Musical chairs at Aunt Dot’s farewell

They can then grow into a powerful, recognizable force within the ranks of our broad liberation movement throughout our country and beyond!” 

Delivering his address at the farewell ceremony to departed singer, Dorothy “Mam’D” Masuka  inside the Soweto Campus of the University of Johannesburg’s Imbizo Hall, incumbent South African Minister of Arts and Culture, Nathi Mthethwa quoted late ANC president, Oliver Tambo as having articulated the assignment of an artist.

With, among esteemed others, erstwhile president, Thabo Mbeki in attendance, speakers such as the newly-formed African Content Movement leader, Hlaudi Motsoeneng and the governing African National Congress’ Gauteng MEC of Sports, Arts, Culture and Recreation, Faith Mazibuko ensured that some junctures of the funeral service denigrated into a game of musical chairs as they disappointingly deviated from the purpose of the occasion – for petty politicking!

With Mazibuko unfairly asking gathered legends of the country’s music scene in her native Zulu: “angazi kuthi be ni hlezi phi?  You don’t just become legends ni hlezi emakhaya.  Be si ngayi bekeli’ kuthi iyotjontjwa leyo mali leyo!” (I don’t know where you were at?  You don’t just become legends whilst just biding your time at your homes.  We hadn’t budgeted the money only for it to be stolen)!

That, the bespectacled politician issued in a tone tinged with harangue directed at the ears of veterans old enough to pass for her parents!

Beleaguered former SABC executive-turned-politician, Motsoeneng himself was up to his scratched-record-whirling-on-the-same-axis ways once again. 

Revelling in the sort of grandstanding such occasions presented, he once again suffered mourners’ ears, like has been the drill at the other podiums he had previously occupied, to hear about his short-lived 90% sermon.  With a smidgeon of his new party’s followers in attendance and dressed in their regalia within a space shared with the more in numbers and colourful ANC faithful, the well-suited Motsoeneng pointed out that South Africa didn’t know itself.  “The reason why you play abo-Beyoncé and take our money in South Africa and bless artists outside is because you don’t know yourself – you are a lost people!” he offered in his trademark high sighing for emphasis tone, to a substantial din of clapping and whistling.

Situated immediately in front of men and women of the cloth upon the hall’s elevated stage, he somehow nostalgically extolled his local content initiative from his stint at the public broadcaster thus: “Even the Bible, baFundisi bami, you’ll know what the Bible says – you can’t love God if you don’t love your neighbour!”  Turning to Mthethwa in an out-of-kilter moment suspiciously meant as a point-scoring jaunt, he indulged, “I want to say to you Minister Mthethwa, people should not appreciate what government is doing for artists because you are not doing anything in any case!”  This bore the desired effects for him as whistles-punctuated applause rained.

Purposefully seeking to include the allure of Mbeki in his speech’s mix, he directed to the former statesman seated in the front row next to former diplomat, Lindiwe Mabuza: “President (which he pronounced precedent, to the distinguishing ear) Mbeki, I honour you, I respect you with the movement which is the ANC and the reason why I left the ANC is because it’s an old testament.  Now is the time to vote for a new testament which is ACM: African Content Movement, that I lead, thank you!”

Miriam Makeba’s grand-daughter, Zenzi Lee, who was next up according to the programme, upon being summoned onto the stage, didn’t mince her words regarding what the audience had just been subjected to – pointing out that the occasion oughtn’t be a platform to run political campaigns.  A singer also, she then proceeded to the business of rendering a musical item. 

Aptly, Bulawayo-born Masuka, whom speakers referred to as Masuku, was also acknowledge by the government of her native country, with a high-level representative in the form of the director of the National Arts Council of Zimbabwe, Nicholas Moyo present.  

Proudly letting fellow mourners in on the coincidence that he happened to hail from the same township as the late songstress, Moyo delivered thus: “On behalf of the government and as well as my family, we have come not to mourn with you, but we have come to celebrate with you.  In Zimbabwe, we always called her Auntie Dot.  Born of a South African mother, Zambian father – she always reminded people that she was more African than many of us.”

Describing her as a sweet and beautiful lady, he reminded the attendees that Masuka had won a beauty pageant named Miss Mzilikazi back in 1953, at the age of 19.  

Continuing his tribute, Moyo said, “She was very solid in fighting for the rights of artists, to us, we saw her as a comrade.  She is a force to reckon with and she has left a landscape in Zimbabwe that the music will leave vivid and fondest memories on the… of the music icon.” 

“And many of us may realize that for Zimbabwe, when we received the news of the passing on of aunty Dot, Zimbabwe was coming or still smarting out of the loss of Dr Oliver Mtukudzi, Dr Charles Mgoshi and another icon… uh – to us, Dr Dorothy Masuka has just passed on.”  “Dorothy Masuka may be gone, but she will never be forgotten”, he concluded.

Also taking her slot on the programme, bosom buddy and fellow singer, Abigail Kubeka informed a crowd which incorporated crème de la crème household names such as Caiphus Semenya, Letta Mbulu, Lumumba Lee, Mara Louw, Thandiswa Mazwai, Sipho Mabuse, Sibongile Khumalo, Khaya Mahlangu, Tu Nokwe as well as poet, Wally Serote, author, Elinor Sisulu, actress, Thembi Mtshali and physicist, Dr Frank Khumalo, among numerous others – that Dorothy would say: “I’m an African woman!”  A line which would find resonance with Mbeki, whom Masuka referred to as, “umfano mcane, nge ncondo e nkulu” (the little man with a great mind).

The send-off, albeit one of sadness, was nonetheless conducted in an auspicious vein, helmed by renown designer, Sonwabile Ndamase. 

Impresario, Katse Semenya, who in his address let the gathered in on a less-known fact that Hugh Masekela’s hit, Khauleza, was written by Masuka – rounded-off with these words: “Let the ancestors receive her Soul.”  Similarly, the two-tiered hall reverberated with song and dance from black, gold and green-clad ANC women belting out the now familiar refrain, “Asiphelelanga ku shot uMama” (not all of us are present, mama’s missing) – and elsewhere in the order of things, the likes of Pearl Africa and Thandiswa Mazwai poured out a duet tribute and Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse combined his saxophone accomplice for the spiritual, “Kena le Modisa” with the vocals of Mara Louw and the Kings of Harmony Voices choir!

Such an outpouring had the front row of Moyo, Mbulu and Mazibuko up on their feet a stomping!  A portrait of Masuka by artist, Lebani Sirenje – who was quietly engrossed in putting finishing touches to another flanking another side of the casket – leaned against a wall, smiling, as if egging Mabuse on in amused approval! 

Peradventure as an indicator of the current electioneering season, with the ANC actually having branded gazebos outside the hall, when it came the time for Mazibuko to introduce Mthethwa for the exercise of delivering his say, the MEC, in spite of Lee’s misgivings earlier on, simply couldn’t resist the urge to spill her own party’s credits. 

Asking Ndamase to suffer her, she went on the following grandiloquent in Zulu: “As artists and legends, when you said you ANC government, you do not care about the plight of us, you want to see to it that you are recognized for the role you played in the liberation struggle, it was Minister Mthethwa who set up The Unity of the Legends and he deployed resources in that unit!” 

Amidst interruptive applause continuing to state that it was unfortunate that the monies allocated for them (legends) ended up getting filched.  “You know what has been the role of government in ensuring that she (Masuka) gets a decent funeral?” she asked, pausing long enough to proceed, “Even where she’s going to be buried is called a Heroes Acre – Baba se Zimbabwe, report back home and inform them that where uMama Dorothy is laying, she rests at Heroes Acre which recognizes the heroes and heroines of South Africa. 

We didn’t just take her and ended up laying her to rest nowhere!”  Clearly issuing the stuff of petty politicking, Mazibuko sustained her bombastic angle: “When you enter Westpark, you’ll notice the difference – that’s the contribution we are making as the ANC government in ensuring that you as our legends, you as our veterans, we forever honour you and forever recognize the work that you are doing”, she finished to more applause.

Eventually ascending the stage and very early in his speech, Mthethwa exposed a speechwriting inadequacy either on his part or one of those tasked with that purpose, when he interspersed the name of a living luminary with those of departed contemporaries, and in the process drawing collective gasps of concern from mainly the musicians huddled together below. 

He had sequenced his sentence thus: “The generation of MaMasuka, which included many luminaries, some are here with us, others have departed like Mam’ Miriam Makeba, err… Mama err… Abigail Kubeka, Bra Hugh Masekela…”   At which point his faux pas was pointed out and subsequently prompting him to correct the listeners thus: “no, he – I said both the living and the passed… the dead.  She’s, she’s still going to be with us”, to further ambivalent reception.

His slip apart, the minister acknowledged the veterans standing in the country’s stratum by opining, “All of them have leaped up to the challenge of the artist as outlined by the above president Tambo’s remarks!”

After all was said and done inside Imbizo Hall, it was on a sunny Sunday afternoon when the cortege took to the adjacent Chris Hani Road en-route to Westpark cemetery’s Heroes Acre section where her remains were interred within a brown and grey tombstone, replete with her imagery, stars and musical instrumentation!  

The fourth of seven children, Masuka was born in Bulawayo, the daughter of a South African mother and a Zambian father who worked as a hotel chef.  The product of Catholic education, her family moved to South Africa when she was 12 due to her health and by the time she was 19, she was touring South Africa with singers she had admired as a girl – according to information gleaned off Wikipedia.

On the other hand, South African History Online had a talent scout discovering her when she sang in a school concert and immediately signed up at Troubadour Records. With the website continuing that by the time she was sixteen, Masuka had become a top recording star and after running away from school several times, she was released.

Leaving for Johannesburg by train, it was during this journey that she composed the song Hamba Nontsokolo that launched her career as a professional musician and has since been regarded as a classic in South Africa.

“Dr Malan,” a composition of hers alluding to difficult laws, got banned and in 1961 a song for Patrice Lumumba led to exile which lasted all of 31 years pending which she lived and worked in Zambia as a flight attendant. 

Upon Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, she returned back to her country of birth.

On 27 April 2017, Masuka featured in the concert, “The Jazz Epistles featuring Abdullah Ibrahim & Ekaya” at The Town Hall in New York City where she opened the show and delivered one passionate performance after another, warming up and winning over the crowd.

No complete discography of all her credits exists, but it is likely the total of her compositions in all African languages exceeds 100 – SAHO noted.

Dorothy Masuka died in Johannesburg on 23 February 2019, aged 83.

(Former president Thabo Mbeki, former SA High Commissioner to UK Lindiwe Mabuza and arts & culture minister Nathi Mthethwa at the farewell ceremony.) Image Jacob MAWELA.

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