Three of South Africa’s favourite ladies of Gospel talk about the personal challenges they’ve overcome and how they celebrate the women who have inspired them
Winnie Mashaba and her husband woke up at 4.30am to drive from Limpopo to Johannesburg. Mam’ Deborah Fraser has a performance which starts in a little while but she found the time to squeeze in this date. Ntokozo Mbambo is coming down with the flu and should be resting in bed, but she too has come to talk to BONA.Despite their hectic schedules all three women are on time for our meeting at the scenic Zoo Lake. Winnie looks relaxed in All-Star takkies, a floor-sweeping skirt and a warm jacket and hat. Ntokozo’s movements are unusually slow as she walks in comfy slippers with husband, fellow Joyous Celebration member Nqubeko by her side. Mam’ Deborah is well-groomed and as usual has accessorised her look with her bubbly personality, although she’s very anxious about time. What made these Gospel giants move heaven and earth to be here? August is Women’s Month and they’re eager to honour the women in their lives, the women of South Africa and the challenges that made them who they are today. These are their stories of inspiration…
“My mother made me who I am today!”
SHE HAS a huge following with fans across South Africa and its neighbours, but if it wasn’t for her late mother we would be missing out on Winnie’s great talent. At a time when many mothers were encouraging their children to become teachers and nurses Winnie’s mom Enicah Mashaba gave her a ticket to fame instead. “My grandfather, Judas Mashaba, was the first person to notice my musical talent and always said to people this child will go far like Brenda Fassie,” laughs Winnie. “But my mother is the one who made it all possible. I told her that one day I want to sing on stage and instead of preaching about school, she secretly looked for someone who could help me reach my dream.” Somehow, Winnie’s mother managed to get in touch with Gospel legend Solly Moholo and tell him about her talented daughter. Winnie didn’t know she had done this when, one day, Solly called to say he’d be in GaPhasha in Steelpoort Limpopo, where Winnie and her mother lived at the time. “He was performing somewhere nearby, but he made time to come to my house and ask me to sing. Now if someone talks to me about music I won’t argue with them, so I sang as loud as I could.” The rest is well and truly history. After joining Solly Moholo Productions Winnie recorded her first album Exoda 20, which was released in 2000. It went gold, selling more than 30 000 copies. Her 2006 album, Thola Ngoaneso, sold more than 150 000 copies. She received a Kora Award nomination in 2005 and SAMA nominations in 2007 and this year for Best African Traditional Gospel. In short, 28-year-old Winnie is one of the most highly celebrated female Gospel singers today – but she doesn’t want to take all the glory. “My mother was – and is – the most important woman in my life,” she says. “She was very strict, but she helped me to be disciplined. She was a manager at a funeral parlour and a leader in the ANC Women’s League in our district. She taught us to be strong and know what we want out of life. I am a better woman and mother because of her.” Other women who inspire her include singers Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Mam’ Ebony (who’s married to maskandi musician Hash’ elimhlophe) and Minister Of Foreign Affairs, Maite Nkoana- Mashabane. “I love their strength of character,” says Winnie. “They respect their husbands and families, they help me to be a better woman and make me proud to be a South African woman.” Winnie hopes to apply these lessons in her own home. She got married in 2007 and the family includes her husband’s eight-year-old son and Winnie’s younger sister, who is 14, and younger brother, who is 11. Winnie doesn’t mind not having any children of her own yet. “I’ve told myself everything has its time,” she says. “I am who I am because I’m a mother to these kids. It’s God’s plan and I don’t want to stress about other things.” With her latest album Joang Kapa Joang, released in February this year, heading for platinum status, many adoring fans and a stable family, she really has little to stress about.
“Proud of the woman I’ve become”
ACCORDING to many, 24-year-old Ntokozo Mbambo is a good example of what an African woman should be. She’s respectful, well-mannered and carries herself with pride and dignity. She is of course married to Joyous Celebration musical director, keyboardist and singer Nqubeko Mbatha, and Winnie Mashaba comments how Mrs Mbatha is “young but so homely and, judging from how she speaks, she loves and respects herself as a woman”. Winnie adds that she admires Ntokozo’s talent because when she’s on stage she does more than entertain people: “When she sings it’s like she’s preaching as well. She has that gift to turn people to God.” Ntokozo’s response is a shy giggle. “I’m amazed at what Winnie thinks about me, especially my music. It’s so different from hers I thought she didn’t even know it.” She agrees that she does love and respect herself, saying: “It’s who I am, it’s what I do and it’s what I’m about.” She also says her mother, Nonhle Mbambo, is the reason for this: “She taught me to pray and to be a woman of virtue and good morals.” Her mother is also her music manager and because her parents sang in a group with producer-singer Mthunzi Namba, Ntokozo had the opportunity to take part in one of his live recordings at the age of 13. She was ready to back down because of nerves but her mom sat her down and said: “Baby, you are called to this. Let God do the rest.” Peace took control of Ntokozo’s life then and she hasn’t looked back. She was just 16 when she featured in Joyous Celebration 6 for the first time. Her musical career was off to an even better start when her solo album came out the following year in 2002, but her second album, Keep On Believing, only came out five years later in 2007. The process of having to wait was the toughest time for me as a woman and as a singer,” she says. “It was a really long break and I had to really search for who I am and what God was expecting from me.” Her personal life doesn’t show signs of such challenges though. She married the love of her life Nqubeko Mbatha in April last year and says it’s one of the best decisions she’s made. “I really enjoy being married to him,” she says. “We’re very compatible and he’s a cool guy.” They don’t have any children yet, as they’re focusing on their careers, but Ntokozo says she looks forward to motherhood. If she has a daughter she’ll teach her “to love herself as she is, not let anyone walk all over her and not have low selfesteem.” When she says this one can’t help but ask if she herself has suffered low self-esteem because of her size. “I haven’t always been happy with my size especially when skinny is considered to be goodlooking,” she says. “God helps me every day to tell myself I’m beautiful. I know I have to lose weight to be healthy, but I must still love myself. “I was raised to stand up for what I believe in. I’ve transferred that to my music and am standing up for my God because that’s what I was taught, not to compromise my belief!”
“I fought back!”
UNLIKE other typical Gospel singers, Deborah has a largerthan- life presence, loves to joke, wears lots of jewellery, has a bold dress sense – and who can forget those dramatic signature eyebrows? Her life could easily be turned into several juicy Generations episodes! Two children out of wedlock and one painfully public divorce later, Deborah still captivates her fans with her realness. The Gospel star emphasises that she’s only human and that Christianity is not about being perfect. That’s what the song Abafundisi Abarongo on her latest album Umsamariya is about, she says. “I don’t understand why there are some people who call themselves preachers, but make others feel like they’re too dirty to attend their churches. Those are the people who God wants. Jesus died for our sins and in His eyes we are all the same.” At 42, Deborah Fraser has it all: great talent, adoring fans, best-selling albums, awards and even a TV career in the pipeline – she’ll soon be appearing in a local drama called Hola Mpinthsi. What’s most inspiring about her, though, is how she’s faced life’s painful tragedies and come out on top. In 1996 she lost her first-born son at birth. Her voice grows softer as she recalls how excited she was about becoming a mother. “After being good for such a long time, I was hoping it was the right time but it wasn’t,” she says about her painful experience. She eventually gave birth to Nkosana (now 9) and Aaliyah (now 7), but life didn’t get easier for her. As a working woman and a mother Deborah had to find a balance between the two roles. “I remember I gave birth to Aaliyah in the same year I released my first album. “It was very hectic and unfortunately I never had a chance to raise my children myself. “I was in and out of their lives, but the little free time I got I spent with them and tried to teach them as much as I could.” By the grace of God her children grew up well and are now living with her. She’s also taken in her niece’s son, Noah, and loves being a mother. In 2007 Deborah thought she had found happiness and a father for her children when she married Nigerian Pastor Sockey Okeke.
The C became abusive and Deborah has since divorced Okeke. She believes Women’s Month is a good time to share what she went through and to advise other women. “I’m a Gospel singer, people know and love me, they look up to me, but I’m also human,” she says. “Pain goes straight to the heart for me, like it does for anyone else.” According to her, the marriage was a painful and frustrating time. But, she adds: “What I like is that I asked God to please hold my hand and walk with me. “And although it took time I’m back now.” One might have expected Deborah to stay in the destructive marriage out of fear of what her fans would say, or for her to try and keep the divorce a secret out of shame – but instead she chose to be open about everything. “The reason I speak so openly about my marriage is because I know there are people who love Deborah and who will follow me no matter what. “Even when I do wrong they’ll think it’s right. I don’t want that.” More importantly, she wants other women to know that they shouldn’t stay in abusive homes hoping that kuzolunga! “If someone pinches you, you can either pinch back or sit down and cry,” she says. “I’m not a cry-baby, so I fought back by moving on to a place where I wouldn’t feel pain.” In the song Bengithi Ngizo Bekezela (I Thought I Would Endure) she tells how she believed there was hope for her marriage, but there was none and that real love doesn’t hurt. Hopefully the women of South Africa will find courage in this tough lady’s story. [e]
THE PLACE TO BE
To celebrate Women’s Month in true African style BONA decided to shoot its August cover at Moyo Restaurant at Zoo Lake in Joburg. With its blend of African flavours and age old rituals such as face painting, handwashing and storytelling Moyo provides a great showcase for the African beauty and dignity represented by our cover stars, Deborah Fraser, Winnie Mashaba and Ntokozo Mbambo. For Bookings, tel: 011-646-0058.
Story: Ntokozo Maseko Pictures: Shaun Smith Hair & make-up: Vuyo Styling: Thato-ya-Ona Lerefolo Venue: Moyo Restaurant, Zoo Lake, Joburg