Border design

Hugh on Hair


by Hugh Masekela
Heritage Day

Chris Rock, the African American comedy megastar, movie actor, and film director recently decided on doing serious research about hair following a plea from his young daughters.

They dreamt of wearing “good hair” because of peer pressure from schoolmates and neighbourhood friends who had ceased to don their natural hairstyles. Their mates and buddies were now rocking Indian, Brazilian, Peruvian and European weaves, wigs or chemically transformed locks, even plastic and horsehair.

A seemingly dazed Chris Rock’s “Good Hair” documentary went on to become an international box-office success in theatres around the world. African people’s hair has always been a universal issue of major intrigue and an amazing psychological jigsaw puzzle regarding their identity, image, self-esteem and heritage.

My maternal grandfather was a devious mining engineer from Scotland who married our Ndebele grandmother at the beginning of the 20th century. My mother therefore emerged as a “mixed-breed”, a “Mulatto”, a “Coloured” person with straight hair; in the Witbank-Emalahleni location of Kwa-Guqa inside Mpumalanga province where I was born.

My three younger sisters were “blessed” with semi-straight hair. Most of my mother’s light-skinned relatives had similar varieties of “good hair”. My own hair pursued that of our father’s texture and variety although it retains up to this day a slight softness inherited from mother’s side.

Dad was Karanga/Pedi and therefore not easily acceptable to many of my mom’s “Kleuring” relatives. In the townships, we were “Maasbigir”, “Amperbaas”. As a child I was subjected to regular mention of my mop as being “Kaffirhare”(Kaffir-hair). “Korrelkop”(Maize cob-row head), “Hottentotmat” (Khoi San [aboriginal South Africans] mat) and other derogatory terms associated with indigenous coifs. Such words came from my Afrikaans-speaking granny (when it was appropriate) when her “Oorlams” (Dutch-rooted) relations, many of whom were Ndebele and Pedi would say to her “Haai Joanna maar die kind het lelike hare, wragtig!”. I began to realize right then that the criticism of my people’s hair quality has subconsciously instilled in them a deep measure of embarrassment and shame over what sat on their heads.

When the apartheid regime came into power in 1948, it was romantically sentimental about treating and classifying the Afrikaans-speaking “Coloureds” as officially superior to us “natives”. Of exploiting tribalism, institutionalizing ethnic-grouping and establishing legal racism based on white supremacy. Not that the structures did not exist before or during colonial times. Only now they were administrative law, enshrined to an absurd level of constitutionalized slavery. Within all the ensuing racist insanity, those indigenous people who wished to acquire ”Coloured” status because of its “half-white” privileges straightened their hair with the aid of hot-combs, creating a putrid smell in the air, torturing the nostrils but guaranteeing the wearers success in the apartheid regime’s “comb-test”.

This examination ensured that if the comb did not get stuck in the hair but rolled smoothly over the head, then the examinee lawfully became a “Coloured”. The utter absurdity of it all still boggles the mind. Many women took the “cliff-dive” into hot-comb hair-straightening, skin-lightening and passing for identities as far removed as possible from African – or as Europeans loved to call us “Kaffirs” – regardless of how dark skinned they were. It caused deep pity inside my young soul to observe a people so ashamed their beginnings. It still does. How lethal the severe sword of oppression!? When I entered my late teens, I began to realize that African people were successfully being manipulated into believing not only that they were inferior to Europeans, Asians and Coloureds, but also that their own hair texture and its quality had to be perceived as unmanageable, uncivilized, primitive and backward. To be socially acceptable, Africans had now to contemplate upgrading the feel of their tresses to a level closer to that of real “Coloureds” (there were many fake ones), Asians and Europeans. Hair industries in the USA, Caribbean and South America emerged to exploit the hundred-and something-years-old inferiority complex of most people of African origin about their “nappy heads”. Ironically, one of the foremost pioneers of “soft” hair for so-called “Blacks” was a Madam Jackson, an African-American who went on to become a multi-millionaire from her transformatory initiatives early in the 20th century.

Shortly before I left South Africa in 1960 to study music in abroad, the hair straightening, wig-manufacturing and skin-lightening industries were taking root in Africa. Many women destroyed their beautiful faces, which often got badly burnt by the creams. The burns are called “chubabas” in Southern Africa.

In Central Africa; because of the hot humid weather, men and women turn yellow from the applications. In my African travels, I’ve seen some outrageous spectacles!!!

The most comical portrait that comes to mind is that of Ghana’s first independence cabinet of Kwame Nkurumah in 1957 where everyone is resplendent in traditional Kente-weave costumes with all the wives proudly sporting sparkling Indian-style wigs. I am pained whenever I view that portrait. I try to imagine the wives of a European country’s cabinet or female soldiers in Asian armies wearing African short hair wigs and I am really tempted to chuckle but the laughable probability rather saddens me instead.

Especially that Kwame Nkrumah is supposedly one the fathers of Pan-Africanism, (May Robert Sobukwe and Steve Bantu Bikos spirits rest in peace) the portrait blows my mind.

To watch the Royal Reed ceremonies of KwaZulu and Swaziland with the young maidens in traditional threads, tall reeds in hand, fills one with so much admiration for the regalia, the music and the dances. However on realising that the majority of the heads are crowned with black, blonde, platinum and rainbow-coloured wigs and tresses, I tend to cringe with overwhelming amazement. Are the Kings really admiring the headdresses??

When I arrived in New York City, I could not find a barbershop in Harlem that would afford me a haircut. Almost all “Negro” men’s heads were wrapped in straightened, chemicalised “Hairdos”. They would inform me that only very young “Negro” boys wore natural hairstyles aside from Sidney Poitier, Malcolm X, Ossie Davis, Harry Belafonte, Martin Luther King, (and most of his team); footballer Jim Brown and a small minority of prominent African males. Very few “Negroes” of the era wanted to be associated with the continent of their roots. “Ya’ll, got fruits and vegetables in Africa?? I’m an American; I ain’t no African, man!! I’m a Negro!!” They would assure me of this fact in dismissive, agitated and angry tone of voice.

Miriam Makeba, Odetta, Abbey Lincoln, Cecily Tyson, Maya Angelou and few others who wore their hair natural then; were deemed to be strange women. People who were doing the opposite considered “Own natural hair” as almost bordering on terrorism, paganism and extremism; they felt threatened by the look.

Most whites viewed it as typical examples of cheeky, troublemaking “Nigras”.

To me, this negative disposition felt like arrogant censure and negation of my heritage’s exceptional history and its glorious contribution to human knowledge in several fields of the arts, sciences and philosophy.

With the emergence of “Black Power” revolution spearheaded by Stokely Carmichael in 1967 finally tearing down American white racist stereotypes about African peoples, many former “Negroes” began to wear dashiki shirts with “headmops” that became known as “Afros” or just “Froes”.

For a while, the African diaspora was captivated by a new pride over their naturalness. Alex Haley’s “Roots” television hit series in the mid-1970’s tracing his family history back to ancient Gambia in West Africa was a massive international smash and powerful stimulant. It caused African traditional couture to gain a large following around the world. However, the euphoria was not to last long. By the 1980’s, the return to Western and Asian wigs and extensions pointed to a U-turn from what had seemed like beginnings of an ultimate African renaissance.

Today, African women the world over spend tens of billions in dollars to acquire Brazilian, Indian, Chinese and Peruvian locks, many from heads of the dead. From a traditional perspective, the practice is macabre and ghoulish.

Skin lighteners are back in full force. The new fads and fashions are a vilification and denigration of centuries old African tradition and heritage. I am thrilled by the welcome discovery of scores of African hairstyles that are possible because the tresses are, malleable enough to sculpt into dazzling looks in all colours. On the other hand European and Asian hair only hangs downward unless fastened and clipped with all manner of pins and needles. It seems to lay so strangely on African molded features.

From my viewpoint, manipulation of African people to look down upon their natural beauty and their subsequent exploitation by international skin-lightening cream, hair extension and wig retailers is truly a tragic return to the thinking that was prevalent during my childhood, teenage and coming-of-age days when we had to listen to talk of “Kaffirhare”, “Korrelkoppe”, “Hottentotmatte”, “nappy heads”, “plantation cotton-pickin ‘Nigger’ Looks” and all other terms that mock our origins. Today we use glossier and smarter words today but they still remain demeaning.

I have registered the Hugh Masekela Heritage Foundation to (i) attempt restoring back into our lives knowledge of our historic past and researching the genealogy of every family. Also to (ii) interview every aged person 85years and older so as to capture whatever memories, wisdoms and ancient know-how they might still be able to recall. All the information will be preserved and stored in databases for access to our past.

(iii)To encourage the relearning of mother tongues, poetry, praises and literature for present and future generations to possess as a mirror against consumption by other cultures, (iv) To revive artisanship study in the areas of indigenous manufacture of household goods to elevate the study of carpentry, construction, weaving, linen manufacture, design, stone-masonry, mosaic, art, traditional music, dance and sport. Hopefully, this initiative will aid us to gradually cut down on our blatant consumership of foreign goods and cultures, subsequently turning us into a seller society instead of the buyers that we are today.

In view of all I have stated above, it would be hypocritical of me to appear in photos with people donning foreign wigs, chemically–altered hairdos, extensions, Asian, European, and South American extensions except in cases where if I refuse could result in my imprisonment, deportation or demise.

In conclusion, I do not wish to stop anybody from the choices they make or the cultures they want to serve themselves as fodder for. I am only begging not to be forced to join the dive of the lemmings or sheep over the cliff. As you can surmise by now, I have personally had a very depressing hair life. Today and everyday these days appears to be a “bad hair” day. Painfullest is to watch government officials, “celebrities”, prominent women in business, media, sports, religion and education wearing these devices with so much deep pride, aplomb and joy; especially the old grannies who are at an age where at which nobody is “looking” anymore. I’m surprised to see people of the African female community who look like themselves in newspapers, magazines, journals, television, theatre and concerts. It is as rare a sighting as seeing an albatross.

Many employment establishments will not have them. We are living a “bad hair” life. Welcome to another “bad hair” day.

I hope that the next time I mention hair, people will try to seriously consider the afore-mentioned history before getting their feathers ruffled.

“Then give up colonial lifestyles”

rhodes statue cropped

The Herald
Zandile Mbabela

Photograph by Eugene Coetzee
Photograph by Eugene Coetzee

Trumpeting his views: If African people were so concerned about colonialism they would have to give up their largely colonial lifestyles, jazz legend Hugh Masekela said when he was presented with an honorary doctorate in music at Rhodes University in Grahamstown yesterday. Masekela was commenting on the current campaign to remove or destroy colonial-era monuments. He commended the youth for their activism, but said there were more pressing issues that needed tackling.

Jazz maestro Hugh Masekela criticised the campaign to destroy and have removed all remnants of colonialism, saying if African people were so concerned about it they would have to give up their largely colonial lifestyles.

Masekela – who received his fourth honorary doctorate, from Rhodes University, last night – said while he was encouraged by seeing young people stand for something, there were far more pressing issues needing energy and attention.

“If we were really concerned about colonisation, we would be walking around naked {because} clothes are a colonial thing and our entire lifestyles are colonial,” he said.

“In this country, a woman is raped every few minutes, we have crime, corruption, and a country that is fast turning into a rubbish dump. There are so many things to worry about.

“I’m encouraged that the born-free generation that has always been seen to be complacent is now standing up for something, but I wish that the same energy would be put into the other pressing issues as well.”

In his acceptance speech at the 1820 Settlers Monument in Grahamstown yesterday, Masekela said people did not realise just how entrenched the colonial culture was.

“We are so absorbed in other cultures that we do not realise that we spend billions of dollars on colonially introduced things.

“We do not realise we spend billions on other people’s hair,” he said, to awkward laughter.

The musician appears opposed to hair extensions and will not consent to photographs with people with fake hair. He dedicated the doctor of music degree to his late father, Thomas Selema Masekela, who did not have a degree and marvelled at those who did, including his wife who had three.

“One of my father’s biggest wishes was to have a degree, so this is for you, Selema,” he said.

Masekela jets off to Zimbabwe today for the start of a tour.

He treated graduation attendees to a rendition of a song by his ex-wife, the late Miriam Makeba, with Rhodes student Lonwabo Mafani on keyboard.

Hugh Masekela Reminisces On Musical Motivations, Mandela


WAMC Radio
Michel Martin



I’m Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. It’s summer, and for a lot of people that means music. It’s a time when many people take advantage of the many festivals going on around the country to discover new artists or reconnect with old favorites. And in that spirit, we thought we’d bring you an encore of our conversation with Hugh Masekela. He’s one of Africa’s best-known musicians. He is an international star with a career that’s spanned decades. His 1968 breakout hit, “Grazing In The Grass,” was number one on the American pop charts and a worldwide hit.


MARTIN: Masekela’s impact is really hard to describe in few words. He’s released some 40 albums – appeared on too many to count. He’s appeared with artists as wide-ranging as Herb Alpert, The Birds, Paul Simon, Fela Kuti and the late, great Miriam Makeba, to whom he was once married. Now in his 70s, Masekela is still touring, which is how we caught up with him last spring when he stopped by our studios in Washington, D.C. And I started by asking him how he fell in love with music.

HUGH MASEKELA: I got possessed by music as an infant. So by the time I started playing the trumpet, I was already a bona fide musician. And I was playing classical music as well as other things. And then, I had a beautiful high tenor voice, you know, like those British boys in the cathedral. (Singing) Ahhhh. Yeah.


MARTIN: I see.

MASEKELA: Yes. I asked for that from my chaplain at school. I was always in trouble with the authorities because my attention span was completely off because all I heard was music. So when I looked at the teachers, their mouths were just moving. And I was singing all the – Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell and, you know, all the new bebop players that just emerged. And we were mesmerized by them. And so, like, that’s what I was hearing. And whenever my name was called, I ended up at the principal’s office because I didn’t know the question. And so…

MARTIN: But also, you just had trouble – you just had trouble with authority, period. I mean – right? That’s fair to say? You just…

MASEKELA: Not really. Not really. I was a good boy, you know. My mother thought, oh, what a good boy.

MARTIN: (Laughing) Well, it came…

MASEKELA: (Laughing) I mean as a kid I was punished. I was whipped at least – on a slow day, at least three times.


MASEKELA: The preacher said, what do you want to do with your life? I said, if I can get a trumpet, Father, I won’t bother anybody anymore. So he got me a trumpet and a trumpet teacher.

MARTIN: It came to pass that you, first – I think you went to London first. And then you came to New York.


MARTIN: And you were there at such an amazing time. I mean, people like Dizzy Gillespie took you under their wing, right?

MASEKELA: Know what? I was lucky because I was brought to the stage by Miriam Makeba, who was an ex-girlfriend of mine and a dear friend. And we’d always dreamt of coming to the States, but she came a year earlier and blew the States away. She was on first-name basis with everybody. Then she and Harry Belafonte gave me a scholarship to Manhattan School of Music. I also had to work part-time in Harry Belafonte’s music publishing because (imitating Harry Belafonte) they ain’t going to give you no money. You got to work for – you know, you got to work for your money.

MARTIN: (Laughing).

MASEKELA: And we’re paying your school fees. We’re going to get you a cheap place to stay. And you got to work, man, you know. And all these people were their friends.

MARTIN: I was going to ask if you can describe what those years were like for you. I mean on the one hand, you must’ve been terribly homesick

MASEKELA: The first time I dreamt in English, I realized, you know, that I might never go home because by then, Miriam Makeba and Harry Belafonte were already banned, you know, and they were sending me to school. I think that the things that were most difficult for me were the cold.

MARTIN: The cold?

MASEKELA: Yeah. The snow and then, I mean that really made me homesick. I remember that my first snow, I wrote to my mother right away. And I took a picture in the snow. And I said, I’m not smiling. I’m grimacing from the cold. It is really cold here.

MARTIN: Were you sad during that time? Was it hard, or was it so exciting? It’s so exciting.

MASEKELA: No, I wasn’t sad because it was a great time for me. I mean, I was exposed to, like, the greatest music. It was the greatest time in music in the States, I think, you know, the 1960s. And I was really fascinated by what I was doing. I felt like I’d come to the right place at the right time. But, you know, when you’re a student and you’re in a foreign country, you miss your relatives most. You know, especially when I was hungry, I was like, damn, Saturday afternoon. I just could’ve just gone to my aunt’s place and, like, she makes the tribe stew, you know, with the hominy grits. And I’m talking to myself, you know. So one day, I was talking to myself in the park, on a Sunday afternoon. And I had a tap on my shoulder. And this cop said, (imitating police officer) excuse me, buddy, you know, see those folks over there? I say, yeah. They say they say they’ve been looking at you for two hours; you’ve been talking to yourself.


MASEKELA: (Imitating police officer) Are you OK? Then I explained to him what I was going through. He went, oh, yeah, OK. Now I know what that must feel like. And he knew everything about South Africa. Ah, those bastards.

MARTIN: He knew all about South Africa?

MASEKELA: And then we became friends for many years.

MARTIN: Really?

MASEKELA: Because he was a young policeman. I mean I was much younger. That’s how homesick you can be. But I was surrounded by so much beauty, and so much generosity and so much joy. And it was a new world. It was the world that I wanted to live in when I heard records when I was a small kid. I thought that people lived in the Gramophone, you know, in the Victrola. And I wanted to get in there and go and come and live with them.

MARTIN: (Laughing).

MASEKELA: And now here I was living with them. I mean, it was – couldn’t ask for anything more.

MARTIN: If you’re just joining us, I’m speaking with musical giant Hugh Masekela. You know, people these days often think of artists as either, you know, popular or as political. But when you came up, there was not a difference between the two. People were very interested in politics who were also very popular. And one of your – your song “Bring Him Back Home,” about Nelson Mandela – it became an anti-apartheid anthem in the late 1980s. And I just want to play a little bit.


UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (Singing) Bring back Nelson Mandela. Bring him back home to Soweto. I want to see him walking down the streets of South Africa one, one, once more.

MASEKELA: I don’t know in other countries, but, like, when I grew up, you were not political. You were bombarded by politics. So, like, we grew up in protests, rallies and boycott marches. And from time to time, there’d be shootings. And you’d watch people getting killed. And we’re not naive. And we’re not like, wow, there’s a thing called politics.


MASEKELA: We’re under its boot. And we wanted to get out of there. And that’s how we grew up. Mandela was the symbol. He was the voice of all those people. They were a whole gang of them – like, Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu and, like, all those people who came and brought us the direction to get out of our chains.

MARTIN: Yeah. Speaking of…

MASEKELA: They did their job. And they’re a hard act to follow. The greatest things is that they did for us was they said, like, never again will one group of people get to dominate another, you know. And we must try and forgive those who oppressed us and, like, build our country with them and teach them the gift of love and forgiveness.

MARTIN: Well, speaking though, of being free from chains, one of the things that was – I don’t know why I didn’t know this. I read this in your book, how just deeply involved you were with every drug there was. I mean alcohol, cocaine – you were really explicit. Well, how are you now, by the way – all good? You’re good?

MASEKELA: Well, what you see is what you get.

MARTIN: I hear you. Why…

MASEKELA: I mean how do I look for a 74-year-old guy?

MARTIN: You look great. Oh, you look, you look pretty great.


MARTIN: You know, controversial now, giving compliments about people’s appearance, you may have heard.

MASEKELA: How sexist can you be?

MARTIN: I know. I’m sorry – apologize.

MASEKELA: (Laughing).

MARTIN: But you opened the door, so – do you have any thoughts about why? Was that just the way it was at the time?

MASEKELA: When I grew up, liquor was illegal for African people in South Africa. It only was legalized – I was here a year when it was legalized in South Africa.


MASEKELA: And there were speakeasies all over. I mean, every fifth house in the townships of the rural areas was a speakeasy. And my grandmother – a speakeasy – and they were called shebeens. And I was born in my grandmother’s shebeen. And drunkenness, to a great extent, was a form of defiance, you know. And there were people who were famous for being great drinkers. There were people, when they entered the room, people would take off their hats – said, this man can drink. There was that prestige. I started drinking when I was 13 years old. But I started drinking out of, like, peer pressure because I had the most beautiful voice. And they were beginning to look at girls. And my friends said, man, we can’t hang out with you anymore ’cause we’re beginning to look at the babes, and here you are, singing in their range, you know. It puts a little damper on us, you know, so we – so finally I said, what should I do? They said, well, you have to drink and smoke so, like, your voice can get messed up. And then you can sing bass.

MARTIN: (Laughing).

MASEKELA: And I worked on that. And I – a year later, I was singing bass. My voice was destroyed. And the girls were not impressed. But…

MARTIN: How old were you when you finally got sober? How old were you? I forget now. You were…

MASEKELA: Fifty-eight.

MARTIN: Fifty-eight.

MASEKELA: Yeah. I didn’t get sober. I stopped killing myself. There’s a difference. You know, like, I think that you shouldn’t stop enjoying life. But you just have to stop beating yourself up and other people and hanging out with people who are beating themselves up.

MARTIN: What has kept your music so fresh and exciting? What has kept you so – continuing to work?

MASEKELA: Well, first of all, if music was the devil, I would need an exorcist. That’s how, you know, obsessed and possessed I am with it. And I’ve always been like that. And I think, like, when you’re not tunnel-visioned you become a better person. You understand humanity much more. And music is a gateway to the world. You know, so I think that what I do is always fresh because I’m always, like – I’m fascinated by everything.

MARTIN: I can’t let you go without asking you about Miriam Makeba ’cause you were such a – you’re both so brilliant. But just hearing about your relationship, it just sounds – it’s just like such a nightmare on one hand. On the other hand, so – I don’t even know what to make of it, really.

MASEKELA: Oh, yeah, I mean, our personal relationship was like, not even hills – mountains and valleys. But Miriam Makeba was the epitome, the very portrait of what Africa was about. You know, her grandmother, and her great-grandmother and her mother were all traditional healers. Miriam Makeba helped everybody she could have a chance to help, regardless of who they were. And she helped every liberation movement in Africa and outside Africa – the civil rights movements, in South America. And she would take her last clothes and give them to students or, like, buy medicine for refugee camps. And she was the most generous person I have ever known, you know, and…

MARTIN: But your personal relationship just sounds like a nightmare. Just…

MASEKELA: Well, it wasn’t a nightmare for us, you know.


MASEKELA: It might look like a nightmare, but it was – when you grow up in the township, what me and Miriam went through overseas is very light stuff…


MASEKELA: Compared to, like, what happens even in the ghetto, you know, where, like there’s – you know, there’s even killings, you know, because people out there are pretty loose.

MARTIN: You have had such an amazing life. You’ve seen so many things. You’ve been part of so many musical movements. I don’t even know where to start. But do you have some advice for someone who loves music as you do?

MASEKELA: Well, I think that the best advice you can give anybody is that if they love something and they want to be involved with it, the first thing they have to do is to be honest with themselves. How much do they like this and do they have a passion for it? And second, they have to be, like, honest about, have they been told that they seem to be very talented in this field? Because whatever you go into, you have to go in there to be the best. There’s no formulas. It’s all about passion and honesty and hard work. It might look glamorous, but it takes a lot of hard work. The blessing with the arts is that you can do it forever until you drop dead. That’s the blessing. And I’m 74, and I feel that I’m just beginning. So I think I’m very fortunate to have been, like, bedeviled by music.

Alf Kumalo


A Tribute by Hugh Masekela


Drum magazine was founded through the genius of Jim Bailey, an extremely non-conformist and unconventional young white entrepreneur who had identified a colossal void in South Africa’s publishing industry. Bailey realized that there was a growing urban African township generation which had begun to celebrate music, glamour, cinema, fashion and sports; an indigenous population that was deep into political resistance, ethnic pride, upward mobility and the scandal and gossip that comes with it.

The cover of Drum always featured a stunning African woman in a revealing swimsuit. South Africa’s first non-white film star, singer Dolly Rathebe sporting a flimsy bikini was what got the magazine flying off the newsstands. It created a new window for beauty queens like Mary “Kel” Masoabi, the nation’s first Miss South Africa followed by the breathtaking Hazel Futa, the sizzling Irene Batchelor, singers Dorothy Masuka, Miriam Makeba and scores of other stunning African belles.

With the entrenchment of legalized racism called Apartheid, Drum regularly featured investigative articles on the inhumanity of the new racist administration. It highlighted the regimes growing atrocities and the dramatic challenges facing it from the resilient African National Congress under the leadership of Albert Luthuli, Oliver Tambo, Duma Nokwe, Lilian Ngoyi, Nelson Mandela, Ida Mtwana, Yusuf Cachalia and many other fearless militants who spent most of the 1950s and early 1960s in treason trials, imprisonment, banishment, torture and executions. Drum Magazine was always on the scene at trials, rallies, marches, protests, strikes, boycotts and Apartheid government massacres.

Bailey built a powerful team of gifted, young and highly intellectual writers out of Henry Nxumalo, Can Themba, Casey Motsisi, Bloke Modisane, Arthur Maimane, Vusi Make, Todd Matshikiza, Nat Nakana and Lewis Nkosi including photo journalists Bob Gosani, Peter Magubane, Jurgen Schaderberg, David Goldblatt and Alf Kumalo who went on to become one of the world’s most celebrated photographers.

Over a period of more than sixty years, until his sudden illness and demise in 2012, Alf Kumalo photographed countless Apartheid atrocities and massacres of African protesters. His pictures appeared in international print and television media, turning him into an arch-enemy of the bigoted white autocracy. Bra Alf also published books on township life, Nelson Mandela, Winnie Mandela, African beauties, famous entertainers and athletes. He became a close friend of the leading sports heroes and was always Muhammad Ali’s special guest at all of the heroic champion’s fights.

I first met Bra Alf in 1956 when the Huddleston Jazz Band at St. Peter’s – my Johannesburg suburban boarding school – received a trumpet from the great Louis Armstrong. Like the high fashion dresser Bra Alf was, I had also developed a love for fine clothes. He took me to Sophiatown, Joburg’s glamorous township, where he made me take off my expensive shoes, roll up my pant’s cuffs and jump into the air holding the trumpet high above my head. I hated the picture because it was so square and unhip; an image that would lose me buddies like myself who were into beautiful threads, not to mention my girlfriends. Bra Alf assured me.

“Hugh, this is going to be a very famous picture, you’ll see”.

To my great consternation, it did become just that. By the 1980’s, it was used for many African CD music compilations and other entertainment features in Europe and America, endlessly haunting me. I gave in when Random House chose it for the cover of my autobiography, “Still Grazing”.

Alf Kumalo said very proudly, “What did I tell you??”

In 1979, Bra Alf, who showed up at many concerts I did with Miriam Makeba, got township show promoter Blowie Moloi to plan concerts for us in Lesotho, Swaziland and Botswana. South African audiences would see us for the first time since our twenty years in exile. Alf Khumalo took an historic photograph of me and Miriam regarding South Africa from Lesotho’s Maseru border, unable to cross over. The picture was on the entire front page of the next day’s Johannesburg Star newspaper with the title, “So near yet so far”.

The great lensman remained a wondrous contact and bridge between me and my family, subsequently becoming a close friend of my father’s. When I finally returned home after thirty years in exile, Bra Alf was at the airport. For the next twenty years, he hounded me to repeat the jumping up in the air with the trumpet pose. I consistently refused. Following my return home, we became even closer friends and eventual neighbours. I treasure a giant portrait of Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela for which he twisted my arm to buy. During his final years we spent many memorable times together and I feel his absence with very little joy. His spirit, however, continues to rise and rise.

Bra Hugh Remembers Mandela (Short)



In 1955 a large, multiethnic 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…

edited by the English Department at Howard University

Full Article

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