Friday, June 2, 2017

Jamiel Wallace: a gentle giant of community radio passes on

WIDELY acclaimed as the “gentle giant” of community radio, Hajji Jamiel Wallace passed away this week (Monday) after a short illness. An anchor at the Voice of the Cape, Jamiel Wallace – or Boeta Jamiel as his thousands of fans called him – rose from being a volunteer to a full-time presenter.

Born in Parow 70 years ago to William and Francis Wallace, Jamiel Wallace embraced Islam as a young man, marrying Fahma Stevens in 1973.  He worked for 30 years in the furniture business, where he says he learnt how to communicate.

Wallace was introduced to community radio in 1998 via his local mosque, Masjid Nur ul-Huda in Belhar, where he was its secretary. In those days, Voice of the Cape had a night shift – an empowerment initiative running from midnight to the early hours – that was organised by the station’s Community Forum.

Wallace was introduced to the night shift by then programme manager, Achmat Rylands.  Neighbour Imam Allie, finance manager at Voice of the Cape, wryly notes that he always thought his sociable friend would make it on radio.

Wallace was one of the successes of the Independent Broadcasting Act of 1993 that liberated our airwaves, rising to becoming Voice of the Cape’s breakfast show presenter. He also hosted an evening show, Talking Point, Sunday Live and just before his retirement last year, Friday Nasiha (spiritual counsel) with various clerics.

Voice of the Cape conducts many outside broadcasts – well over 100 a year – and it was at these OB’s that Wallace really made his mark. Whether it was at a mosque, a shopping centre or at the State of the Nation address, he would always be able to keep the airwaves alive with his gentle patter, endless anecdotes and good cheer.

He was also the master of ad-lib. Former news editor, Shanaz Ebrahim-Gire, recalls an incident in 2008 when the station’s power was cut due to an Eskom outage. The station was running on a small generator just enough to power up a mike and the transmission signal.

“One man, one microphone, no lights, no jingles, no ads, no music and he kept VOC on air by just talking! God alone knows where he got the energy to talk non-stop for what felt like forever, but what turned out to be two hours. What a legend!”

Another role that Wallace played was that of a consumer watchdog, using his wide range of contacts to help people in distress. Whether it was hire-purchase headaches – or even in one case, marital abduction in a foreign country – Wallace would quietly and unobtrusively find solutions. In the early SASSA years he ironed out grant problems for scores of people.

Although Wallace had retired early from the furniture business, his youngest daughter Watheeqah, says that her dad – apart from having green fingers in the garden– had always shared a passion for news and politics.

A gentle person with engaging manners, and never – ever – short of conversation, Wallace was not an in-your-face presenter. Adept in local politics, community issues and current affairs, he could pose the most awkward of questions, and make it sound like he was asking you how would like your tea. Guests liked, and trusted, him.

An avid reader and coffee drinker, Wallace was not a digital journalist. He would rely on hard copy, countless newspapers and his contacts. He was a skilled primary source journalist in the true sense of the word. And whilst he could improvise if he had to, former 
Breakfast Show producer, Goolam Fakier, said that he was always well-prepared.

Former colleague, Dorianne Arendse, said that one could give Wallace any topic, and he would find a way to break it down. “When we did the broadcasts at the State of the Nation, he would so easily strike up a conversation with the ministers and the MP’s…it was amazing ...”

News Editor, Tasneem Adams, said that Wallace had a unique ability to interact with people from all backgrounds, from religious clerics, community activists to businessman and politicians. But it was his natural warmth, charisma, and great sense of humour that cemented his bond with listeners, especially the elderly.

“Boeta Jamiel would often stand in my office and talk about anything and everything. It was a running joke sometimes that he just wouldn’t stop talking, especially when you’re on deadline. But I always appreciated the value he added to our newsroom. Even when he was in retirement, he would often call me with news stories or to chat about a political event. He just had so much passion…”

Wallace is survived by his wife, Fahma, his children Zieyaad, Ghalied, Lamees, Watheeqah and eleven grand-children.