Mabrrr’s last movie

2014-05-04 15:00

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It’s 2004 in the early hours of the morning in Buccleuch in the pale suburbs of Joburg. Brenda Fassie is sitting on a puppyshit-brown faux leather couch in a poorly framed shot. The diva is in a bad way.

“I’m tired,” she says. “It’s scary. I dunno, maybe I’m tired from the show. But I just wanna sleep?...?I’m scared.”

She coughs.

“And I’m coughing so much. What am I gonna do? I’m going to die. How is death?” There’s a pause. “Go to hell with death.” The camera stops.

When it finds her again she’s perkier and singing, always singing. She’s in her gown, her teeth out.

But it’s a death foretold. Brenda had been warned by doctors that if she didn’t stop smoking?–?especially crack cocaine –?she would die. A few months later, she will be hospitalised after suffering a respiratory attack in the house that she shared with her son, Bongani, and a long-suffering housekeeper called ­Gloria.

She will not emerge from the coma.


Holding a poem she wants to read?–?but never does

“Gloria! Glo-ri-a!”

Brenda has a poem with her and she wants to read it. She changes outfits. Brenda wants to read her will.


She wants Gloria to change the music. Now she wants to show the camera her chest X-rays, which are in an envelope.

“Gloria, please don’t ignore me!”


The light is patchy and Gloria stands in front of the camera in a hat, the plain Jane to Brenda’s glamour queen, trying to make out the lyrics written on the lid of a shoe box.

Brenda instructs her to sing. When Gloria does, Brenda tells her she sings terribly.

Now Brenda is standing where Gloria was, wearing her hat. Her housekeeper was a stand-in so that Brenda could line up her shot. Brenda is making movies.

“Gloria, don’t just stand there. There’s such a thing as ­quicksand. It’ll gobble you up if you just stand.”

Gloria leaves the shot. Brenda curses the lights for making her sweat. A track starts, not something you’ve heard before. It’s an Asian pop song of searing beauty.

Brenda sings along, word perfect even though she probably understands none of the words.

But she cannot reach the high notes. Brenda is sad.

“I just wanna see myself when I’m not frowning. I don’t like the fact that I don’t have my teeth, man,” she complains.

She snorts. “I’m lovely, né. It’s nice to be lovely?…?Where’s my gown? I want Yizo Yizo before I go to sleep?…?I don’t want breasts like Janet Jackson.”


Yizo Yizo was Brenda’s last song, made for the third season of the hit TV series. In the video clips I am watching, Brenda sings it often, or has it sung to her by two of the members of the gay group, 3Sum, who form part of her entourage.


The shot is from the den through the window overlooking the pool. Hadedas cry. An inflatable dolphin floats on the water. A dog peers inside. Yizo starts to play and the good gays vogue into shot, singing.

“All I need is for you to fall in love with me for real / I am a woman of substance / I’m a woman of my own / I need love?/ I need passion.”


In the months before she died, Brenda videotaped scenes from her life on a camera borrowed from her long-time music video producer, Pam Devereux-Harris.

From popping across a 1980s bluescreen background to ­re-enacting gang rape in the city centre to performing Black President in a flowing robe of ANC colours, Brenda made over two dozen music videos in her spectacular career.

She had borrowed the camera to make a pilot for a reality TV show, At Home With Brenda. Only Ozzy Osbourne had done it so far.

“The pictures are almost a precursor of cellphone films; it’s a grand selfie,” says the director sitting next to me.


Bongani and his crew are working on tracks in his bedroom. They’re all street names and “peace” and self-conscious shout-outs. “Are we gonna be on TV?” asks a rapper. They’d launch a debut album three years later, hitting the big time as Jozi.


“I love my dogs so much.” They’re Mafikizolo, Chicco ­[Twala] and Leslie [presumably Sedibe]. Brenda always named her dogs after people she felt betrayed by or rival stars. Once she had one named Yvonne. She gets annoyed with Chicco, who is excited by the attention.

“Don’t shoot Chicco,” she orders. “He likes doing bad videos. Chicco’s videos are all whack.”


The shot is total blackness. Brenda raps in Sesotho: “Who stole the two grand from the purse?”


You struggle to make Brenda out, then you see she is in the bath. She’s playing the sex siren.

“Can you see my breasts?”

A friend assures her she can’t.

“I use Lux.” She laughs. “Okay, open my beer!”


In her bedroom, Brenda auditions dancers, a hot, high white girl and a hip-grinding, luscious black girl. Brenda interrupts and shows them how it’s done. She high-kicks and then does the splits.

Young entertainers flocked to Brenda. She took the job of dispensing advice seriously. She pulled Lebo Mathosa and Thembi Seete on stage with her and inadvertently birthed Boom Shaka. She rapped back at Senyaka in Tsotsitaal and helped birth kwaito as we know it. Yo baby yo!


She sold more albums than any South ­African artist before her. Millions of them. It ­began with Weekend Special in 1983. She moved 200?000 units and the remix spent eight weeks in the American Billboard charts. By 1989 she’d gone multi-platinum with the Chicco-produced Too Late For ­Mama.

She married in a packed stadium, arriving by helicopter. Through the most violent years of apartheid, she sang love songs to the nation and the nation loved her back. Here was a woman who was free when everywhere was chains. She tried cracking international markets but scuppered her success with bad behaviour.

She began using cocaine. Reports filtered in of lesbian ­affairs, often marked by torrid fights and jealous fits.

She was in and out of rehab.

They said she was over but she bounced back.

She reunited with Chicco on Memeza, racked up 600?000 sales and lifted all the awards. Vulindlela became the ANC’s election song and her next three albums went multiplatinum. She spent a lot of her money on drugs but she also gave a lot away helping others. So Brenda kept singing for her supper, kept smoking, kept being Queen B.


Higher and Higher is playing in the car. To cheer herself up, Brenda makes herself known to her fans in the traffic.

Fan in car: MaBrrr! Always the best! On top!

Brenda: (Ladylike) Thank you. I love you.

Fan: I love you too!

Brenda: Do you think I’m naughty?

In the Yeoville Checkers parking lot, the gay boys dance to Yizo Yizo. Straight boys stand and watch.

The CD is put into the sound system at Times Square and Brenda gets her hair peroxided ­without paying.


Fresh from the salon and singing along to Debbie Harry

“Hey. Take the frown off your forehead!”

Brenda’s in turquoise sports gear. The peroxide worked. She’s wearing razor-blade earrings and glasses. The Tide is High is playing and Brenda comes round a tree, impish, singing to Debbie Harry. The lapa at the pool is dressed in images from the Kama Sutra.


War stories are told about Brenda’s famous girlfriend dramas. The one who threatened to call the cops and then said she was going to kill herself by drinking Handy Andy, ­tomato sauce and Jik and then went running to the tabloids.

The many girls Brenda had taken home with her?–?and then made them clean her house. I kid you not. Brenda was famous for her minor abductions.

A friend’s cute baby is stealing all the attention and Brenda is put out. It’s her lapa and her movie and they’re drinking her beer again. And Gloria ruins her clothes when she washes them. Brenda swings round and sits on a pretty homosexual’s lap, threatening to squash the baby, who is snatched away, his mother glaring.


Brenda is in a black polo neck, smoking. She wants to read from her diary. The Chinese song’s playing and it’s making her cry.

“Maybe I can go to China one day and meet the person who sings these songs?…?I wanna live somewhere else.”

She sings along. Then she stops.


She calls for Gloria to change the song.

“Put on Celine Dion!” She frowns.

“Is that Celine Dion? You don’t listen!”

She smacks the diary.

“Blacks.” She shakes her head with an exasperated sigh.


I imagine what would have happened if Brenda had released a cover of the song in Chinese. Would it have been seen as a political comment on “the next colonisation”? Would it have been regarded as a pop act of cultural unity?

She would’ve meant it as a love song to a stranger she wishes she could be.


She’s on the phone to a former girlfriend in New York. She’s drinking hot water with lemon and honey and says: “I’m my old self again.” She seems to be off drugs.

“I’m on set and I’m talking to you,” she says over the phone.” She scratches her nose, amused. “I’m picking my nose on camera.”

She jokes in Sesotho. “Come back from New York and learn Sesotho.” She gets ­serious. “Do me a favour, come back to SA and we’ll go to London. I’ll ­explain everything in ­Nairobi.” She gets haughty. “Have you forgotten who the hell I am?” She gets amused. “They are selling Stella Artois here now. In Africa.” She gets jealous. “Who are you messing around with now?”

She gets sad.

“I’m switching off the camera. Damn these lights.”


Brenda will not stay off drugs. She will collapse after smoking crack and be rushed to the Sunninghill Hospital where she will be visited by two South African presidents, Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki.

The machines will?–?reportedly?–?be switched off on May 9 2004. At least 10?000 people will attend her funeral.

Blignaut is researcher and scriptwriter on In Bed With Brenda, a documentary based on Fassie’s last tapes

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