30 Inspiring Drum Women | ‘It’s okay to make mistakes’ – Yvonne Chaka Chaka on lessons learned

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If we've made the best choices we can, we should never look back on our lives with regret. She certainly doesn't, says the Princess of Africa.
If we've made the best choices we can, we should never look back on our lives with regret. She certainly doesn't, says the Princess of Africa.
Jemal Countess/Getty Images

Cover girl, music icon, global ambassador, actress, award winner, storyteller, Princess of Africa . . .

There are so many ways to describe a woman who’s been making her mark for nearly four decades – and DRUM has been there for every milestone. And we’ve celebrated her from the days of Thank You Mr DJ, to I’m in Love With a DJ, Umqombothi and Every Woman Needs a Man, seeing how she’s evolved with every album and song.

A great number of things have happened in Yvonne Chaka Chaka’s life since she found fame, including getting married, having kids and creating lifelong legacies in the music and TV industries. The 57-year-old remembers being part of the DRUM family as all these changes happened in her life. She’s been on the cover several times and has invited us into her home for a meal, a drink or even just a chat over the years.

It was a big deal being on the cover of DRUM, Yvonne says. Her first was more than 30 years ago and her last was in 2020 when she talked about loving being a grandmother.

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“DRUM has been one of those iconic magazines. It has come a long way, and we need to appreciate that. As young girls, we knew that there was DRUM, where the likes of Dolly Rathebe would grace the cover. So it was exciting as a young girl to be on the cover. There was no social media at the time, so a cover was the ultimate recognition for people in entertainment,” the From Me to You singer adds.

Yvonne Chaka Chaka
Yvonne Chaka Chaka's first cover on Drum Magazine.

She believes the magazine’s longevity is a result of being in touch with readers and everyday topics in society. From politics to issues in families, the magazine has always been that beat for readers. “I remember how respected the reporters and editors were. I think aspirant reporters just wanted to work at DRUM.

When Liz Khumalo became the first black woman editor – that was memorable. I have so much respect for her as more stories about women were told.” Liz, who was also Sis Dolly at one point, was with the magazine from the 1970s. She first started out as a secretary until she was at the helm of the publication as the editor-in-chief before retiring in 2002.

Yvonne has come a long way from her first appearance on DRUM’s cover. She remembers getting into the industry just after giving birth to her eldest son, Themba, when she was a teenager. “As I was about to complete matric, I fell pregnant. It was a deterrent (to my future plans) for me because I was 18. You know we always make plans, but God decides for us,” she says.

The Princess of Africa, as she’s affectionately known, says she knew she’d disappointed her mother and two sisters, which was the last thing she wanted to do. But she was determined to make things right and make them proud. And she’s done it, 10 times over. After matric, she went looking for a scholarship so she could study further. But fate had other plans and she was discovered by Phil Hollis of Dephon Records in 1985. That’s when she released the album I’m in Love with a DJ, featuring The Stones. “So what was a deterrent became some luck. I started singing at 19 and here I am 35 years later,” she says.

Yvonne Chaka Chaka
Yvonne Chaka Chaka performing at a concert.

She thinks back to her life in the spotlight. “If I am to look back or if I had the opportunity to correct my wrongs, honestly, I would say it’s okay to make mistakes. You can’t always be right. You can’t always say, ‘I regret.’ I’d take the same road, maybe just a bit wiser.”

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The Soweto-raised singer always had dreams of travelling the world. She never let anything stand in the way of her dreams and she took her first trip to America in 1987, the first of many. “I was very lucky that I started my career at 19. By the time I was 21, I was travelling the world. America was my first trip outside of Africa. I remember meeting Whitney Houston through (South African jazz singer) Jonathan Butler, who had made a name for himself there.

“Ironically, I met Miriam Makeba for the first time in New York,” she recalls fondly. Even though she had international acclaim and could have her pick of gigs, Yvonne also became a humanitarian and activist, fighting for refugees. She prides herself on being accessible and not fixated on the idea of superstardom. “For me, it is about giving myself to people who love me. It is a give and take. What else do I do with my influence? It is all about being grateful and looking at what am I giving in return. Who are the people who made you?”

The Covid-19 pandemic grounded millions of artists but Yvonne used the time and energy available following its harsh impact to help others. She, with the help of her family and sponsors, was able to get a sanitary towel drive going where about 10 000 girls from Johannesburg and Giyani in Limpopo benefited.

“With Covid there’s a lot we learned, that we need to be there for one another,” she says. “We need to be there for one another. Ask your neighbour, the petrol attendant or anyone you meet: ‘Are you okay?’.”

Yvonne Chaka Chaka
Yvonne Chaka Chaka in her home, next to her piano.
Yvonne Chaka Chaka
South African singer, stage presenter and talk show hostess Yvonne Chaka Chaka.

She’s enthusiastic about helping women. In November 2020, Yvonne launched something she’s always been passionate about, WOMan (Well Organised Man) Radio, which can be streamed online and is a platform where issues affecting women are explored.

“I’m fortunate to have travelled the world and have seen people making life work with the little they have under difficult circumstances. My dream for the African child is to see girl and boy children empowered equally.

“To girl children, I would say to them be an independent person. I believe so much in feminism and empowering the girl child. Do not let your potential be clipped. You will never be happy even if you have a man taking care of you financially,” Yvonne says.

She’ll be turning 60 in a few years and has no plans to slow down. She’s not done making a difference.

“When people still appreciate you, what can we say? We keep going.” And DRUM will be there every step of the way.

This interview was originally published in a special issue of Drum, commemorating its 70th anniversary.
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