I may as well set the record straight right from the get-go that my name really is just Ronni. Not Veronica. Not Rhonda. Not Rona. And not Ronnie with an ‘e’. It’s not hidden inside any other name. After my two older sisters, my father had wanted a boy very badly. Ronni was the name he had chosen for that boy, and when I was born, the name Ronni remained. I liked it. I felt interesting. But it confused people too. Growing up, I always had the sense that my name challenged people somehow, because a girl was standing in front of them, not a boy. In my early business life, people often sounded a little taken aback when I was the voice behind the name Ronni Kahn. They were expecting to find the expertise of a respectable man whose full name, perhaps, was Ronald. (Or an Indian prince called Raj Khan!)
Despite me being an unexpected third daughter, my parents adored me, as did my sisters, Pamela and Margie. Being ten years younger than Pam and five years younger than Margie, I was the spoilt baby of the household and, I like to think, my father’s favourite. (Sorry, sisters!) Even then, I had a sense that I had him wrapped around my little finger. Maybe because I was the baby, he spoiled me more than he did my sisters. He’d often get in trouble from my mother for indulging me with chocolate bars and other treats. He used to lovingly call me his feigele, which means ‘little bird’ in Yiddish. My parents had grown up in small villages in South Africa that spoke English and Afrikaans, the two official languages of the South Africa of my childhood. But their parents were European immigrants who spoke to them in Yiddish, so we grew up speaking English, with Yiddish words smattered throughout. We all learnt Afrikaans at school, because it was compulsory, but I never connected with that language.
I don’t know whether there is any correlation with my boyish name, but I was instantly a tomboy. Maybe I wanted to play this out for my dad in some way, to try to live up to my idea of the name. He certainly went all out to provide me with the stereotypical boy things of the time. He would build go-carts out of soapboxes for me and the neighbourhood boys. This was not what the other little girls on our street were doing. I had so many smashes and crashes. I broke my arm and scraped myself continually, climbing trees with the boys. I’d pee standing up in the hydrangea bushes, because that’s what the boys were doing. The tomboy thing really worked for me; I had so much fun.
But when night-time came around, it wasn’t so much fun. I was so afraid of the darkness in my room that, even now, just thinking about it, I can feel the fear in my body. To deal with this crippling fear, my father gave me his wooden walking stick to put beside my bed. That stick really helped. If I had bad thoughts, I could always ‘touch wood’. It worked. The smooth smell of the wood, the feeling of my father’s strength; for a few seconds or minutes at least, they made everything okay. I know it’s a common thing for kids to be afraid of the dark, nothing unusual there. But I tell this story because I think there is something a little sinister in this memory. This stick was also there in case I needed to use it. It was a real weapon, one that a small child could use against a genuine threat. Outside my window, on my street, in my suburb and in my country, things were pretty ruthless. Every night, I was prepared, with my whole mind, to use that stick. This was life under apartheid in South Africa.