Nkwenkwe Nkomo was Chief Scout of South Africa from 1996
to 2005, and is now a member of the World Scout Committee.
This profile appeared in the June 1996 edition of Out
Leader of the Pack
Nkwenkwe Nkomo is a Chief Scout for the new
Bridget Hilton-Barber interviewed him.
even that old scout motto can quite prepare one for Nkwenkwe
Nkomo. He is seated behind the desk at a high-powered advertising
agency, wearing blue jeans and a jaunty attitude; a little
badge of the South African flag is pinned onto his velvet
fez. The phone is ringing, the printer is printing. On his
office walls are movie posters and a photocopy of "The Most
Famous Jazz Photograph in History". It's hard, at first, to
see a scout in all this.
Nkwenkwe is Xhosa for "little boy", he explains, and Nkomo
means "cow"; his name means "cowboy", and the story of how
he's tamed the prairies of scouting, advertising and politics
reveals that Nkomo is riding a horse of unshakable faith.
He says, "As Chief Scout I am chief servant", which is disarming
coming from the mouth of the deputy chairman of Lindsay Smithers.
Even more disarming, considering he must be one of the very
few of Akela's servants to have spent time on Robben Island
for "conspiring to overthrow the State by violent means".
Nkomo spent six years on Robben Island and two years in prison
while on trial. Arrested in 1974, along with the likes of
Terror Lekota, Barney Pityana and Mweni Musa, he was part
of the legendary "BCP SASO Nine". Nkomo was National Organiser
for the Black People's Convention, cutting his teeth at a
very crucial and pioneering stage in black politics - the
era of Steve Biko, the banning of organisations and newspapers,
To Nkomo, the point of black consciousness was to help people
reclaim their dignity, self-esteem and worth. "With the kind
of people we had", he says, "we could have moved the country."
The years spent on Robben Island "running the offshore business
with Nelson Mandela", were incredibly formative. The connections
made there still hold firm. "I got out on the 20th December
1982", recalls Nkomo, "supposedly as a Christmas gift to the
family." Today, some 14 years down the line, Nkomo is a powerful
force. His attitude is one of no regrets - he maintains the
moral high ground. Nkomo is enthusiastic about life, he's
positive, he's up. And of course, he's Chief Scout.
describing himself as a young cub, the humanity is plain.
Wide-eyed and some seven years old, making his promise to
serve the community, Nkomo joined the Daveyton 7th in 1957,
and still speaks fondly of his leaders "Skipper" and "Badger".
He paints a picture of doing good deeds and odd jobs for the
locals which could be straight out of the pages of a Boys'
But it was more than just dib-dib, dab-dab stuff. His troop
was the seventh in the Benoni area alone, he says, reminding
us that scouting has always been popular in South Africa.
He describes what he got out of scouting as "lifeskills";
team work, leadership, empowerment, a strong sense of community.
His involvement with the "movement" as he calls it, was to
last more than a decade. His graduation from cub to scout
coincided with the growing political consciousness of youths
all around him. Scouting itself was not untouched by apartheid.
There were four separate associations for whites, coloureds,
Indians and blacks (whose association was called Pathfinders),
although there were people around, says Nkomo, who believed
scouting shouldn't conform to political dictates.
"I recall quite distinctly, it was either in 1966 or 1967,
that State President CR Swart was coming to a school opening
or some ceremony, and we were told we couldn't go there as
scouts with white boys from Benoni and black boys from Benoni
in the same uniform. The master in charge, Keith Crossley,
put his foot down and said we were either going to go there
together as scouts, or go together as school children."
The spirit of scouting to Nkomo had "always been a brotherhood".
And by 1971 when "bureaucracy in the movement started getting
the better of what we were doing as young boys", Nkomo left
"Before black consciousness," he says, "I was a scout."
To both politics and prison he took the fundamental skills
he'd learned as a scout. Although he jokes "that advertising
is more honest than politics", the same skills no doubt assisted
his rapid rise in the company. In 1983, following Nkomo's
release, he joined Lindsay Smithers as a trainee. "I had no
idea what advertising was about at the time", he says, and
worked there in the creative field while continuing political
work in Daveyton.
He was chairman for several years of the Daveyton Residents
Committee, formed to "get the community together and do something
that would benefit them". They had a projects committee which
identified needs in the area and raised funds for development.
Call it karma, but one of the requests presented to the
committee was by the scouts. When their presentation failed
to meet standards, it pushed Nkomo's button. He helped the
scouts re-work their presentation, resulting in the committee's
decision to build a scout hall in the community.
1991, he was approached by Colin Adcock, then chief executive
of Toyota (one of Lindsay Smithers' clients) who'd been asked
to put together a marketing programme for the South African
Scout Association. He met and began working with a lot of
the "senior guys" in scouting; made a presentation to a scout
conference, and was then asked to "re-join the movement",
as Assistant Chief Scout. It was a natural coming together
"One of the reasons I agreed to return to scouting," says
Nkomo, now one of the voluntary chiefs of SASA, "was the challenge
to take it back to the community. Scouting is a premium youth
movement, there to enable us, especially now, to move towards
healing this country, to train leaders and empower people."
To Nkomo, scouting is not only an obvious way to provide community
services in both rural areas and townships, but it offers
the kind of value system that promotes a basic goodness through
its promise to serve the community.
"Imagine if most of the young boys in this country were
scouts, and were taught life-skills like first aid and swimming.
Imagine the potential to cope with natural disasters, like
the recent floods."
For Nkwenkwe Nkomo, scouting is an extension of what he
believes in, a part of his fabric, whether it's politics,
imprisonment or pitching to clients. The Daveyton 7th deserves
a great deal of credit.