She had just one year to go before she was done with school – yet she decided that’s when she would drop out. It was certainly a leap of faith – doing that so she could share her gift with the world – but Winnie Mashaba believed it was the best decision she could make.
And it’s not something she regrets. This year marks 20 years since the gospel singer first mesmerised crowds with her golden voice and to honour the occasion Winnie (38) has released a new album. The Journey with Winnie Mashaba (Live at the Emperors Palace) pays homage to her two decades in the industry with 22 moving tracks. It’s a mix of new songs and holy hits dating back to her first album.
“Anyone who doesn’t know Winnie Mashaba must get this album,” she tells DRUM when we catch up with her. “You will understand where I’m coming from and what I’ve gone through in this industry. You’ll know more about me.” With 16 albums under her belt she’s seen it all – piracy, exploitation and booking fee fights – you name it. Yet Winnie wouldn’t trade it for the world.
“It’s not all about money, it’s about pursuing what God has blessed you with.” Like most gospel singers, she was discovered at church through her late mother, MaLebo Mashaba.
“While I was at school, she started secretly looking for a music producer,” Winnie says. MaLebo, a manager at a funeral parlour, got into contact with gospel great Solly Moholo. He travelled to the family’s home in Burgersfort, Polokwane, to see if the teen was as talented as he was told. “I remember him saying to me, ‘Hopela ngwanaka (Sing my child)’, and I did exactly that. I never questioned when people asked me to sing, I just did it.”
Charmed by her velvet voice, Solly started mentoring her. While most of her peers spent their weekends and school holidays enjoying movie marathons, Winnie travelled to his studio in Pretoria to work on her music. Her sacrifice paid off following the release of Exodus 20, when she became wildly popular. She laughs as she remembers the euphoria around her debut album in 2000.
“I was just the normal Selinah (Winnie is her English name), like people in my village called me. Then one day people started to recognise me, and they started to scream my name.”
B UT the famous aren’t always fortunate. Winnie’s world was rocked when MaLebo passed away in 2001, just as her daughter’s star was on the rise. Winnie had lost her biggest fan and fiercest supporter, but she couldn’t wallow in her pain. Then 19 years old and one of eight children, she became the family’s breadwinner. “I was the only one in the family who had a source of income because I was selling CDs and cassettes. I used the profit to take care of everyone,” she recalls. “I never had time to go out with my friends because I had to make sure all my siblings had something to eat and were well supported.”
It was a cross she was happy to bear, Winnie says. Despite her many responsibilities, she’d had a happy childhood. “I was an energetic child who played everything from soccer to netball and volleyball.
“I was naughty too. Even the kids named after me are just like me – they are very naughty. They laugh a lot and they cry a lot – just like me,” she says. She was forced to grow up fast but it was a blessing in disguise, Winnie believes. “I became a mother to the motherless and I learnt about love and sharing with others.”
The O Mohau Messiah singer, a member of the Zion Christian Church, tells us she’s always found strength in faith. Winnie has been married to Peter for 14 years and as much as they’d like to be parents, it just hasn’t been possible. They prefer to keep their private life out of the public eye, but the singer reveals she’s endured two heartbreaking losses. “After two miscarriages, I gave everything to God,” she says solemnly. “Sometimes I joke and say maybe Modimo (God) knows if He gives me children now, I’m going to neglect the other responsibilities I have.”
Winnie and Peter have taken in her youngest siblings, Helen (21) and Karabo (24), who live with the couple in Polokwane while they finish their studies. “Only God knows if I will have biological children or continue to take care of the children I have now.
She’s happy to be her siblings’ keeper but Winnie longs to have children of her own one day. The public scrutiny into her personal life can take its toll, she admits – particularly when people feel they have the right to comment without knowing about her struggle to become pregnant. But Winnie has the patience of Job when it comes to those who give her hell about her biological clock. “I just laugh at them because I know everything will happen at the right time,” she says.
She’s carved a career on the cornerstone of faith – even though it hasn’t always won her any fans. Winnie is known for her powerful pipes but her religious beliefs and love of doeks have been a hot topic over the years. She prefers to turn the other cheek to critics who have branded her ultra-conservative.
“In my church I was taught to respect each and every person – I wish that can be done for me also.” In between her glittering gospel career and presenting Amahubo, Winnie also helps Peter run their publishing and events management company. “He doesn’t like for me to talk about us and I respect that,” she says of her husband, who she describes as shy.
But she is willing to talk about her gospel show on Dumisa TV (DStv channel 340). Winnie loves nurturing the rising stars she meets on Amahubo, she says. “It’s a beautiful experience to work with other musicians. I always take time to tell them the do’s and don’ts of the industry.” With two decades in the music business she shows no signs of slowing down and this Easter the busy bee plans to go back to where it all started. “Many years ago, I took a vow not to be booked on Good Friday and Easter Sunday so I can celebrate this special day by going to church and praying with my family,” Winnie says. “That’s the only sacrifice I can give God for being there for me.”