Jojo dances through post-apartheid freedom

From growing up in a mining township in SA to becoming a sensation on Strictly Come Dancing, Johannes Radebe sashays the reader into his inspirational memoir

28 January 2024 - 00:00
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Known fondly as Jojo, Johannes Radebe has made a name for himself as a star professional dancer on ‘Strictly Come Dancing’.
Known fondly as Jojo, Johannes Radebe has made a name for himself as a star professional dancer on ‘Strictly Come Dancing’.
Image: Elliott Wilcox

Jojo: Finally Home ★★★★
Johannes Radebe
Hodder & Stoughton

There is a certain ennui that comes with the “born free” label branded onto anyone who was in their youth after our first democratic elections. In what can be optimistically described as post-apartheid freedom, comes the unrelenting pressure of being questioned on what you will do with it.

This is what spurred local dance icon Johannes “Jojo” Radebe. Jojo: Finally Home explores the key moments in the dancer’s life, from his upbringing in the township of Zamdela in Sasolburg to becoming a star as one of the cast of professional dancers on the British Strictly Come Dancing iteration to dining with King Charles. From the outset, Radebe’s wide-eyed and peachy-keen approach to life comes from questions his mother asked: “We fought for your freedom, now what are you going to fight for? What are you going to do with it?”

For Radebe, this became a desire to inspire others to be true to themselves. His book is about encouraging those who are fighting for their dreams never to give up and pursue them with passion. This is not written in the motivational fake mode of Rich Dad, Poor Dad, with its bunch of wisecrack empty truisms that are supposed to leave the reader motivated. Instead, it’s about how his life, the lows and highs, relate to the reader.

The book kicks off with Radebe’s earlier days as a child who was able to find key support in his family and the friends he made along the way. Their particularly heartwarming love for Radebe, who was still grappling with his identity, makes for quite a tear-jerker. It’s hard not to notice that it is more the matriarchs in his family who shine and become his blueprint for leadership — his mother, Granny Jane, Aunt Martha and Aunt Patricia — compared to the many men in his life and community who continuously disappoint.

His group of primary school friends — Jeff, Seun and the late Mona — helped him and stood up against homophobic bullying. Camp at heart from a very young age, there’s a pivotal moment in the first half of the book when Radebe stumbles into a dance studio because his friends are not around to help him get home without being harassed and physically attacked.

by Johannes Radebe.
Jojo: Finally Home by Johannes Radebe.
Image: Supplied

Another defining moment relates to Radebe’s high-school crush who was a towering rugby player responsible for ringing the school bell. Radebe struggled when he was given the responsibility of taking over the bell ringing as it would make him a target for bullying — in contrast to the fame the previous bell ringer enjoyed. Especially since the rugby player rang the bell in time to the tune of the latest pop hit.

When Radebe finally won a dance competition and was tasked with performing his winning routine in full regalia in front of the whole school, to his surprise, rather than being booed, he was cheered and applauded. After this, he was able to find his own tune when ringing the bell, lifting many a spirit at the school.

This is where the book shines. Radebe is able to capture the tenderness of these heartfelt moments, but he also writes of the all-consuming distress brought on by homophobes and the micro-aggressions from different people. He allows readers to feel and understand the paranoia he experiences while navigating everyday life, especially when he has to read the room, and try to adjust to fit the environment.

His life in England does get better when he becomes a star on the British version of Strictly Come Dancing, but with the higher highs he also experiences lower lows. He says in his preface: “The past year of my life has been a whirlwind of emotional extremes... My life was then forever altered by that season of Strictly Come Dancing. John Whaite and I made history together as the first same-sex male couple on the show — a moment dubbed a ‘culture shift’; we upended the narrative.”

But when he discusses this further in the book, some of the issues of his telling arise. It’s hard not to think Radebe is being overly cautious so as not to burn bridges. He hardly discusses the relationship that he and Whaite developed when they danced together and how they succumbed to the “Strictly curse” —  a phenomenon which seems to affect the celebs and professional dance partners when they take part in the show.

Because of their long days practising and the close relationships they form, they developed feelings for each other.  The pair eventually split like many others before them. There are a lot of people he cannot afford to upset at Strictly so there is no blow-by-blow account of his controversial relationship with Whaite who was in a relationship of 15 years at the time.

The book becomes rosier towards the end. One can’t help but wonder if Radebe waited to be professionally secure to give an account of his life. With that said, his book reminds us to face the ennui of post-apartheid freedom and the expectations that come with it. Radebe’s heartwarming journey is a reminder that you can only effect change once you start accepting yourself. If there was ever a coming-of-age book that needs a television adaptation, this is it.

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