Michael Charton: The Art of Storytelling

December 21, 2017

Africa has always had a rich oral tradition of storytelling that through the centuries, has made it possible for people or culture to pass knowledge, history, and experiences from one generation to the next. This largely rural tradition is a dying art form that has never been more necessary, particularly at such a critical time in South Africa’s history. We were, therefore, delighted to attend ‘My Father’s Coat – Five Men and The Great Story of South Africa’ whilst in South Africa recently. The talk is the brainchild of Michael Charton – a chartered accountant by profession – who has built up something of a cult following with his ambitious vision to condense the epic narrative of South Africa into a bite-sized story.

It’s an ambition that has been perfectly achieved. For Michael literally climbs into the shoes of five protagonists (Mzilikazi, Kruger, Rhodes, Smuts, and Mandela) and tells their respective, interlinked stories over a period of 200 years. The genius of his story is how – over a period of 90 compelling minutes – he introduces each of these characters in a way that lures you under their spell as he seemingly embraces their beliefs and biases. However, as the narrative unfolds, new insights are put to play that undermines previous viewpoints and beliefs and conspires to create a layered and altogether more balanced view of South Africa’s complex past.‘I have come to learn that it is very difficult to understand the South African story without acknowledging that it was shaped by attitudes that are largely foreign to us as a modern society,’ explains Michael.‘As such, I believe it is critical to understand both what those prevailing attitudes were and how they came to be. Highlighting these biases layers my story with a human element and allows the audience to find unlikely empathy with characters on very different sides of the struggle for South Africa.’

Michael cites his reading of Alan Paton’s classic Cry, The Beloved Country at the age of 19, as an ‘emotional awakening.’ ‘The opening paragraph is more poetry than prose that grabbed hold of me immediately,’ he recalls. ‘On further reading, I realized that our history had been sanitized for me during my youth.’ The book’s ability to humanize the South African tragedy for Michael, brought with it the realization that he hadn’t personally grasped the devastating effect of South Africa’s past on the lives of ordinary South Africans. This slowly, over many years, would manifest into a hunger to understand the history of South Africa better and would later inspire his decision to study towards a degree in history part-time, just a year after he qualified as a chartered accountant.

After completing his articles, Michael worked in mergers and acquisition for two years in the United States before returning to South Africa where he worked as a Financial Director in the media and advertising industry. It was here that his evolution from accountant to storyteller was crystalized seven years ago when he was called upon to put together a training module to upskill staff on the dynamics of finance and short-term insurance. ‘Our relationship with one of our very significant advertising clients had deteriorated, and we found ourselves fighting to retain the business,’ he recalls. The ensuing training module that Michael created was such a success that the client ended up using Michael to train their own staff and speak at their induction days. ‘My approach was mere instinct, but in essence, I had found a way to bring the key dynamics of a dreary industry to life through the use of human stories, this has become a common thread in all the stories I tell.’

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Around this time, he stumbled upon a story of a Springbok rugby tour in 1937. ‘It was a fascinating human story for me that developed into an obscure passion as I tracked down the photograph albums and scrapbooks of these men,’ he recalls. This too found a public audience and was met with an incredibly positive response. So much so that in 2015, Michael resigned from his job and pursued story-telling full-time. His development of a Friday Story Series (available on his You Tube channel ‘Inherit South Africa) delivers forgotten nuggets from South Africa’s past. ‘I see it as an opportunity to reflect on our unique past and to celebrate the fascinating people with whom we all share this complex country.’

With a young family of his own, Michael’s story is perhaps as much an attempt on his part to understand the historical context of South Africa as it is an articulation of his decision to remain here. ‘A study of South Africa’s past reminds us that periods of calm and stability have been fleeting. While this can be frightening, an important converse is that Africa allows us to live a life of great passion and meaning. What more could I want for my children?’

If you would like to hear, Michael Charton talk on your next trip to South Africa, email welcome@roarafrica.com or call +1 855 666 7627.


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