‘Gratitude for the man who changed all of our lives’

2013-12-07 00:00

THE DURBAN family who sang at Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday have lived the Madiba dream.

Having grown up without electricity in Umlazi and Chesterville, Bongani Tembe and Linda Bukhosini — who now run the formerly whites-only world of classical music in KwaZulu-Natal — say the five performances they gave for Mandela over his 22 years of freedom have marked “special moments of gratitude for the man who changed all of our lives”.

The “South African dream” for this couple — respectively, the CEOs of the KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic and The Playhouse Company — was completed when their actress daughter Nondumiso Tembe recently graduated from the Yale Drama School in the U.S. — the same elite academy that launched Meryl Streep’s career.

In 2008, all three family members sang for Mandela at his 90th birthday event in Qunu — which Bongani Tembe described as “an intimate event of only about 500 people”.

“The song we chose especially was Climb Every Mountain, because he really has done that in his life through every struggle, and done it on our behalf,” he said. “He loves children above all, but he also loves music so much.

“In 1994, we had the honour of singing for him at an event at Unisa where he was receiving an honorary degree — we sang the famous Miriam Makeba Click Song, and he was dancing by his chair. This is after the first time, which was at a cathedral in New York in 1991.”

At the time, the two singers were the first black South Africans to study opera at the world renowned Julliard School of Music in New York and had international careers set — but both chose to return to South Africa after realising “this is the man who is going to lead our country. Let’s go!”

All three family members have smashed half-a-dozen racial barriers in the world of classical music and opera, which Tembe credited “to the absolute inspiration of this great leader”.

Tembe said he realised one measure of Mandela’s impact when his star daughter Nondumiso — who has appeared on shows like NCIS: LA — told him, “Oh dad, don’t tell stories”, when he said they used to have candles to light their houses.

“She just didn’t believe that most people had no power or safe water before Mandela — fewer than 15% of South Africans had electricity and clean water in 1994; now its over 90%,” he said.

Tembe said Mandela had also played a key role in preserving and promoting performing arts, having formed the National Arts Council.

“We were saddened by the passing of Madiba, but it is wonderful that his legacy still brings people together,” he said.

Bukhosini said her “favourite story” was when her husband chatted with Mandela while standing side-by-side at a urinal in Pretoria — “without realising he was in the toilets with the president!”

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