Latter-day Bob Mabena was love personified

Given Mkhari pays tribute to Bob Mabena

16 August 2020 - 00:00 By GIVEN MKHARI
Bob Mabena and Eucharist Hadebe at their wedding in 2015. ‘I’m exhausted,’ he’d joke. ‘That’s what happens when you marry a young and hot wife.’
Bob Mabena and Eucharist Hadebe at their wedding in 2015. ‘I’m exhausted,’ he’d joke. ‘That’s what happens when you marry a young and hot wife.’
Image: Sunday Sun/ Trevor Kunene

When Bob Mabena decided to enjoy the last lap of his illustrious radio career at Power 98.7, it was a special moment — not only to finally have him home where he belonged, but because we were honoured to have him at a very reflective and seasoned time of his career trajectory.

He had lived a very colourful life and he had worked incredibly hard over his 30-plus years as a radio maverick and musical genius. As he sought to reimagine his life, sought to evolve into a new season, he chose Power 98.7 to be the place of his latter days’ becoming.

You can only imagine how surreal it must have been to work with a giant such as Bob Mabena — a man who was an institutional symbol of SA’s popular culture, an embodiment of the South African dream, transcending the old and new, a constant marker of what was and what still lay ahead.

He signified a special place and time that we all had special memories or imaginings attached to. For the older generation, he evoked a great sense of nostalgia, and for the younger generation he catalysed creative expression, inspiring a new culture that could connect the then and the now.

In an intimate business like Power 98.7, Bob worked with a relatively young team — some of them with no grasp of the magnitude of his celebrity status. They would hear stories of Bob’s younger days from their elders and only then, upon the realisation that they walked with a legend, would they excitedly soak themselves in his swagger and his wisdom and try to catch up with his body of work, through his indelible mark in the South African party, club and radio culture — all laced with the finest musicality, which Bob had a penchant for making and finding.

To the world he was Bob “The Jammer” Mabena. To us he was brother, mentor, friend, confidant and dear colleague.

To the older generation, it was both surreal and normal at the same time to rub shoulders, share boardroom tables, radio studios and balcony smoke breaks with the one and only Bob Mabena. These polarities of experiencing Bob both from a place of surreality and normality spoke to one simple and consistent energy that Bob exuded — transcendentality.

Although he carried himself with an ease that quickly calmed one’s star-struck gaze, Bob exuded an aura that suggested an other-worldliness. It was in the suave strides he made, his cool disposition, the endearing curve on his smile, the shy yet naughty sparkle in his eye and the calm detachment that never felt hostile but rather intriguing and interestingly inviting that made Bob an ineffable figure, not only under the spotlight but in his daily lived experiences and encounters.

Bob had a deep appreciation of this aura and was determined to break down any walls that could possibly alienate him from others, because he was love personified. He made eye contact, he had time for everyone, he listened, he remembered milestones, remembered your relatives’ names, connected dots between stories you shared with him about family troubles, professional woes, lovers’ tiffs. He remembered all of it and cared to know that there was progress being made on all those fronts.

He is the only non-Jew we knew who broke bread on Shabbat, inviting colleagues into his office to share in the experience with him. He loved all kinds of bread-breaking — if it wasn’t his balcony monthly brunches with his POWER Breakfast team, it was team outings to local chisa nyamas or — when he was feeling fancy — champagne breakfasts at opulent hotels. And we all knew not to bring lunch on a day Bob had scheduled a team meeting, because a Nando’s platter was guaranteed. This spoke to his warm and generous nature, deeply embedded in human connection and appreciating what breaking bread could do in bringing people together.

Bob appreciated all kinds of spiritual edification and would often be intrigued by radio conversations about divinity. If he wasn’t inquiring about a medium on the radio, it was about a traditional healer. Most recently, at the end of a South African National Defence Force official’s in-studio interview on POWER Breakfast, Bob asked to join him in prayer, and proceeded to summon his entire team to follow him as he recited the Lord’s Prayer.

He always wanted to connect to the other side — again, speaking to his ethereal nature, moving between different spaces and times.

Bob was a lover — a hopeless romantic who loved his wife with a deep sense of innocence and purity. His naughty side would reveal itself in the most awkward and disarming of fashions through simple exchanges of “How are you’s”, to which he’d sometimes retort: “I’m exhausted. I haven’t been sleeping. That’s what happens when you marry a young and hot wife,” as he swiftly walked away with his chuckle reverberating down the corridor.

Above all, Bob loved his children. His biggest achievement was his ability to be present in all of their lives and he gifted them with his time, his energy, his affirmations and his sincerity. He was their safe space and they came first. He made it to the clinic checkup visits for his baby, right up to the celebratory career milestones of his older children.

He’d often liken his younger colleagues to his children – lacing his compliments with some likeness to a trait he enjoyed in each of his children. He was proud of them and that gave him an extra spring in his step.

Bob’s childlike esteem was one of the most inspiring traits he possessed — always teachable, always eager to hear another’s perspective, despite their age, gender, class or even years in the industry. He was hungry for knowledge and this kept him youthful, relatable and easy to work with. He understood and appreciated knowledge as a tool to be exchanged through different hands, which is why it makes perfect sense that, as he bowed out of a magical three decades of radio genius on Friday, August 7, he symbolically passed on the baton to his co-anchor, Faith Mangope, imploring her to own it. He never stole the shine and was only too eager to pass it on to the next person. We are all the richer and wiser for this generosity.

To the world he was Bob “The Jammer” Mabena. To us he was brother, mentor, friend, confidant and dear colleague. He honoured us with some of his best years, his most enlightened years, and it was an honour to be an audience to the final scenes of his beautiful life’s story.

Rest in eternal power, Bob. Yours was a class act, one that will transcend space and time.

• Mkhari is CEO of MSG Afrika Goup and executive chair of Power 98.7


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