Opinion: Mzwakhe Mbuli...'The people’s criminal'?
Growing up in the village, no one had to tell you to respect a dead person or a funeral. And in most communities, even the worst criminals know, you don’t mess with dead people. At least that’s what I thought…
The principle of having some sort of respect for people who are grieving does not have to be said.
We all understand the pain confusion and helplessness of losing a loved one and to some degree the feeling of planning a funeral while dealing with that pain. So naturally, most people know a funeral ain’t the time or place to be looking to make an extra buck. At least not at the expense of these hurting people.
So imagine the shock (and denial) when radio personality Thabiso Mosia published an entire Twitter thread accusing Mzwakhe Mbuli aka the people’s poet of stealing money… at a funeral!
Like…Gosh, when did we even get here? Okay before we lose you, here’s the back story:
Upon the sad news that the industry had lost yet another artist earlier this month, tributes poured in. Ray Phiri, a celebrated and legendary guitarist and co-founder of Stimela, had died aged 70 after succumbing to lung cancer.
As the funeral preparations began, radio presenter Thabiso Mosia had a burning matter on his heart, which he had to offload. Thabiso accused Mzwakhe of allegedly scamming Mandoza’s family out of thousands of rand at the time of his death and during the funeral planning. The Nkalakatha hitmaker died after a long fight with brain cancer in September 2016.
Of course Mzwakhe denied the allegations, however Thabiso stuck to his guns. But then it was up to you to look at both stories and decide for yourselves... is he or is he not a criminal?
Honestly, inherently as Africans and maybe even just as humans, death either unites or divides us. But, mostly we unite. We unite because we operate by default on the spirit of Ubuntu: a notion whose meaning we have linked closely to the Zulu proverb, “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” (a person is a person through other people).
Upon reading Thabiso’s Twitter exposé my initial notion was that perhaps ‘Ubuntu’ was Mzwakhe’s default mode upon hearing of a death in the industry.
Mzwakhe knows the importance of presence and servanthood. He always shows up.
Before Thabiso helped plant the seed of doubt of his motives, the people’s poet had made ‘showing up’ his trademark.
And as history would attest, Mzwakhe has not only showed up at fallen celebrities’ funerals, most of the times he would attempt to have a say. Not only in the funeral plans, as was the case with Mandoza’s funeral, but the narrative around their lives, their death and their legacy.
If you want proof of the above statement, go to Google or YouTube and search “Mzwakhe Mbuli Funerals”.
When Mandoza died, Mzwakhe was one of the artists that showed up to “help” the grieving family. The outspoken poet assumed the role of spokesperson and representative for the family, even to some people’s annoyance. What was supposed to be a celebration of Mandoza’s life and legacy, turned into a platform for Mzwakhe to rant.
As one of the people that attended Mandoza’s funeral, I can attest to the fact that with the poet as MC at Mandoza’s funeral, it became a “slash the media, praise ex SABC COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng and shade artists who were anti the 90% quota” rally whenever he opened his mouth.
Mzwakhe was the leading man for the Thank You SABC concert, organized for artists to show their gratitude to Hlaudi who had implemented the 90% local music content quota. The concert was riddled with controversies as some artists were not paid and the turnout was not particularly great. Mandoza was billed to perform at this event despite having been in the late stages of his illness, and he did.
But Mandoza’s funeral was not the first or the only time we saw the poet grasping for some airtime at a funeral.
He also attended Vuyo Mbuli’s funeral, as well as Flabba's where he spoke about his feelings towards the way the rapper died, created a song (and a poem of course) for Nelson Mandela (he was ready for this one), he took time out from his busy schedule to remember and celebrate Sfiso Ncwane and gave some history lessons and went down memory lane to commemorate Thandie Klaasen when she died.
Mzwakhe just always conveniently shows up.
Side note: The media he enjoys shredding to pieces enabled all this. They called him for comments, for his poems and to speak about these celebrities as if he drank a beer with them on the daily. And for all his hate towards the media, he showed up for all of them and even called press briefings in other cases, like at the conference where he addressed theft claims against him after Mandoza’s funeral.
In October last year, Sunday World reported that Mzwakhe and Mandoza's manager were allegedly accused of trying to get an undisclosed amount of money in Mandoza's name after he passed away. Both Mzwakhe and Mandoza's manager called a media briefing to dismiss these allegations against them. The story claimed that the pair had attempted to defraud Mandoza's estate by requesting funds from the Musicians Association of South Africa (Masa) to bankroll Nkalakatha Records, without Mandoza's wife’s knowledge.
After Thabiso aired Mzwakhe’s supposed dirty laundry, Mandoza’s wife Mpho did not come out guns blazing in his defence, instead she distanced herself from the whole fiasco which she labeled a “Mickey Mouse show”.
"It's hardly a year since Mandoza passed on and people are busy dragging my husband's name in their stupid fights. This whole thing is opening old wounds and we don't need it," she said to TshisaLIVE.
The people’s poet or the people criminal?
No matter how you look at it, Mzwakhe has always been about the people. As a poet Mzwakhe’s livelihood depends on the very skill.
In his past life, as a criminal he stole from people. In 1997 Mzwakhe was sentenced in the Pretoria Regional Court to 13 years in jail for armed robbery. He spent five years in Leeuwkop Prison and was released on parole in November 2003.
But as a poet, not just a poet but the people’s poet, the man praised, reprimanded, guided, motivated and celebrated people. He has composed poetry that is globally celebrated.
Yes, the man was a criminal who later redeemed himself to be a voice for the people. The people’s poet was the name he bestowed upon himself following his “rebirth”.
Ironically, under the title “True Legend” on his website, Mzwakhe reveals he got his name at a funeral.
“At the funeral in Soweto, the pastor called Mzwakhe to recite poems. After the recital, the reception was overwhelming, and that was the birth of “The People’s Poet”,” reads mzwakhembuli.co.za.
Until Ray Phiri died, it had never occurred to me or the rest of South Africa that a person could wake up and be okay with ‘defrauding’ a grieving family. How could someone look at a funeral with Randelas in his eyes?
I am taking nothing away from the often ignored undertakers that have found a way to milk death and grief for all it has. I will also not ignore many other stories of scammers always looking to make a buck out of people’s pain.
From the local spaza shop owner charging too much interest on groceries for the funeral, to the long lost uncle who’s ready to claim the condolences money that belong to the family. Look, these days people steal tombstones and harass widows… it’s sad but true.
All I am saying is, I grew up in a community where we all understood the unspoken respect afforded to a dead man or the family he left behind. I am saying, maybe we’ve lost too much of ourselves in trying to get rich. Maybe in our quest for liberation, we really tore the fabric of Ubuntu that used to unconditionally see us uniting to help, not con each other in our time of grief.
So maybe Mzwakhe remains the people’s poet, someone has to claim him because he belongs to the people after all. But also, he may be the people’s criminal, a poetic one at that, stealing from people at their most vulnerable.
I’ve resorted to calling him the people’s opportunist… call it poetic justice, poetic just ice, ice…