Rebecca Malope has been busy lately.
With her brand new show on Touch HD, the queen of Gospel as she is affectionately known, has put her foot in the radio industry – and fans are loving it.
From winning countless awards to getting two honorary doctorates from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Sis Ribs is living the life she had only dreamt of.
Growing up in KaNyamazane outside Nelspruit it would be an understatement to say her life was hard.
“I just look back and see a beautiful picture that came out of a gloomy life. God looked after me because the odds were heavily stacked against me.” Rebecca, who turns 50 on 30 June, opens up about her childhood – one of the few times she’s delved publicly into those dark years.
She was born prematurely after her father, John Malope, beat her mother, Paulina Twala, while she was pregnant. Rebecca was a sickly, undernourished child who started walking late, “long after other children my age were tottering about”.
“I left school in Grade 1 because we were so poor. Even our neighbours avoided us – they didn’t want to mix with us. They treated us like outcasts because we had nothing. We were always struggling to survive,’’ she says.
“My mother ran away because my father beat her almost every day. I had to get some money so I started working on a tobacco farm when I was 11,’’ she says, choking back tears.
When she was 13 Rebecca and her sister, Cynthia, left home and went to Ermelo because Cynthia wanted to join a music group called Dan Nkosi and The Villagers. “But when we got to Ermelo, to our disappointment Dan Nkosi had disbanded The Villagers. “
My sister and I hitched a ride to Johannesburg with nothing but the clothes on our backs. We were afraid to go back home because our father would beat us.”
Rebecca and her sister lived with nine other people in a small room in Evaton near Vereeniging.
“We went to Gallo Records but we were rejected. Some musicians told me I should go back to school – I was only 14. My sister and I were starving and Jabu Sibumbe, who played bass for Stimela, gave us money for food. He was like a father to us. Even today, he’s like a father to me.”
Like Job in the Bible, who suffered tremendous hardship but would never curse the Lord and was eventually rewarded for his faith, Rebecca believes God has a plan for her. “That’s why I always tell people who are experiencing hard knocks to never give up. Keep on pushing because you never know – your luck could be waiting just around the corner.”
After battling her way through her teenage years, her turning point came in 1987 when, at 19, she won the Shell Road to Fame TV music talent search with the song Shine On in the best female vocalist category. Despite winning the contest she struggled to find a record company until Mike Fuller of Fuller Artists Management Enterprise arranged a recording contract for her and she recorded her first album, Sthembele Kuwe.
After the album’s release she went home to look for her mother, whom she hadn’t seen for many years. She found her living in an abandoned caravan in a veld in Witbank. “I took her in and bought her a three-bedroom house in Spruitview,’’ she recalls.
Then she wanted to find her father, a decision her mother wasn’t happy about. But Rebecca insisted. “My mother said, ‘How can you do that? This person wanted to kill me and he also wanted to kill you’. “But I said, ‘Mom, he’s my father. I want to find him and talk to him’. I knew my father was abusive – that’s why I never wanted to get married. But he was my father.” In 1990 Rebecca drove to Nelspruit and found her father. “He told me he didn’t expect me to ever come back. He was sick so I took him back to Johannesburg and had him admitted to a private hospital.”
After he was discharged she took him to live with her while she was building a double-storey house for him in Nelspruit. “I also bought him a double-cab bakkie. My father passed away in 1996, the same year my brother Jonathan died of a heart attack and my sister Cynthia was shot dead by her boyfriend,’’ she says.
She adopted her sister’s three children, Zweli (now 37), Noluthando (now 29) and Thandeka (now 25).
Noluthando is now Rebecca’s manager. Despite the many hardships she’s faced, Rebecca says she’s grateful because God has been good to her. “I made peace with my father and I forgave him before he died. I’m a mother to three beautiful and wonderful children. I have a successful career and lovely homes. So I have no regrets.”