Robert Marawa on radio & love: I'll get married when there's a black pope
Robert Marawa will return to radio this week after a year-long absence. In that time he’s been able to be a hands-on dad who’s more determined than ever not to tie the knot
On the way to meet Robert Marawa at a hotel in the north of Johannesburg, I ask the Uber driver what he thinks of the man who is perhaps the country's most famous sports presenter.
"I love him. I have missed him so much, it's as though he's my wife."
When later I relay this story to Marawa, he is slightly taken aback, blinking a few times. "Is that a good thing?" he asks, a small smile on his face. Then he laughs.
He's been away from radio for a year but on Wednesday he will return to the SABC after an acrimonious, highly public split. Marawa was still on television during that time - on DStv's Supersport. That was until bad health forced him to step away from presenting the channel's World Cup broadcast.
But being only on television wasn't the same for his insatiable fans, which is why many are chuffed he will be back on the radio, hosting a show that will be simulcast on Metro FM and Radio 2000.
A lot of people are excited about your return, I say.
"Are they?" he laughs, sounding embarrassed rather than surprised.
Is he excited?
Being away from it for one year wasn't easy. It wasn't easy for me ... it wasn't easy, I suppose, for the people that appreciate what I do on the platform
"It's radio, so I'll always be excited where radio is involved," he says, before speaking at length about his love for the medium, even at one point referring to it as the friend he never had.
"Being away from it for one year wasn't easy. It wasn't easy for me ... it wasn't easy, I suppose, for the people that appreciate what I do on the platform. But it also opened up a lot of other things that I could do with my time."
"More personal [stuff]. Connecting with family." He pauses. "Connecting with my son - he just started Grade 1."
Marawa got used to the daily routine of being a hands-on father. "The whole thing of picking him up in the morning, dropping him off ... doing lunch, doing homework ..."
As a father, Marawa has taken a public beating in tabloids and on social media because of allegations of absent fatherhood - he's often been referred to as a deadbeat dad in "trashbloids", as he calls them. So it's interesting to hear him speak about being involved in his son Awande's daily life.
While Marawa enjoyed growing up with three sisters as the only son, he admits that having his own boy is like meeting the brother he never had.
"I've [watched] my younger sister Vanessa grow and she was the one that I would carry as a kid. So now all of a sudden there's this element that we never had in the family, which is another boy ... So for me, as much as [he's my] son, there's also more of that brotherliness. It's me looking into him, through him, almost to get an identity of [myself] at that age ... It's a learning process but also an exciting one."
ROLE MODEL AND LEADER
Marawa's own father, Frank, died in 2016. How did his relationship with his father affect Robert's own approach to fatherhood?
"It was always important in the time that I was with him ... to really extract as much as I could from him, see him as that role model, that leader, that father ... I've never spent December anywhere else but home ... So the whole essence of family is what he was all about, that's what he espoused, that's what I hope to kind of carry on because it is important."
Marawa maintains eye contact throughout the hour-and-a-half that we chat. He's confident, especially when talking about his career, but talk about anything remotely personal and the eye contact is fleeting, although his answers are delivered in the same measured tone familiar to his listeners.
"I don't think there's much to hide," he says at one point. So I ask him: when are you getting married, Robert?
"Hey?" he asks, before quickly regaining his composure. "I've always said the day there's a black pope I'll get married." He laughs.
So what does he have against marriage? Nothing, apparently. "Marriage is wonderful. My parents were married for 51 years, so if there's anyone that can motivate [me] to get married it would be the two of them."
But you haven't done it, I say.
"No, I haven't. At all."
I push a little further. Why not? He sighs, slightly annoyed. "I'm not exactly in the line of work that has a lot of consistency levels [when it comes to] successful marriages. I'm not using that as an excuse, I'm just saying that marriage, I think, could potentially be a wonderful thing if the two people who are together have the same view and vision and whatever ... Maybe I've just focused more on work ... it would be a huge step."
Google Robert Marawa and one of the top autocomplete suggestions is "Robert Marawa wife". So there is an interest in his personal life, as uncomfortable as it makes him.
Is he in a relationship? "Of course I am - with my mom and my sisters." He looks me in the eye. It's clear I'm not getting any more out of him.
I grew up on basic. I use basic and I kinda remain a basic human being. I'm not gonna change simply because the industry that I'm [in] demands a certain look
Does he consider himself a hunk? "I'm just a normal farm boy."
His fade haircut is flawless, the top part trimmed and shaped perfectly, like the hedges in the garden of a Hyde Park home, so he obviously cares what he looks like.
"I don't go for facials or manicures ... I have a nail clipper at home so I use it," he laughs. "Now I'm using good old Nivea for my face. I'm not using de la what what, some French ... whatever. Nah, no no."
He pours a glass of water. "I grew up on basic. I use basic and I kinda remain a basic human being. I'm not gonna change simply because the industry that I'm [in] demands a certain look."
He often emphasises how "normal" or "ordinary" or "simple" he is. For instance, when, later during our interview, I remind him that he has another appointment he needs to get to soon, he asks me what time it is.
"Don't you have a watch?" I ask.
"How do you tell the time?"
"I look at the sun," he jokes.
What kind of high-profile Joburger doesn't have a Breitling? He laughs. "I don't wear jewellery. I'm a simpleton."
Perhaps he feels he's often been portrayed as aloof, egotistical, unapproachable and he wants to change that narrative.
Marawa is really good at engaging you in a way that makes you think he has poured his heart out, when in fact, he hasn't. Take, for instance, his lengthy response when asked if he is kind to himself - he keeps it surface-level, speaking about the physical aspect. He recently spent a week at his older sister Nomvula's home and that made him pay better attention to his body.
When I tell him that she shares a name with my mother, he's pleasantly surprised. "Oh really? OK ... Jeez, a lot in common. Including your name," he says, a reference to me sharing a first name with his famous ex, actress Pearl Thusi. Their relationship was tabloid fodder. We both laugh awkwardly.
'SHOCK TO THE SYSTEM'
He looks into the distance briefly, before quickly gathering composure and shaking his head slightly. "But anyway." Back to regular programming. He begins to speak, pauses, breaks eye contact and says suddenly: "What were we talking about?" I steer him back.
"I have never known how to eat three meals a day." Having breakfast, lunch and dinner at his sister's home was a "shock to the system for me because I was that person who wakes up and just gets on the road, doing what I have to do and then at some point in the day it's like, 'Yoh, I haven't eaten.'
The SABC remains the SABC. It's just the people inside. The people that worked overtime to get rid of me - some of them have gone, and rightfully so
"I haven't been kind to me before, yes, but I'm learning to be kinder now."
Great answer, but that's not what I asked. How are you nourishing your soul?
"What, as in going to church, or ...?"
No, not necessarily. For instance, I say, I treat other people with kindness, but I don't treat myself with kindness. Maybe if I open up a bit, he will too.
"I think it's similar here. My journey has always been about looking after everybody else, so you leave yourself out of the equation. You're just making sure other people are covered ... I think it's only now where it's a case of 'what about you?'
"You also need to give yourself that kind of treatment, that level of protection, which you're so quick to give to others. I'm not used to it, but I am trying. Because it's a complete mindshift 'cause I always thought if I worry about me then I'm being selfish."
Being selfish can be a good thing. He agrees, saying boundaries are important. Not only has he built a wall around himself, but he has an "electric fence", as he calls it.
We go back to talking about his return to the SABC. What's changed between them since he left and how does he know things will be different this time around? Truth is, he doesn't. But he's cautiously optimistic because of the reshuffle in management.
"The SABC remains the SABC. It's just the people inside. The people that worked overtime to get rid of me - some of them have gone, and rightfully so."
That building, he says, is bigger than any individual in it, including those who "conspired" against him.
Marawa speaks a lot about "agendas". At times, he sounds like a paranoid politician. But I suppose that's what happens when you've worked at an institution with so much politics attached to it.
So what does Marawa think of the country's political landscape?
"I think even from a global perspective, we entrust too much power and hope in politicians ... I'm not sure what the current crop of people are fighting for ... their pockets, their bank accounts, their Bentleys, their Porsches?
"We're in trouble right now. Here we are in this environment where Brics is the cornerstone of everything ... but every day we see video clips of hijackings, video clips of people being shot.
"How do you invite all of this investment into a country where its own citizens are under siege? Where every day people are losing their loved ones? Can you imagine if the 13 people that were shot in the taxi the other day were 11 members of parliament? The country would have come to a standstill."
Marawa admits that when it comes to his craft, he is a perfectionist. That's probably one of the things his listeners love - and have missed - about him.
"I got into the industry pretty young, so the challenge is to set yourself goals and standards ... every time it's got to be better, so you can't regress ... Everything is about progression. It's about improvement. It's about setting the bar to a standard that has never been attained. Because when you peaked early, how do you get better?"
So, is Marawa going to do radio until he drops dead?
"We've got to dispel the notion that at some stage you gotta call it quits and leave because, 'Oh my God so-and-so is 65 and therefore they must stop following their passion and the industry that they love.'
"Then you're not being true and honest because it's a specialist field. And specialist fields require expertise."
That's a yes, then.
ROBERT MARAWA ON...
Being from KZN, I know about land and working on the land... My late dad... grew up in a township but his heart was in farming. When it was mealie season, everything was lush and green... [and] weeds were sorted out. The vegetable garden was always well fertilised and well watered.
So if you don’t have the passion for the land, you are never going to be able to work it. You can have it, but what are you going to do with it? The desire for land just for the sake of it also doesn’t mean anything ...There are lot of things you need to consider when you do go and claim — rightfully — your piece of land.
LONGEVITY IN THE INDUSTRY
I have no reason to be relevant in 2018. Maybe that should have been somebody else’s space. But it’s about the ability to work hard, reinvent yourself and to take your job seriously.
In news and sport [presenting], the older you get the more credible [you are], the more people trust you...This is not continuity presenting where you’re looking for perky boobs and a chiselled chin.
FELLOW SPORTS PRESENTER THOMAS MLAMBO, WHO WAS RUMOURED TO HAVE LEFT THE SABC BECAUSE HE FELT 'OVERSHADOWED BY MARAWA
I never look at other people. Robert focuses on Robert and on trying to improve Robert... I don’t look to my left or to my right [or] what’s behind me. I never put myself in competition with anybody.
FANFARE OVER HIS RETURN TO RADIO
It’s humbling...but maybe it also puts me under pressure to do better, improve and just take the listener to a different level and on a different journey.
THE SCOURGE OF WOMEN ABUSE
Violence towards women, within households and within relationships, is so widespread but it’s also so quick to be swept under the carpet. And it is wrong.
If people are being violent in that way then there should be consequences. It can’t just be another beautiful day in Johannesburg, sunshine and blue skies. You need certain movements to steer certain messages, but to also hold people accountable for their actions... I don’t think enough examples are set of people being held accountable.