Legendary Xhosa singer Madosini Latozi Mpahleni on her fight with an insurer that refused to pay up

Madosini Latozi Mpahleni (PHOTO: Supplied to DRUM)
Madosini Latozi Mpahleni (PHOTO: Supplied to DRUM)

The bright lights were blinding as she opened her eyes.

Madosini Latozi Mpahleni was surrounded by unfamiliar faces looking at her. They spoke, but their words made no sense. She had no idea where she was, or how she had ended up there. Bewildered and alone, the 76-yearold woman widely regarded as the queen of Xhosa music, started to cry. It was only when her friend and travelling companion Pedro Espi-Sanchis appeared that Mama Madosini calmed down. Pedro, a musician and educator, explained that she was in hospital in Annecy, France.

She had been diagnosed with a faulty heart valve which had caused her to collapse in a bathroom a few days earlier. The pair had been on a performing tour of France and Switzerland and were on their way to Geneva when she took ill.

She had been unaware she had any sort of heart condition. As far as she was concerned, she was in rather good health apart from having to take medication for high blood pressure and asthma, both of which she attributed to “old age”.

Mama Madosini, who was born in the Eastern Cape, is recognised as the greatest living player of Xhosa musical bows. She is also a composer, poet, singer, storyteller and teacher.

She regularly performs abroad where she has crowds eating out of the palm of her hands, so Pedro was shocked when she collapsed on 15 November. Yet nothing could prepare him for the next few days. He was stunned to learn Mama Madosini’s travel insurer, Hollard, refused to cover her hospital costs or her flight home.

In email correspondence with Pedro, Hollard said her policy “does not cover claims related to cardiovascular conditions, where you received treatment for a cardiovascular condition any time prior to your trip” – even though the musician had been unaware that she had any kind of heart condition. As news of her plight hit social media, South Africans lashed out at the insurer for their treatment of a musical icon and threatened to cancel their policies. Former public protector Thuli Madonsela added her voice to those of many others.

“What happened to #Ubuntu @Hollard,” she tweeted. “What should now happen to 76 year old [sic] #MamaMadosini?” MAMA Madosini had thankfully been unaware of the drama surrounding the efforts to get her home.

 As she does not speak English or French, Pedro was on hand to act as a translator, deal with Hollard and share her plight on social media.

“I’m not educated and I am old,” the musician says when we meet her at her home, a one-bedroom flat in Langa, Cape Town, which she shares with her grandchildren. “I only knew I had [high] blood pressure and rheumatism before I left for France. Very recently, I was diagnosed with asthma and I’ve been using an asthma pump since.

“When I went overseas, I was feeling strong. We had a sterling performance on the second day after our arrival in France,” she adds. Her problems started the following day when she and Pedro were on their way to the train station to travel to Geneva, Switzerland. She felt pain in her chest, and thinking it was asthma, used her asthma pump, then collapsed.

“Pedro and another man helped me up. They took me back to the hotel and an ambulance took me to hospital where I was briefly treated. I felt strong again and ready to perform. Pedro bought me another asthma pump at the pharmacy and some pills. I was fine for a while and even tested my instruments.” But she collapsed again, this time in a bathroom during a rest stop. “I had just gotten to the toilet when I lost my breath,” she recalls.

“I tried to stand up, but I fell. I dragged myself and opened the toilet door and shouted for help. My voice was very faint. That was the last time I was conscious.” She woke up in a hospital and when Pedro told her about the heart diagnosis, she asked him if he was sure it was not a mistake. “He said ‘no’. I got the shock of my life.”

She was unaware of the battle Pedro had been waging on her behalf. “I didn’t know anything about the travel insurance and its implications. I was oblivious, like a small child,” Mama Madosini says. “Event organisers who invite me overseas always take care of the travel insurance. I have never had to worry about it because I have never fallen sick abroad.”

Pedro says she couldn’t travel home alone after she was discharged and needed supervised care on the flight. He estimates the medical bills and flight home with medical staff cost about R500 000. “I’m truly grateful to Hollard for shouldering such a huge financial burden, otherwise I would have aged there. I grew homesick once the pain had subsided,” Mama Madosini says.

Pedro doesn’t regret supporting the elderly musician. “I wasn’t going to take it lying down. We put pressure on them on social media and in the mainstream media. They quickly agreed to pay – in full.”

Hollard spokesman Warwick Bloom says Mama Madosini “had been hospitalised as a result of a condition that existed prior to travel, and which was thus excluded from cover in terms of our policy”. The insurer, he adds, repatriated her “even though there was no valid claim”. “

We are grateful Mama Madosini is now home in South Africa and can get the treatment she requires.” Pedro wants Mzansi to know what a gem Mama Madosini is. “I wish the department of arts and culture, or whoever, would come forward and say: ‘We’re going to do right by Madosini. We’re going to give her the best treatment money can buy’,” he says.

“She is a repository of amazing cultural information.” Rhodes University has, however, contacted her. “They want to honour me with a degree for my contribution to traditional music,” Mama Madosini says. She never really saw the extent of her contribution to the arts until she landed at Cape Town International Airport on 1 December, where she was met by hordes of fans. “The welcome was out of this world,” she says, fighting back tears.

“It was packed, members of my church were there and my fans. There were people I’d never met before. I cried because of joy. I had not expected that.” Now that she’s home she wants the department of arts and culture to support her efforts to impart her skills and knowledge to the next generation of musicians. “I want to teach young people how to make these instruments and how to play them. I don’t want to die with this knowledge.

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