeing you, as I expected, in just a few weeks for the first round of the Global Touring Car (GTC) championship at Zwartkops Raceway I had to accept that I will never see Hollywood again. I had dubbed you Hollywood some years ago thanks to that 1.21 gigawatt smile you seemed to have as a perpetual companion.
I was the only one though – everyone else knew you as Gugs or The Fastest Brother in Africa. It still made you laugh though, that quiet chuckle before extending your hand in greeting.
You shook hands with, hugged, smiled, laughed with and charmed everyone you met. They all seemed to become instant fans and you crossed every demographic South Africa could come up with.
Reading through the numerous tributes, comments and other statements that have been made during this last week illustrates perfectly just how many people you have touched in your life, how many people have their own stories and experiences with you. It got me thinking about our stories, which feel like they cover a lifetime.
Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are peppered with people sharing while the hashtag #RIPGuguZulu has trended on Twitter, shown up on Instagram and there’s no shortage of tributes to be found on Google.
The number of profile pictures that now sport your likeness have me doing a double-take every time I log on to social media as well.
The cycling community you were a part of held a cycle ride in memory of your life as well.
There’s also a Trust that has been set up in your name, for people who want to show what you meant to them – and so they can show that appreciation to your family.
There can be no doubt that you have touched many lives while living your own – and all of these are just what I have found. I’m sure there are others that I have missed.
I know that today the motorsport community will say their goodbyes during a memorial at Kyalami Grand Prix Circuit in Johannesburg. I’m sure there are more tributes to come.
You were racing those Isondo Sports 2000s when we first met, during the days of the Vodacom Power Tour. Young, eager, energetic – all attributes you hung on to over the years. Well not so much the young, that seems to rub off of all of us over the years …
You never lost that enthusiasm or energy though.
Later on with Supervan and then rallying with Port Elizabeth’s most notorious traffic cop, Keith Coleman, as part of the Citisport team, I got to know you a bit better. We never spent much time together away from motorsport – just odd occasions like the night I went bowling with the junior rally team in KZN.
I can’t claim to have known you any better than anyone else, or have a closer relationship with you – but there is one thing that sticks in memory. You didn’t do halfway well. You were either starting something or you were finishing it, the mid-point seemed a place of frustration.
I remember well the conversation we had in the Western Cape while you were still rallying that Citi Golf, with Carl Peskin at your side. You were chafing for a Polo rally car, a new category and a new challenge. You wanted to go further, you wanted to go faster, you wanted to do more. You didn’t want to hang around.
Keith agreed with me. “Win the championship first, Gugu. Move up with a championship title.” That was my advice at the time and I will never know if it made any difference to your impatience. You did win that A5 championship though – twice.
You also went on to win in the A7 category as well before moving to the S2000 Challenge and later the S2000 championship. These were the days I saw you the most, during those two-day national rallies where you spent your time with fans, taking photos, signing posters, hats, t-shirts – and I often got requests to take a photo of you with some enthusiastic supporter (or group of supporters).
You loved the spotlight, but you also used it well. You promoted and promoted and promoted – not just yourself, but what you were doing. From a motorsport perspective I think getting Fikile Mbalula, the Minister of Sport and Recreation into a rally car and a race car was a pretty damn impressive achievement – not even on a race day, but on a corporate day at Zwartkops Raceway! I’ve seen the odd mayor or provincial political figure show up to start an event or attend a prizegiving, never a national minister and certainly never a private event meant for customer experiences.
You had much more going on than motorsport – but that’s where our paths crossed – the rest of the time you were cycling, running, presenting (Car Torque and Ignition), taking part in tv shows (like Strictly Come Dancing) and even worked on a Hollywood movie (Nicholas Cage’s Lord of War).
It seems like you just never stood still.
If I’m perfectly honest, there was a moment when things seemed to wobble for you. A moment when it looked like middle age would claim you like it does so many of us. It didn’t take long for the dynamo that is your wife, Letshego, to whip you back into shape though. I remember well how you’d often give that chuckle and refer to “trying to keep up” with her on the bicycle. I don’t need to mention the running, where I got the impression she had you properly beat.
While on the subject of your family, your parents have always been a marked presence at events. Your dad who never says much, but smiles is friendly and always, always showed obvious pride in your achievements. Your mom who just loves to chat, is never rushed to get anywhere and simply loves to spend time meeting everyone. They clearly have a great deal of love for their son.
Of all the challenges you’ve faced in the time I’ve known you, there was only one period when I saw you taking strain. You battled during your father’s illness, it caused you a great deal of stress and concern – not that any of your rally fans were let in on that secret. If there was a camera pointed in your direction, a fan wanting a chat or an autograph hunter about you turned on that big smile and all was well.
With your dad’s recovery you bounced back and things returned to normal.
At 38 years of age, you have clearly left us too soon. What we will come to realise though is that at 38 you have lived far more than many people twice your age. You have set an example that any aspiring young person in South Africa can seek to emulate to be successful. As role models go, they could hardly ask for better.
The pity is, that you will not be here to lead the way yourself.