Bra Hugh Remembers Mandela


In 1955 a large, multi-ethnic group of anti-apartheid liberation structures led by the African National Congress (ANC), educators, intellectuals, and clerics came together to author a declaration called the “Freedom Charter.” This proclamation contained numerous clauses that openly contradicted and damned every principle that the racist South African regime cherished. The following years saw many of the Charter’s authors imprisoned, charged with treason, banished, exiled, or assassinated. A substantial number of them were put under house arrest or sentenced to long terms on Robben Island, yet they all held onto the Freedom Charter dream—for over three decades. Ongoing protests eventually inspired international embargoes, disinvestment, cultural and economic boycotts, and an ungovernable South Africa.

The discriminatory government finally yielded to freedom for all. This led to the unbanning of the liberation movements, the release of political prisoners, and the return of activist exiles. The formally intolerant government opened negotiation talks with their adversaries; Apartheid was at last swept aside, making way for the universal vote, freedom of movement, the cessation of police harassment, full human rights, and a new ”democratic” dispensation.

However, the Freedom Charter never saw the light of day. Its authors, now aged, began to depart this world for parliaments of the afterlife. They never saw their dreams of genuine freedom come true. In simple Brooklynese, “THEY WUZ ROBBED!”

At the forefront of the liberation struggle was Nelson Mandela, known affectionately as Madiba (his clan name) or Dalibhunga (Xhosa for “creator or founder of the council” or “convenor of the dialogue”), who was made its symbol. He truly cherished and hoped that the Freedom Charter would become a reality. Instead, the entire world turned him into a deity, making him an international hero in the eyes of all who opposed injustice. Even dictators bowed at his feet!

Mandela was an inclusive man who had the talent to accommodate even those who had been enemies of that for which he and colleagues fought. When he passed away, millions wrote tributes to him. The media hunted down everybody they could pin down for a comment, a quote, or a sound bite. I went into hiding until the dust had cleared. I remember a loveable giant of a strong, mischievous, curious, loyal, majestic, focused, and extremely funny old geezer.

The year 1985 was my fourth year playing with the legendary Kalahari band after spending 20 years in the USA and roughly nine of those years between Guinea, Liberia, Ghana, Congo, Nigeria, and Jamaica. Through recordings from the mobile studio that our England-based record company, Zomba Music, shipped to Gaborone, we were riding a high wave of international attention. In the Southern Africa region, the apartheid government had been wreaking havoc with its death squads raiding the Mozambique, Tanzania, Zambia, Botswana, Namibia, Angola, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, and Swaziland pockets of regional activist groupings. They were murdering many in the name of anti-terrorism and anti-communism. They even carried this bloody exercise to London and Paris.

We spent every night anticipating these attacks and during many so-called “alert periods,” very few slept in their homes. Our 1984 album, “TECHNO BUSH,” had brought forth the number-one dance hit “DON’T GO LOSE IT, BABY.” We followed that with “WAITING FOR THE RAIN,” which also enjoyed major triumph with the popular “TONIGHT, TONIGHT.” We wuz hot!

Life was exceedingly good. Kalahari was performing three times per week in Gaborone, Botswana’s capital city, and in the country’s dancehalls, villages, and arenas. Occasionally, we would tour the USA and Europe. I was residing in Gaborone with my then wife, Jabu, and our five-year-old angel of a niece, Deliwe.

Around the end of March, I received a call from Bra Mathizo, an ANC veteran exiled in “Gabs,” as Gaborone is fondly called.

“Hugh, I have a letter for you from home. Can I come and drop it off?”

Bra Mathizo arrived shortly. He sat down for tea and waited for me to open and read the short letter that had been smuggled out of Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town. The sender had a very beautiful handwriting.

“Dear Hugh,

I wrote this letter to wish you an exceptionally happy 46th birthday and proudly congratulate you on the music school you have started. Also the new recording studios where you have produced such popular music that brings joy to so many. May you have continued good fortune in your admirable endeavours. Kindly extend my loving regards to your wife Jabu and your beautiful little Deliwe. Keep up the good work.


Nelson Mandela”

My birthday was coming up on the fourth of April. I was totally overwhelmed by this letter from a man who had been in prison for 21 years wishing me, a free person, prosperity. I sat there dumbfounded for quite a while before thanking Bra Mathizo, who made a quick exit on realizing the surging emotion swelling inside my restless soul.

With tears in my eyes, I rushed to the piano across our tiny sitting-room lounge and began to sing in a very loud outburst

“Bring back Nelson Mandela! Bring him back home to Soweto! I want to see him walking down the streets of South Africa. I want to see him walking hand-in-hand with Winnie Mandela.”

Jabu came in running from the backyard with a big smile on her face. “Hughie, when did you write that song? I’ve never heard it before”

“I didn’t write it, Nelson Mandela just sent it.”

Jabu’s father, Mphiwa Mbatha, had been Nelson Mandela’s classmate at Fort Hare University in the late1930s. Between 1947 and 1957, my father, Selema Thomas, was chief health inspector of Alexandra Township, which was governed by the independent administration of the Alexandra Health Committee, whose Medical Officer of Health was Dr. A. B. Xuma, the ANC President during some of those years. Alfred Nzo, a top leader of the liberation movement and, under Nelson Mandela’s presidential term, South Africa’s first foreign minister, worked with my father as a health inspector. My mother was a social worker at Entokozweni Family Welfare and Health Centre, situated at the ANC’s number-one rally venue on Number 3 Square between 12th and 13th avenues and London Road. During our childhood years, we spent afternoons and evenings at Entokozweni, playing games on the square, staging children’s shows, receiving health treatment, and learning how to box. On Sunday afternoons, we would hear political resistance speeches by Albert Luthuli, Lillian Ngoyi, Ida Mtwana, Oliver Tambo, A. B. Xuma, Z. K. Matthews, Nelson Mandela, Robert Resha, and many other ANC leaders at those rallies, while special branch police took notes and names.

It was at this centre that Winnie Madikizela worked with my mother as a trainee social worker during the early 1950s. Brigalia Bam, who in 1994 became head of the South African Electoral Commission, practised her social work field training along with Winnie Madikizela under the guidance of my mother, Pauline, who by then had practically adopted the two young women. More than two decades later, my father would regularly visit Winnie Mandela in Brandfort, a small Free State province town to which she had been banished. It was then that Winnie would learn from him about what my sister Barbara and I were doing in exile. During her visits to Dalibhunga in prison, she would tell him about all the people he inquired after.

That is how Nelson Mandela got to know of my activities in Botswana. On June 14th, 1985, apartheid death squads entered Botswana and massacred 14 people in their homes, claiming that their residences were terrorist camps. Included among the victims was my childhood friend George Phahle and his wife Lindi. George had encouraged me to come live in Botswana, subsequently throwing me together with Kalahari. Following the murderous raid, almost all South African activists were repatriated from Botswana. Jabu, Deliwe, and I relocated in London. Kalahari followed shortly thereafter for a European tour.

In 1983 I had seen Mbongeni Ngema and Percy Mtwa in the play Woza Albert, a fantasy about the return of Albert Luthuli at London’s Criterion Theatre. Mbongeni and I discussed the possibility of collaborating on a musical. This initiative ultimately gave birth to Sarafina, a schoolchildren’s dream about Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. Sarafina went on to become a Broadway hit in 1988 and later a film starring Whoopi Goldberg and Miriam Makeba.

In December 1989, I returned to Botswana with Jabu for a month’s holiday. Julius Mdluli, who had assisted the late Phahle to begin his transport business in Gaborone, came to visit with his family. Julius assured me that I would be returning home to South Africa after Mandela and his colleagues were released from prison in 1990 and all the liberation movements would be unbanned. I laughed at Julius.

In February 1990, South African President F. W. De Klerk made an official announcement confirming what Julius had told me in Botswana. On the 11th day of that month, Nelson Mandela came walking out of Victor Vester Prison hand-in-hand with Winnie Mandela. The recording of the song he had sent me was playing as the soundtrack to this amazing scenario. Jabu and I stood hand-in-hand in our Harlem brownstone building’s bedroom with tears of joy streaming down our cheeks. It was four o’clock in the morning in New York City as we watched this miracle unfold on television.

The streets of Cape Town were choc-a-block with a kaleidoscope of South Africans waving and cheering in hypnotic rapture and ecstasy. The whole world was watching and applauding our country. In July of that year, my sister Barbara and Miriam Makeba called me at my Harlem home, claiming they were in Johannesburg. I obviously took this for a joke. Barbara then said, “OK, Hugh, listen to this!” I heard a male voice with a very strong Xhosa accent declaring very authoritatively. “Hugh, it is time for you to come home now. Go to the South African embassy and tell them I sent you to have a visa put in your Ghana passport. You will receive your South African travel documents when you get here.”

It was Nelson Mandela speaking.

I travelled to South Africa in September after 30 years in exile. Our mother Paulina had lost her life in a 1978 car and train “accident.” Barbara and I had not been able to come home and bury her. Early in 1991, Madiba was in Japan with Barbara, who was now his Chief of Staff. I received their phone call back in Harlem: “Hugh, as the eldest child in your family, I am asking you to request your grandmother and father to please forgive me, as they will see very little of Barbara over the next four years. Implore them to please understand that I cannot function without Barbara. Please do this for me, Hugh.”

It was in April 1991 that I arrived back home to begin a four-month national concert tour with two of South Africa’s top groups, Bayete and Sankomota; the female trio, Palesa; and the Baobab Dancers. This was a cast of 38 artists along with a crew of 60 people working as security, catering, stage production, and transportation staff. Our very first performance was at the home of Anglo-Vaal Mining Company boss Clive Mennel, who had been at the helm of raising production funds for the smash musical King Kong in 1958.

Clive’s guest of honor was Nelson Mandela, who wished us a prosperous tour. That was the first time we witnessed a live “Madiba Dance.” I remember thinking to myself that I had never seen anybody dance with so much joy on their face. Music seemed to fill Madiba with an unfathomable depth of delight. I have yet to run into a person who dances with that kind of euphoria gripping their whole being.

Our tour was extremely successful. We filled large arenas and marquees in all the big cities, but the audiences never warmed up to “Bring Back… .”

This was a time of major armed conflict between political parties. In spring 1991, Mandela invited previously exiled artists Miriam Makeba, Letta Mbulu, Jonas Gwangwa, and me to his Soweto home, where he was living with Winnie Mandela. After a hearty welcome, he treated us to a scrumptious South African meal with an Eastern Cape flair.

“I asked my wife to arrange lunch for us today,” he announced, “so that I can be able to welcome you back home and let you know how thrilled we are that you have returned. During our years in prison, your songs helped to strengthen and empower us. They filled us with great hope and inspiration to remain focused and determined to keep up the fight for liberty.”

Every time I was in his presence, I could sense the pressure Dalibhunga was under to fulfill the aspirations South Africans expected him to deliver. I knew that what he honestly wished for all of us was not necessarily acceptable to those elements profiting from the status quo. I am sure he knew that, and the humbler he tried to be, the more the human race deified him. His philosophy of forgiveness became a perfect hiding place for those who feared the nationalization of their opulent wealth acquired over a century of cheap labor exploits, land grabbing, and raw material rape.

Mandela’s passion for just wealth sharing and the dictates of a Freedom Charter he co-authored in the mid-1950s did not sit well with many industrial captains. I admired how he sincerely tried to please everyone, but I had a feeling that he knew his real dreams would be hard to deliver. He would try his utmost best to convince all of South African society to aim for peace and reconciliation. Nonetheless, I sympathized strongly with his frustration at how segregated South Africa still remained.

Before he became president, Madiba never spent more than two nights in the same house because his life was under constant threat at the time. In 1993, Oliver Tambo, president of the ANC and Dalibhunga’s former law partner and armed struggle co-founder, passed away. His memorial reception was held at one of the Carlton Hotel’s ballrooms in downtown Johannesburg. It was an international who’s-who gathering.

The apartheid government’s Foreign Minister, Pik Botha, was a guest at that event, along with author-poet Maya Angelou and other stellar figures. Madiba kindly introduced me to Minister Botha, who reached out with his right hand to shake mine. I had great difficulty bringing my hands from where I had them folded behind my back, and somehow I managed a polite bow. The Foreign Minister got it right away and went off to speak to another guest after I said curtly, “Good evening, Mr. Minister.” Mandela looked at me quizzically and asked, “Hugh, why did you not shake the Minister’s hand?” “Tata,” I replied, “I’m afraid to touch the blood on his hands.” Mandela smiled and said, “You must try very hard to forgive, Hugh. Our nation is going to need that very critically.” He then walked off to engage in conversation with others present.

During the last two weeks of November 1991, I was one of the 176 South African artists invited to perform at a three-day music festival called “Children of Africa.” The festival was the brainchild of Nigerian mogul Chief Kalu, who had persuaded Miriam Makeba to head the South African group. She recruited Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Bayete, director Mbongeni Ngema, and the entire cast of the musical Sarafina. Nigeria Airways was to carry us to Lagos, but the airline refused to land in Johannesburg as long as the apartheid government was still in office. Several buses drove us to Gaborone, where a jetliner awaited the South African artists. Rita Marley, Nina Simone, Kool and the Gang, several other U.S. artists, Osibisa, King Sunny Ade, and a host of Nigerian artists were on the bill.

The local organizers were so clueless that managers of unscheduled local bands forced their groups onto the stage, thus preventing us from performing until 5:30 a.m. on the fourth day when just about every stadium seat was bare. By then, Makeba and Chaka Chaka had refused to go on stage. Chief Kalu and the local production team had disappeared. We were unable to leave Nigeria for more than a week, during which time members of our contingent made panicked calls to South Africa. Makeba and Chaka Chaka eventually recruited their friend, Queen Akosoba of the Delta States, to intervene with the Minister of Aviation, who finally provided an aircraft to fly us home following a nerve-wrecking week at the Durbar Hotel, which had run out of food and booze. The management was refusing to cater to us any further.

The Minister of Aviation and a government delegation led our convoy to the airport, where they apologized to us and handed Makeba £100,000 to help cover whatever inconveniences might have been caused by our over-long, unscheduled stay. We landed at Gaborone after midnight, and I managed to get everyone booked into hotels and motels with the help of friends I had cultivated when I lived in Botswana. Makeba gave me the envelope from the Aviation Minister so I could take care of the accommodation and transportation costs for everybody in the morning. The remaining money was distributed among most of those performers and crew members who had gone to Nigeria with us.

Before that morning, however, rumors had begun circulating among the media that Makeba had kept the £100,000 for herself. I immediately called a press conference, where I asked the reporters to withdraw this lie and apologize to Makeba, who had, for years, contributed millions of her own money to the cause of universal African liberation at the expense of an extremely lucrative career, which she had sacrificed to support the movement.

Nelson Mandela later summoned me to his house. He was extremely angered by this attack on a woman for whom he’d nurtured a sincerely deep admiration. He had great respect for the fight she had put up against injustice and regularly applauded her courage. He solemnly declared: “Hugh, I want to personally thank you for defending Miriam. I would have done exactly the same had I been with you in Nigeria and known all the facts. I felt so helpless because had I been in government already, I would have initiated an official intervention. Thank you for standing up to the media, Hugh. Miriam is one of our most valuable treasures and an international legendary icon. She does not deserve the kind of discredit that was directed at her.”

In 1995, Mandela invited Queen Elizabeth to South Africa. She organized a royal banquet in his honor on her yacht, the HMS Britannia, which was docked in the port of Durban. I attended with the great Busi Mhlongo. Madiba stood with the Queen and Prince Philip at the yacht’s entrance to welcome and introduce guests to the royal couple.

“Liz,” he told the Queen, “although they may be a drop in the ocean of our outstanding artists, these two people have brought immeasurable glory to our country.”

The Queen took my hand and asked in a high-pitched, aristocratic, English tone, “Do you toot, bang, or shout?”—to which Madiba tactfully answered, “Both of them do all that and much more.”

“They must be extraordinary, then,” responded the Queen, as Prince Phillip shoved Busi and I ahead to make way for the next guests to meet Elizabeth II.

Later on that evening, I asked Madiba: “Tata, how come you don’t address the Queen as ‘Your Majesty’ like all of us have to?” He looked at me and smiled, “Hugh, she realized very long ago that I am a king.” We both laughed.

In 1996, ours was one of the groups Madiba selected to accompany him to the Prince’s Trust concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall along with Sibongile Khumalo, Tamia, Phil Collins, Quincy Jones, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and the Soshanguve Singers, to name a few. Madiba had the Queen and her family doing the “Madiba Dance” in the royal box. Nobody had ever seen her majesty “get down” like that. I could not recall when I had ever even seen her dancing. All evening, she humbly trotted like a little puppy alongside Mandela’s long strides.

In introducing the Queen to all of us who were standing in line to greet her, Mandela declared: “Liz, let us thank these talented greats for their wonderful performances tonight.”

“Yes, Nelson,” she replied dutifully.

“Okay, Liz?” he persisted.

“Yes, Nelson.”

And that is how they carried on all evening.

In 1993, our band accompanied Mandela to Leeds and Birmingham, where the British were to grant him the run of the two cities and lifetime citizenship. In Birmingham’s 6,000- seat Symphony Hall, Madiba gave a speech wherein he told the audience how he and his fellow prisoners would sing liberation songs when they were feeling downright low. He broke into an a capella chant for just shy of a minute and then attempted to continue his talk. But it was too late: all 6,000 people had jumped up out of their seats absolutely stunned. They then started a round of applause that went on for 10 minutes, accompanied by wild screams, foot stomping, and shrill, eardrum-searing whistling.

“Thank you, ladies and gentleman,” Madiba responded. Thank you. Please sit down. Thank you, please sit down.” He appeared to be thoroughly embarrassed by this unexpected reaction from the audience. Later on, I said to him backstage, “Tata, you sounded so good, you should seriously consider putting together your fellow prison mates for a recording of the songs you sang on Robben Island.” He just looked at me in serious disbelief. “Hugh, you are trying to turn me into a laughing stock!” Then he went to speak to a group standing near us.

My younger sister, Barbara, sometimes asked me to drive her to Madiba’s Johannesburg home long after they had both retired from the life of politics. On one such afternoon, we were sitting in his lounge when he kicked back in his favorite arm chair, looked me straight in the eye, and asked: “Hugh, you live a very strenuous life of travel and back-to-back performances. Do you ever take a nap?”

“No, Tata, I don’t take naps. Why? ” I replied, curiously.

He seemed to love taking long pauses, probably to ensure that what he would say next was very accurately on target, and after doing so, he said: “Well, you need to. You are not getting any younger. I want you to know that I am one of the world’s foremost experts on napping.”

This last statement threw Barbara and me into a fit of laughter. Tata, however, continued straight-faced. “Seriously,” he said. ”You see, napping is an art. For instance, if you lie down, that is not napping. That is sleeping. Very few people know this. The officially ideal nap can only be achieved sitting. You only realize you have fallen asleep when you come awake from it. That is a nap, my friend.”

He continued: “Now, let me tell you this. There is no greater nap than one you take standing up!”

I was trying my best not to fall out of my chair with laughter. Tata waited until I had almost stopped. He is a master of timing. Then he said:

“Before I owned a car, I would be standing in a crowded bus or train carriage on my way home from the office. Hanging onto the leather strap dangling from the roof, I would pass out until my fellow travellers would awaken me at my stop. Now my friend, I assure you. There is no greater nap than that.”

Tata enjoyed a good laugh. He was the all-time sit-down comedian.

At a 1999 invitational dinner in their Houghton home, Graça Machel and Tata hosted veteran actor Ken Gampu, singers Dorothy Masuka and Dolly Rathebe, and me. Miriam Makeba could not attend because she was on tour somewhere in Europe. We sat down for a simple dinner.

“I have called you here tonight not for any serious matter,” he said, “but to bask in the glory of all that you have achieved over many decades to help make the world realize who we are. Most of all, I thank you for your selfless endeavors and sacrifices that you undertook to keep our names alive and the spirit of our nation inspired. I just need you to know that what you have worked for is sincerely appreciated. Let us eat and drink to your good health.”

Tata began to pour each one of us a generous portion of vintage South African red wine. A year earlier, I had returned from an alcohol and substance abuse recovery center in the South of England, where I subsequently studied the psychology of addiction and the art of counselling. I informed Madiba that I had not had a drink in over a year. Unfazed, he said, “But Hugh, my doctor tells me that a glass of wine with your meal is beneficial to your health.”

“I’m not drinking, Tata” I repeated.

“Well, you must consider the occasional glass of wine, my man. You need not drink to get drunk, you know. You must practice strong discipline in life without depriving yourself of the good things. Your wellness is paramount. Total abstinence leaves you fearing yourself. That is as unhealthy as evangelizing about sobriety.”

Since then, I do have the occasional tipple. Tata helped me remove the fear of self from my life. I will never follow the self-destructive path I once did.

That same year, Madiba requested that Sibongile and I organize a small artists’ forum with which he could periodically interact to understand the needs of the arts community. We submitted the list of names to his office but did not hear back from him. One evening at a tribute to Graça Machel, I went to greet Tata at his lounge table. He was very cordial to my partner, then asked her to return to her lounge seat and asked me to sit next to him.

With a soft but seething hiss in his voice, he said to me very angrily, “Your list was very disconcerting. On a serious note, I found it to be gravely racist. We have artists in this country who may be of European origin but they are South Africans just like you and I. In fact, many of them have made substantial contributions towards change in our land. It is unfortunate that a person of your stature and outstanding achievements could be so unappreciative of this fact. You can go back to your lady friend now, Hugh, but do not forget what I have just said to you.”

Inside the small auditorium, prior to Graça’s talk, Madiba announced that it was past his bed time and that, sadly, he would have to miss her speech. He then kissed her passionately to joyous applause. On his walk down the middle aisle, he waved delightedly to the audience, a proud smile on his face. I was seated in the second to last row. He stopped to give me a warm hug, then he whispered “Thank you, Hugh for coming to support Graça.” Those words said, Dalibhunga disappeared into the night.

At the conclusion of his presidential term, Nelson Mandela conferred the first national awards on several of us inside the auditorium of his Pretoria offices. Miriam Makeba and trombonist Jonas Gwangwa were the two other musicians besides myself who received awards. When I walked up to accept mine, I thought I would contribute a light moment to the seriously heavy ceremonial atmosphere.

“Thank you, Tata,” I began. “I hope there’s a check in the envelope!” That failed to get a chuckle out of him. Instead, he gave me a solemn look and said, “My dear Hugh, to receive a cheque at any awards, you have to first spend a very long time in prison.” We both chuckled under our breath. Madiba was faster than Winston Churchill or Groucho Marx with the come-back response.

Four years into Madiba’s Presidency, I bought a farm about 90 kilometres west of Johannesburg. One morning, I got a call from him: “Hugh,” he said, “I want three of my youngest grandchildren to learn how to play the piano. I wish to buy them the instrument so that they can receive lessons here at home. I can’t do the purchase myself because the sales people may end up overcharging me. Can you help me, man?”

Per Tata’s instructions, I collected a check from his business administrator, Ayob Khan, and had a baby grand piano delivered to his home. The owner of the piano shop was angry with me for not informing him that the instrument was for Nelson Mandela. A month later, I got a call from Tata.

“Hugh, man, my children are not enjoying the European woman who is teaching them classical music. Are you able to recommend someone who is able to make their learning more interesting?”

I spoke to Themba Mkhize, one of the greatest living pianists and an outstanding master at utilizing an accelerated method that can have a student playing songs on the instrument within a week (if they have a natural gift for music, that is). After a couple of months, Themba told me the boys stopped coming to lessons because their parents did not share Tata’s enthusiasm for his grandchildren’s music lessons. I later ran into the children’s mother, who told me nonchalantly, “Agh! No, man!!! Themba lives too far.” It was 5:30 a.m. one daybreak in 2002 when my land line began ringing off the hook. I was still in dreamland in my cozy farmhouse bedroom. I tried to ignore the phone but the caller redialled.

“Hello, do you know what time it is?” I shouted into the receiver. “How can you call people so early in the morning? Don’t you have any regard for a person who is trying to rest?”

“Hugh! Good morning!” It was Tata.

Of course, my disposition changed instantly. “Morning, Tata. Is something wrong?”

“Man, I need your help urgently! Can you come and see me?”

“Okay, Tata. When do you want me??”

“Right now, Hugh,” he claimed. “Right now.”

Fifteen minutes later, I was flying down the highway to Jo’burg.

“Thank you for coming, Hugh,” he said, hurrying me into the foyer. “There is tea or coffee and some muffins. Now here is my problem: You know that President Samora Machel was an unswerving supporter of our liberation struggle. I have organized a fitting tribute for him at Gallagher Estate, where I want you to be the master of ceremonies. Here is my dilemma—because Machel loved music so much, there will be some of our best artists entertaining us on that evening. I chose a production company to put the whole evening together. But Hugh, I don’t know anything about this business. I need you to look into the producers and find out for me if they have quoted the proper fees.

You have to understand that I have raised the money from people who have helped me through the years to assist the less fortunate, and I must rely on them for future projects. I can’t afford for their contributions to be misappropriated. Here is the producer’s number. Can you please do this for me, Hugh?”

“Of course, I’ll do it, Tata.”

The head of the production company was the man who signed me to Sony Records-South Africa. When I returned home, Lindelani Mkhize was so happy to hear from me because they were short R250,000 and he hadn’t known who to speak to about it. When I assured Madiba that Lindelani was genuine and would do a great job on the production, Tata was grateful.

“Thank you, Hugh,” he said, “Now, watch this!” and he picked up the phone and dialled.

“Hello, Tokyo? Now you know Samora Machel was a dedicated supporter of our liberation. I have organized a grand tribute for him but ran a little short on operational funds. Now Cyril has given me R500,000. I know that you will not let Cyril beat you on this. Aaah!! Thank you, Tokyo, I knew I could depend on you.”

He turned to me, smiling like a mischievous urchin. ”Now watch this…”

He repeated the same line on two more people and got their support.

“Well, Hugh, now we have R1,5 million. We will have plenty of standby funds in case there is a shortage somewhere. Thank you, Hugh. We will get Lindelani what he needs right away!”

With that, I took my leave from Madiba. Sade’s hit song, “Smooth Operator,” came to my mind. Madiba never lost his street smarts.

The last time I saw Tata was at his late son Makgatho’s memorial church services, in a chapel near his Jo’burg home. He had aged tremendously and looked very frail as Graça Machel held him up on one side and Winnie Madikizela held him up on the other. When they reached my aisle pew, he smiled at me in joyous recognition. He took both my hands in his and said in a soft voice, “Thank you, Hugh, for attending my son’s church service. Take good care of yourself.”

With those words, Dalibhunga shuffled away, his two beloved wives shoring him up on either side.

“What a great dude!” I thought to myself.

edited by the English Department at Howard University