OPINION: Defiant at his end but was Mandoza the face of a one-hit genre?
In his last ever performance‚ at the controversial Thank You SABC concert‚ a frail and gravely ill Mandoza told his audience that he was still alive‚ and that he was going to rock Orlando stadium. “I’m here tonight to perform for you!” the 38-year-old kwaito star shouted. “To show you the devil is a liar! Devil is a liar!”
They were courageous‚ defiant words. But what followed was prosaic‚ and brought the curtain down on a career that had once seemed so promising.
In the hours after his death on Sunday‚ his manager‚ Kevin Ntaopane‚ fighting back his tears‚ told an SABC news anchor what Mandoza really meant that evening.
“Let me put it simple. Yes‚ he was sick. He was under doctor’s orders. He said‚ ‘I’m going to perform and prove to the people that … I’m not dead. I’ll die on stage. I’ll die singing. And‚ I was born to do this. And no sickness‚ no death‚ will stop Mandoza. Until my last day’.”
Rubbish. He should never have been there; the man was blind‚ dying. Held up by members of his crew — possibly to prevent him from falling off the stage‚ or just to point him towards the audience — he launched into the song that defined him and made him a mega-star‚ Nkalakatha.
Or rather‚ an emaciated version of it. It was an eviscerated mess — a gutless‚ churning horror show.
The concert itself‚ an all-day event on Saturday‚ September 10‚ was a hastily convened vanity project to boost the ego of the SABC’s hubristic chief operating officer‚ Hlaudi Motsoeneng.
It should never have been staged‚ and it was obvious that by the time Mandoza took the stage‚ in the evening‚ the day had been a monumental flop. Barely a thousand music fans had turned up at the 40‚000-seater stadium.
That didn’t stop Motsoeneng‚ with Communications Minister Faith Muthambi and SABC chairperson Obert Maguvhe in tow‚ from clambering on stage as Mandoza and his crew prepared for their all-too brief set. Nothing like basking in the fierce adulation meant for someone else — even if the crowd was a fraction of what you’d hoped for.
Maguvhe used the opportunity to make a few idiotic‚ if fervently nationalistic comments. “We will only nurture [local] talent if we support our own people‚” he said. “We are also saying to you‚ our dear artists‚ please compose quality music‚ compose music that is advocative‚ please compose music that will be cherished by generations now and generations to come. Forward‚ local music‚ forward.”
The jury may still be out as to whether Nkalakatha‚ like most of kwaito‚ is “quality music”. But there’s no denying the song’s “advocative” qualities. The title is township slang for someone who is regarded as “top dog” or “boss” by their peers. Put it down to nominative determinism‚ but Nkalakatha‚ the title track of an album released in 2000‚ very soon became just that — the over-riding‚ universal example of the genre.
Prior to Nkalakatha‚ kwaito was a largely black urban phenomenon — one that wasn’t always all that welcome‚ either. Writing in The Rough Guide to World Music Volume One: Africa‚ Europe and the Middle East (1999)‚ music historian Rob Allingham pointed out that‚ while it did “profoundly alienate” older African audiences‚ kwaito was not without merit.
“As a social and cultural phenomenon‚” Allingham noted‚ “kwaito probably exceeds the sum of its musical parts. It’s South Africa’s first post-apartheid musical genre and for that reason alone it has injected‚ for the first time in many years‚ a feeling of real excitement into the township musical scene”.
Allingham was faintly optimistic about its future. “…Though many listeners will dismiss kwaito as another example of the ubiquitous techno/hip-hop heard everywhere in the world today‚ perhaps — as has happened many times before — a more South African-sounding hybrid will eventually emerge.”
A year after those words were published‚ Nkalakatha was released. Was it that hybrid?
A monster hit‚ it went everywhere. White kids suddenly “got” kwaito. Musical collaborations with Danny K beckoned. Not only was it a massive cross-over smash in South Africa‚ where it picked up a slew of awards‚ but it turned up in clubs all over Europe and North America.
It also turned up on movie soundtracks‚ and on compilations like Rock the Kasbah: Songs of Freedom from the East‚ an album put together by the France-based expatriate Algerian punk-rai singer and activist‚ Rachid Taha. Here it rubbed shoulders with such diverse acts as Asian Dub Foundation‚ Khaled‚ Joe Strummer and Cheb Mami.
An anodyne cover version of it was released by the cast of Africa Umoja‚ the local musical produced by Hustler publisher Joe Theron that enjoyed some success in the West End.
There were others who sought to cash in on that monster sound with their own cover versions— including several from Mandoza himself. There were the initial remixes that accompanied the original’s release. But then‚ in 2012‚ came Nkalakatha Rebirth‚ a laboured reworking that came close to parody — and did nothing to dispel convictions that Mandoza was little more than a one-hit wonder.
In the years following Nkalakatha’s massive success‚ Mandoza hit the headlines— but for all the wrong reasons.
He became that tired rock star cliche. There came the celebrity parties‚ then the gossip columns‚ and then the drugs and substance abuse‚ and the stints in rehab.
And there came the spoilt brat recklessness which claimed the lives of two passengers when he rammed his powerful Chrysler SRT into the back of a Jetta on a Johannesburg motorway. He nearly went back to prison for that. (He’d spent time in Diepkloof Prison as a teenager for car theft.)
His attempts‚ in recent years‚ to revive his career came to little.
Any opportunity to build on Nkalakatha’s success had been squandered. A door to an international audience had opened‚ and beckoned enticingly — and then was slowly shut. The world moved on.
In the end‚ it was no surprise that Mandoza was at that SABC concert. Like many other has-been recording artists‚ he saw the public broadcaster’s bizarre 90 percent local content policy as a lucrative new and perhaps last-gasp revenue stream. After all‚ kwaito’s best days were behind it. Perhaps it had only ever been that one-hit genre.