I ate Madiba's prison note – Yvonne Chaka Chaka

2013-07-14 14:00

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Her new album, Amazing Man, is dedicated to Nelson Mandela

Yvonne Chaka Chaka is sitting on the couch in the lounge of her upmarket Johannesburg home – the same couch that Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo sat on in 1992 when they visited to celebrate Miriam Makeba’s 60th birthday.

Mandela visited Chaka Chaka and her husband Dr Tiny Mhinga’s home a few times, she says. The first time was when he had just been released from prison in the early 1990s.

“My son Mfumo was still a baby and he had a thing about answering the phone,” says the Princess of Africa. “The phone rang a few times and he kept on answering, saying, ‘Hello, hello’, and putting it down again. I think, on the third occasion, I managed to answer and a man said: ‘The young man really likes a phone?.?.?.?every time I call he picks it up!’ I asked who it was and it was Madiba.”

Chaka Chaka – who studied drama at Trinity College in London – has perfected her Mandela accent. “He said, ‘I’m calling for the third time because I want to come and visit you.’ I said: ‘I’ll come to your house, Tata.’ He said, ‘No no no no no, I will come to your home.’ And a few days later, he did.

“I cooked dinner and we sat and ate and talked. He wanted me to campaign for the ANC. I had never been an activist, but how could I say no? For me, it was like, I’m black and I am going to vote. And my black president is here?.?.?.?I appeared at different rallies and sang. Mother Land?.?.?. I Cry For Freedom.” She sings: “Winnie, Winnie Mandela.”

The pop diva leads us to a second lounge where there is a portrait of her and her family with Mandela on that visit. The children are in their pyjamas.

“They kept on saying: ‘This old man must go now.’ And I said: ‘Chill’.”

Over coffee, they listened to Madiba tell his stories from prison.

“I must say, I was starstruck. That man just makes you feel good. At that moment, you feel like you are the only person in his life?.?.?.?He was telling us how he appreciated all we did. He said: ‘We listened to your songs when we were in jail.’ He always called me Darling,” she says.

His favourite was her early hit, Umqombothi.

It led to Chaka Chaka’s most memorable – and hilarious – Madiba story of the lot. The time she ate his prison note.

“What happened was, Sipho Mabuse phones me and tells me: ‘Winnie wants to see you.’ And I’m like: ‘What? Why? I’m not a comrade.’ You know, during those times, 1987 to be precise, I was very scared of the security police.” But Chaka Chaka overcame her fear to visit the Mandela home on Vilakazi Street, Soweto.

She continues: “And Winnie brings two notes. I kept one, but the other one from Madiba, it had to go. I tore the letter and chewed it?.?.?. chewed! So that the police should not find it?.?.?.?I’ve got the other note here.”

She shows us a note from Winnie Mandela, preserved in an old photo album. It reads: “Darling Yvonne Shaka Shaka and family, with great admiration and love from all your fathers in prison and the nation that loves you.” She chuckles and says: “Of course, now I wish I still kept that other note. My mother was furious with me.”

Born Ntombizodwa Yvonne Machaka, in Dobsonville, Chaka Chaka’s father died when she was 11 and she and her sisters were raised by her mother, a domestic worker.

Discovered on a TV talent show, her first hit was I’m in Love with a DJ. It was written by Attie van Wyk and she was paid R20 for singing it.

Her debut album, I Cry For Freedom, catapulted her to fame – especially across the continent. She travelled extensively in Africa, loved by presidents, and sang about “the atrocities back home”.

In later years, she performed at almost all Mandela’s big birthday bashes and became an ambassador for his 46664 Aids charity. She recently released her 22nd album. Dedicated to Mandela, it’s called Amazing Man.

For Madiba’s birthday next week, she will be performing a tribute concert in Paris with the KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic Orchestra. It will be open to the public and also marks the reopening of the famous Place de la République square with its statues representing liberty, equality and fraternity.

The concert will last for 67 minutes, for each of the 67 years Madiba spent in service to the world.


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