Siyabonga Africa: Tributes to our friend from the Class of 2007

Siyabonga Africa, alumnus from the honours class of 2007, passed away on 19 July 2021 at age 35. Some of his classmates from 26 Crozier Street pay tribute to him and share some photo memories. Photo: Twitter

Jocelyn Uithaler

Siyabonga and I became fast friends after stepping foot into what would become our second home at Crozier Street. We were desk mates. He was a proud geek, trying to convert me to his world. He was so curious about the future, journalism and tech. He was loyal and kind and so supportive of all whom he loved.

Because of 2007, we shared incredible moments – the media trip to Joburg, welcoming the Springboks after their World Cup victory, and even stalking Daniel Craig and Eve when we joined a SANEF meeting. But best of all, we were friends, until the end. No matter where in the world he was, he made a point of keeping in touch with his BPhilers. And he was always there when you needed a hand.

Siya had so much to offer this world. I’m so grateful that he was part of my world and I part of his. We didn’t have the time I assumed we had, but I take comfort knowing I always told him what he means to me. Rest easy, Siyabonga Kennedy Africa.

Ian McNaught Davis

It was impossible to not like Siya.

Put 22 nosy aspiring journalists in a classroom and throw deadlines at them for a year, and some people aren’t going to get along. But not with Siya. He was likeable even when he tried not to be. I liked how likeable Sleep-Deprived Siya or Deadline-Flustered Siya could be. Because it was impossible to not like Siya.

Siya was, among many things, an unashamed geek. I loved how he could give expert opinions on national television dressed like a GQ double-page spread, yet also be immensely proud of his ever-expanding collection of Star Wars memorabilia. I remember one night during our media tour of Joburg I convinced him that we needed to leave our B&B for a wild night on the town, but we ended up in some late-night comic book shop in Melville where Siya just gawked at paperbacks – oblivious to my conspicuous sighing and shuffling of feet.

My favourite memories I have of him are outside the Department of Journalism. Sitting on the Rooiplein, talking about girls. Braais at Huis Div. Driving all the way to Sutherland to see the stars on the one night of the year that it was cloudy. Going with him and Alida straight from a late-night assignment at the department to Mystics and dancing with our backpacks on.  

And then we graduated and did the things that grown-ups do; our banter on the Rooiplein replaced with Facebook quips and birthday texts. We’d meet up when we were in each others’ cities. It didn’t happen often, but whenever it did, it was good. Because it was impossible to not like Siya.

There was always something going on in Siya’s life, and it seemed even more dynamic from afar. One day he’d be working in Joburg, then he’d be studying in America. Then he’d be on the TV in a crisp shirt and tie, saying something important. Then he’d be headhunted by some company, only to be headhunted by another one. A month ago he told me he was studying after-hours while working. Always something on the go.  

It’s impossible to think of Siya in the past tense. As if every was in this piece is asking for a red “-5” from Jacolette’s pen. It’s impossible to think of what happened yesterday happening to someone in our cohort. And when I say our, I mean we, the class of 2007. A bunch of graduates fumbling through adulthood at more or less the same pace. We’re at the point of making families now; we’re not nearly close to learning how to say goodbye.

And that’s why it feels so impossible. We’re supposed to learn those lessons some time after our class’s 40th reunion, at least. That seems like an appropriate time to knowingly look at each other as we remind ourselves to tell those close to you that you love them.

We love you, Siya. We love your kind-hearted soul and quick-witted mind. We loved the energetic life you lived and the warmth you brought to those lucky enough to know you.

Anri van der Spuy

From Siya-in-dreadlocks to Siya-the-developer, Siya-the-journalist to Siya-the-joker, Siya-the crossfit-fundi to Siya-the-chef, it’s been such a privilege to know Siya in all of his seasons. One thing always remained constant, though: his love and care for his people. And what a privilege to have felt like one of those people, even if it was for far too brief a moment. We’ll miss you dearly, Siya.

Andre-Pierre du Plessis

Siya het altyd die vermoë gehad om kanse te vat sonder enige vrees. Sy sprong na ’n joernalistiekskool in Amerika het my die moed gegee om dieselfde te doen. Hy kon ‘n mens laat trots voel oor die vreemde pop kultuur detail wat iewers in die kop weggesteek lê en jou aanmoedig om dieper te delf in ’n wêreld wat ander veels te obskuur sou vind. Dis alles elemente wat my eie loopbaan vlerke gegee het juis omdat Siya my verseker het dat daar ’n wêreld vir ons tipe mense in die joernalistiek bestaan. Dankie, Siya.

Margaux Petersen

I’ve been incredibly lucky to count Siya amongst my closest friends. Since we met in our BPhil Journalism class, he’s been a near-constant in my life. Over the past 14+ years, we’ve hosted a joint birthday party, gone to concerts, had numerous braais, and embarked on road trips together. We rang in 2020 at a New Year’s Eve celebration at my house. We had no idea how much our lives were about to change. Despite the pandemic, Siya soldiered on, always chasing after his goals. His ambition was so inspiring. Siya was working on attaining a second Master’s degree. He’d recently (finally!) bought a home of his own after talking about fulfilling that dream for five years. In so many ways, it felt like it was just the beginning for him. Siya, I’m going to miss your soft and sensitive nature so much. Who else is going to pitch up outside my house to surprise me with freshly baked bread?

Simone Gregor

As I scroll through the growing numbers of tributes to Siya, the expressions of disbelief, I am trying to save all my memories of him in my mind, so that I will never forget him. His voice, the way he laughed and the things that mattered to him. We have lost a kind, funny and thoughtful friend – a contributor to society – and he was only getting started. Siya, you have left us far too soon, and we are devastated. I celebrate you and thank you for the life you lived. Rest easy, and rest in peace, my friend. It was an honour to have known you.

Joanita Cillié

Siya had a presence. You would know that he was there. Always part of the conversation, he did not disappear in the crowd. I believe it will be the same with his memory – for me it will be his smile, his interest in all subjects and mostly in people and his friends, that will never fade.

James-Brent Styan

My friend Siya has died. Hell. I don’t know what to say. We loved watching Star Wars together (both dressing up) and Ted Lasso was our other thing. He was so excited for the new season. Seems so stupid, right. His mother says he passed away early morning in Joburg, probably from a heart attack. He was such a nice warm kindhearted man. A good man. He became one of my best friends. Always so full of encouragement. Always up for a kuier.

“Hey my man,” he’d say before launching into his next exciting story. So passionate. 2007. Him and his camera. Riding around Stellies on my scooter. Drinking too much wine and watching the Springboks win the 2007 Rugby World Cup. Watching them lose to the All Blacks in games we’d watch together years later, both of us swearing like troopers. Fucking All Blacks. Drowning our sorrows in beer, but being happy together. And so many times afterwards. He just made my life brighter and happier, because he was in it. I am just numb.

May the Force be with you my friend. May your Force be with all of us.

Gina Schreuder

Every Crozier Street alumnus knows that the cohort of people that join you on your journey for that year teaches you just as much as anything you will learn from lectures and textbooks: You get to spend an unholy amount of time with a group of smart, inquisitive people, under pressure with assignment deadlines, wrestling with InDesign in the early morning hours, bonding during class trips and at countless parties and social events. It is unfathomable that one of the most vibrant, positive and ambitious people in our group is no longer with us.

Siya immersed himself in every aspect of Stellenbosch and Maties student life, from wine farms to Afrikaans bands. He was vivaciously enthusiastic about every opportunity our year presented. During 2007, the World Newspaper Conference and World Editors Forum was held in Cape Town, and a group of us volunteered as interns at the event. Siya enthusiastically committed to every task we were given, including wildly overstating our proficiency with camera work and production. Before we knew it, him and I were sweating bullets as we filmed interviews with VIP’s like the New York Times’s executive editor. “Gina-ling, just fake it ’til you make it’.” And we did. 

There was always a new plan: A master’s degree in broadcast journalism in the USA, then the world of digital media, then coding, then data journalism. I can’t believe we won’t be able to see his next chapter unfold. Rest in peace, dearest Siya. 

Beer Adriaanse

Siyabonga Africa has passed away. He was a prince among men and I’m lucky to have been his friend. He was a true mensch, no matter which way you cut it. So much of his gentleness rubbed off on me, especially in a time when gentleness wasn’t celebrated.

We were the only two dreadlocked laaities studying Journalism at Stellenbosch in ’07. Adriaanse and Africa. Front of the class. He tried to get my dreads to at least resemble something other than a spanspek with biltong hanging from it, but to no avail. (His was immaculately done and always smelled nice.)

Even though he was soft-spoken and thoughtful, he was also my first real friend to introduce me to that go-getter Jo’burg vibration. Always keen. Always lus. Always lekker. I fondly remember experiencing Stellenbosch (which I was almost bored of by then) through his eyes during many walks and beers and other (then illegal) jaunts.

Once he convinced me to take him along on a short and ill-fated band tour to Worcester. The gig was abysmal and almost no one showed up, but Siya jammed out front like he was at a stadium gig. He also partook in the afterparty and brandy & cokes like he was born in that valley, and then he took some of our favourite band photos against the bright lights of the empty carnival rides. Everyone loved him.

We kept in touch through the years, mainly because he was so good at juggling long-distance friendships and checking in when we were in the same city. He was just a lovely human and I’m so glad our paths crossed in that impressionable time in my life.

Thanks for the memories, Brother Siya, and much love to your family and loved ones. You will be greatly missed.

Riëtte van der Wat

Siya, my hart is gebreek. You had such big dreams and a lovely, passionate soul. Daar is ’n leemte in die wêreld sonder jou.

Rozanne Els

In 2007, a cohort of 22 vastly different graduates arrived at 26 Crozier Street. As my friend and former classmate, Ian, says, albeit in less crude prose: Shit was bound to go down. We couldn’t possibly have anticipated how much time we would spend together in a very small building with creaky wooden floors and inhumane temperatures at the height of the Stellenbosch summer, learning, if you will, how to be a journalist.

This was the year of Facebook, a staggering amount of deadlines, and, even more momentous, the year of our introduction to one Siyabonga Africa. He was the very first journalist I met who, in 2007, already understood the importance of data science in a volatile world of information. Siya was way ahead of the curve, an innovator, a smart-ass, a deeply respectful man, a belly of laughs, truly roll-on-the-floor-laughing funny. Razor sharp. Quick-witted. Ever ready with a blistering, but in good fun, comeback. And a man of practical solutions. A red wine stain on a beige carpet in a certain B&B in Jo’burg, for instance, was easily remedied with a few strategically placed scatter cushions. There! No-one will notice! (The cushions were also beige, and yes, they also got stained.)

Siya lived kindness, rather than just holding it as a belief system. He lived just the mere beginnings of an immeasurable amount of potential and talent. His passing is heartbreaking in all the ways that loss awakens ache in us; even more-so because he was one of the good ones. One of the very best ones. One of the most needed ones in a world that craves more of his humanness. The kind that makes me so grateful to have called him fellow Black Label enthusiast, fellow dreamer, fellow nerd at heart, friend.

Rest in peace, dear one.

Alida van Niekerk

Dearest Siya.

Your loss has left us shaken and sore. It is nonsensical and surreal. It is unimaginably sad. Not only because we knew you, but because we know how much there was left for the world to gain from you. I think of you and I hear your laugh. I remember your kind eyes and your warmth. Your wit. Your spirit. I feel blessed to have shared my journalism studies and my year at Stellenbosch with you. Privileged to have called you a friend.

Man, did we have a blast.

You will be missed, Siya. But never forgotten.

The memories burn bright.

Tsholofelo Segage-Modise

Siyabonga Africa, my friend and brother.

I have spent the last year wondering “Will my circle be intact? Will we all still be here after this year, this pandemic?”

Loss after loss, after loss throughout this pandemic, has given me a resounding “NO!”

I picked up Margaux’s phone call with a knot in my stomach. You see, these days when the phone rings one can’t help but take a deep breath and brace oneself. That is what happens when death comes knocking all too often.

Never did I imagine that I would hear Siya’s name being used in the same sentence as the word “dead”. How? Why? He was so full of life. Constantly striving to do better and be better. Hungry for new knowledge, thirsty for adventure. No dream was too far-fetched for Siya. He was always on the move, and making moves.

Just this weekend I was wishing a friend’s son well for his new journey as a college student. I asked him if he had any friends from home or school joining him at his new school this August. When he answered in the affirmative, I went on to express my relief and explain how invaluable that support structure is. That conversation reminded me of my time at Crozier Street and Huis De Villiers. I was reminded of how comforting it was to live alongside and sit in class with people I had met during my undergrad days at Tukkies, particularly Siya.

In fact, Siya played a major role in my presence at Crozier Street. When he heard that I had also applied for a spot in the BPhil course, he made it his mission to walk the journey with me. He was the one who marched me into the Perdeby office to call Bev, demanding to know how the email about the entrance exam had not reached me. He was also the one who drove me all the way to the Sowetan offices, in Johannesburg, on the day of my entrance exam and interview – insisting he’d wait for me and bring me back safely to Pretoria. Siya stayed committed to walking the journey with me from the day my parents left me at Huis Div and my dad told him he was to look after me – he’s always maintained that was the scariest responsibility he’s been entrusted with. One he took seriously to the very end.

Being housemates, I had all his spare keys because he knew he’d “end up doing something stupid”. I gladly helped him with chores, cooked for him and taught him how to cook sometimes, while I listened to his endless stories of romance and heartbreak. He got on my nerves when he’d ring the doorbell at 5am, on the weekend, after a night on the town to come crash at my feet after telling me about his date with the European girl of his dreams. He’s solely responsible for my addiction to American series, although I must admit he never managed to convert me into a Star Wars fan – a feat he’d promised to overcome through my sons. I always made sure he’d made it home safely after his nights out, and we had each other’s backs when the going got tough. He was happy to help me pull all-nighters with the rest of the class, give me much needed feedback on my work, and help with design challenges. He was also happy to drive us into Cape Town for interviews, final projects and even do bus station and airport trips for me … and always with his Canon ready.

To the day of graduation and beyond, Siya has been a constant friend and brother.
He was the one always pulling our “Dristict 5” group together. There, for every milestone, professional or personal. Time and distance meant nothing to our friendship. For that I am eternally grateful. I will miss random pics and songs from the soundtrack of my youth in my inbox.

I will forever miss your smile, your laughter and your caring heart. Thank you for your caring heart. Thank you for your love. To Ma, Tobi, Noxy and Thoko, thank you for letting Siya soar. Thank you for sharing him with us. May we all find comfort in the Lord of our Lord.

Sarietha Engelbrecht

Siyabonga Africa was a man of data, science and all forms of geekery. He was a journalist at heart and was interested in everything from coding and politics to baking and golf.

He was always learning and looking at ways to further his knowledge and experience. Just recently he told me that he was busy trying to finish his Master’s degree in data science while simultaneously doing two back-to-back courses in programme management and impact investing. All of this on top of his full-time job at Code for Africa.

Siya wasn’t just talented, smart and driven, he was also incredibly kind. He was generous with his time, knowledge and advice — always sending on a new tool, television series, song or opportunity that he discovered. He cared deeply about his friends and family. He would check in often to commiserate or congratulate — or just to ask how you were doing. He was always reaching out to people and giving of himself.

He was also a great cheerleader. He encouraged and emboldened those around him. 

Siya had an incredible career in his far too short life and has achieved so much. He was well-respected in the industry and dearly loved. This is clear by the outpouring of messages and tributes on social media.

Siya was a true gentleman and a scholar, and it was an honour to have known him.

While it is painful to know that he is no longer here, Siya will live on in our memories and we will celebrate his life and strive to emulate the example that he set for us.

The last message that he sent to me in a recent WhatsApp-check in was: “Stay well, Sarie.”

Go well, Siya. We will miss you.

Read more about Siya and his career here.

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