Table Talk

Queen of all Africa: Yvonne Chaka Chaka's life in service of her continent

With the Order of Ikhamanga added to her list of honours, the ‘Princess of Africa’ has moved up in the monarchy

21 April 2019 - 00:58 By Sue de Groot

The grand piano in Yvonne Chaka Chaka's Bryanston home bristles with trophies of every description. Accolades are nothing new to the singer and global health advocate. To name but two: in 2012 she became the first African woman to receive the World Economic Forum's Crystal Award for her humanitarian work with women and children, particularly in the field of malaria control; and in 2017 she won the Global Good Power award at the BET Awards in Los Angeles.
But news of her latest honour came as a surprise.
On Thursday, Chaka Chaka will accept the Order of Ikhamanga in Silver, bestowed by SA's president on those who significantly improve the lives of South Africans.
"I got the e-mail two weeks ago and I freaked out," she laughs. "I've received many awards, but receiving one from your president - I didn't expect that. There are so many people doing so much good in SA, so many who deserve this. I am honoured and humbled ... and quite chuffed."
The announcement issued by presidency director-general Cassius Lubisi states that Chaka Chaka is being honoured not only for her melodic voice and prodigious musical output (and she's only 54, so a lot more is expected) but also for her "general contribution to social cohesion".
This is an inadequate phrase to describe what Chaka Chaka, through her Princess of Africa Foundation and as a representative of numerous NGOs, has done to improve the health and wellbeing of people in Africa. She says she quite likes the term "social cohesion", however. Its opposite, sometimes expressed through xenophobic violence, greatly distresses her.
"We live in this global space," she says. "SA is not an island. We all need each other, we all can learn from one another. No country wants illegal immigrants - everyone needs to be useful and pay their taxes - but so many are asylum seekers, and if people come here and impart their skills and grow our economy, we should be happy. We need to ask how we can help each other."
Her many travels around the continent began with music concerts and soon encompassed humanitarian work. "We are all African," she says, "and Africa is for all who live in it."
In 1990, Ugandan fans dubbed Chaka Chaka Princess of Africa and the name stuck. Three decades, four sons, two granddaughters and a dozen virtuoso albums later, she is even more regal.
Today she is resplendent in a wax-print ensemble by Doornfontein designer Lufi_D, who exemplifies the kind of dedication Chaka Chaka admires. "Here, look at her website," she says, bringing it up on her phone. "She put everything she had into this business and now she employs 35 people."
This is not the only time our conversation swings off onto a side road. Chaka Chaka is impassioned by the brave and the talented and would rather talk about others than about herself.
She also has a mischievous sense of humour. This year she and her husband, medical doctor Mandlalele "Tiny" Mhinga, will celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary. In her kitchen hangs a tea towel that reads: "Marriage is a relationship in which one partner is always right and the other is the husband." She says it's there to remind him.
"I went into my files and looked at our marriage certificate," she says, deadpan. "And do you know, I couldn't find an expiry date on it! There was no 'best before' date so it looks like I'm stuck with this man. I can't be Mrs Jones or Mrs Peterson so I'm going to remain Mrs Mhinga."
They are an extremely close family. On the fridge is a poem about allowing children to make their own choices, something in which Chaka Chaka strongly believes.
"I can't choose who my sons should marry," she says. "I can't meddle in their stuff. If they were to bring home boys as partners, or girls of other races, that's their business, that's their choice. I would still love them and respect them."
Respect and dignity are two of her watchwords. She has spent the morning at an event run by the AU's New Partnership for Africa's Development (Nepad), for which she became nutrition and health ambassador last year. This was an essay competition for young people from all around Africa, who were asked to describe how they would improve the continent.
Chaka Chaka brims with praise for their ideas. "I have always believed in young people. I said to them today: 'You don't have to live in a mansion; if you live in a shack, keep that shack clean, habitable, and be proud of it. Your world is your castle. Make it yours'."
She has lived by this maxim but says she is still sometimes astonished by the things she has achieved and the people she has met, including Bill Gates and Ban Ki-moon (and George W Bush, who invited her to the White House, contributed to the Roll Back Malaria campaign in Africa, and asked if she was from Jamaica).
"As a child born in Soweto at a time when there was no hope and no scope for ambition, I could never have anticipated all this," says Chaka Chaka.
She has been in the news for other reasons this month. Since the new daily telenovela Giyani: Land of Blood premiered on SABC2 on April 1, Twitter has been aflame with praise for "Mhani Yvonne", who plays Gladys, the villain of the piece, with glamorous gusto.
Like the presidential honour, Chaka Chaka says she did not see this coming. "I thought it was an interesting story - it's about corruption, land, a feud between two families; it's great that our stories are being told by us - but I didn't expect to hear that it was trending off the charts."
Giyani is SA's first Tsonga drama series, which delights Chaka Chaka, who can speak at least eight of SA's official languages as well as Swati. Born of a Swazi mother and a North Sotho father, she went to a Zulu school and has friends of all tongues.
"At home we speak Tsonga, Zulu, Sotho, English, everything. We mix. So when I fill in forms and they ask for a home language, I don't know what to write. I'm me. I'm South African.
"My husband is Tsonga and I love the language, so I'm glad it is no longer being sidelined. Years ago I wanted to do a talk show in Tsonga, called Bula Bula with Mama Mhinga, and the channels laughed at me. But look, 20 years later we have this. Things may not happen when you want them to, but they do happen."
Chaka Chaka has long nursed a dream to make a TV show involving young people from all around Africa. "I'd call it I Want to be President: Leaders of the 21st Century. Because even a child from somewhere in the rural areas should be able to wake up in the morning and say: 'I've got leadership qualities.' It all starts with believing in yourself."
She has lived these words. Her father died when she was 11 and her mother, a domestic worker, raised and educated three daughters. Chaka Chaka has two qualifications, in education and public administration, from Unisa, and another in speech and drama from Trinity College in London. She is considering a postgraduate degree in public health to broaden her already extensive knowledge of the sector. For 14 years she has travelled Africa as an ambassador for Unicef and such groups as the Global Fund to Fight Aids, TB and Malaria, the Roll Back Malaria initiative and the vaccine alliance Gavi.
There is much to be hopeful about, she says.
"I think the best thing we've done in SA is get ARVs to so many people who are HIV-positive. And all around Africa there are so many more people who now have access to malaria prophylaxis, nets and sprays, and who know how to use these interventions.
"I dream of one day going to a UN conference and showing young people the archive where these diseases are displayed after they have been eradicated. All the good things we want for Africa may not happen in my lifetime, but we will have worked towards them."
BILL THREATENS ARTISTS' RIGHTS“For 34 years in the music industry I have always seen music as a way of articulating my feelings; of expressing what I wish for,what I want to see. I’m so upset about this bill that wants to giveaway our rights as artists.” Chaka Chaka is speaking about the Copyright Amendment Bill put before parliament by the department of trade & industry.The bill has been criticised for its vague specifications regarding ownership, royalties, and re-use.Chaka Chaka releases music under her own label but relies on digital and other channels for distribution, hence her concerns about the bill, which has the potential to damage the earnings of local artists if it is passed. “Of course we want our music to be played in all avenues,” she says.“Music has gone digital and technology plays an important role, but to take away the rights from the people who write it and sing it and produce it is madness. They are robbing us of our intellectual property. “Why should my music be exploited so that somebody else benefits? I have paid the studio and the producer and everyone else involved so that I can make my music and it has to benefit my children and my great-grandchildren.“We have to fight this. I urge the president, the minister of trade & industry, and all the powers that be,not to pass this bill. We must not allow it.“People will not continue to make music if they are not able to benefit from it. We will have rubbish music.”..

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