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Xolani Gwala tribute is not the story we planned

  • PHOTO-2019-02-20-20-14-43
For weeks, I’d been dreading the phone call I got at 05:30 last Friday morning. Nobody wants to die, but for those of us who were fortunate enough to call Xolani Gwala a friend, we knew just how much he wanted to live.
by PAULA SLIER | Nov 07, 2019

He was told by doctors in South Africa that there was nothing more they could do for him and for months, Xolani lived with the knowledge that unless a miracle happened, he was going to die. He was desperately afraid.

While South Africans at the end of last year were celebrating his recovery from stage-four colon cancer and his return to the airwaves, Xolani phoned me out of the blue. We’d been friends since our early twenties, and I had always had a soft spot for him. Xolani is one of those rare people who, regardless of fame, never changed. He was a genuinely good and decent human being.

Unfortunately we’d lost contact over the years, and I was surprised to hear from him. He confided that he’d been given the worst possible news – the cancer had returned.

A friend suggested he contact me to see if Israel could help him. I promised I’d do everything I could to assist, and in March this year, he moved to Tel Aviv. He was one of less than two dozen people from around the world who’d been accepted into a clinical trial that was using different medicines that had never before been used together to beat cancer.

It was experimental and hugely expensive, but for people like Xolani who had nowhere else to turn, it offered a last hope. He was one of only three being treated for free in this specific trial at Sheba Medical Center, Tel HaShomer, Israel’s largest and most comprehensive medical facility.

Throughout the trial, he shared the results with his South African doctor who had encouraged his move to Israel. After the third treatment, he told me his doctor said there was a definite biochemical and clinical response. The treatment he was receiving had controlled the cancer. “I’m really happy for you!” his doctor told him.

Xolani spent a few months living in Tel Aviv. He loved walking the streets, and even toyed with the idea of buying a bicycle. One day, he was outside when a siren went off and confused, he ran into a small grocery shop where an old man told him that Iran had just attacked Israel. We later joked that he was likely to be killed by a third world war before cancer.

He learnt two words of Hebrew during this time – rak Bibi (only Bibi [Netanyahu]) and it delighted him to say it and watch the bemused expressions on Israeli faces. They’d either thump him on the back in agreement, or worryingly ask him who he was hanging out with.

Xolani spoke highly of his employers at Radio 702 who supported him every step of the way. They sent him radio equipment, and he was hoping that when he felt better, he could present his show from Israel. He hated not telling his listeners the real state of his health, but he was a private person and like many things in his life, he kept it to himself.

Still, it wasn’t easy. He was often tired and in a lot of pain. And there were a few times when we thought the end was near.

There was also one thing Israel couldn’t give him – his family. I remember a phone conversation between him and one of his daughters that he later shared with me.

“Daddy,” she’d asked him, “Why are you in Israel?”

“The doctors here are making me better,” he replied.

“But how did you get there,” she asked. “Your car is in the garage. Did you use Uber?”

“Yes I came here by Uber,” he grinned.

We both smiled about this for days.

This is a very different article to the one I’d planned to write. Xolani and I thought to pen a piece together after he’d beaten the cancer in which he’d talk about how grateful he was that Israel had taken him in and given him a second chance at life.

The last time I saw Xolani was in May, when he asked me to accompany him to hear the result of his latest treatment in Israel.

On that last day, the doctors told him the cancer had stopped growing. He was so relieved. He’d hoped they’d tell him it was diminishing, but we spoke about it for a long time afterwards and he kept repeating – maybe to convince himself as much as anyone else – that it was still a good result. It was the last time he’d ever get good news.

Xolani loved Israel. He had already lived in Ramallah in 2008 when he was an evening newsreader for Ram FM radio station, the brainchild of 702 founder Issie Kirsh. Based on the success of talk radio in South Africa, the idea was for this station to get Israelis and Palestinians to talk to one another in English. Unfortunately, it never really took off, and just more than a year after it started, it closed down.

Xolani always wanted to come back to Israel – but not this way.

Naomi Hadar, the executive director of the South African Friends of Sheba Medical Center, approached the hospital and organised for Xolani to be treated there. He called her his “guardian angel”.

“Sheba is a hospital with no borders, and if it can help somebody, it’s more than happy to,” Naomi told me on Monday this week with tears in her eyes.

“The hospital said, ‘We’ve helped Palestinians and people from enemy countries, for sure we’ll help someone that loves and supports Israel.’ And we were on track. The trial was working. Xolani promised me that as soon as he was better, he would dedicate his life to promoting Sheba and the outstanding work done in Israel. I’m heartbroken.”

The Israeli medical team headed by Dr Ronni Shapiro had a soft spot for him. During his time in Israel, he’d visit them regularly for blood tests and they kept almost daily contact with him. He told me they were compassionate, and always asked about his feelings and family. Dr Talia Golan, a former South African and world-renowned specialist in pancreatic cancer, was responsible for putting him on the right trial.

At the end of May, halfway through this trial, Xolani decided to return to South Africa to see his family.

“He travelled to South Africa during the winter, and his immune system was very low,” Naomi said. “He deteriorated from then onwards.”

Within two days of returning to South Africa, he caught flu, which first needed to be treated before he could continue with the trial. He decided to receive this treatment in South Africa, and the plan was to return to Israel later. But that plan never materialised.

There is a piano at one of the entrances to Sheba Medical Center. On our first visit there, Xolani and I made a pact (actually I did – I’m silly in that way) that we would return to that piano when he’d been given a clean bill of health and play a song of gratitude. I’m not even sure Xolani knew how to play, but it was something to look forward to.

The piano is still standing there. But Xolani isn’t any longer. I miss you my friend. Your music will play on for all of us who knew and loved you, and for the millions of South Africans who looked up to you.

Hamba kahle.

  • Paula Slier is the Middle East Bureau Chief of RT, the founder and CEO of NewshoundMedia and the inaugural Europcar Women in Leadership Award winner at the Absa Jewish Achiever Awards.

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