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“Every Time I’m On Stage, I Feel The Emptiness”

His father broke his guitar and the loss of his son smashed his life; Oliver Mtukudzi’s music has brought much joy into the lives of millions of Africans, but the man himself lives with searing pain.

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It is a windy day in Johannesburg, South Africa. Thick dark clouds assemble in the sky; the wind is as swift as rush hour. As we meet, Oliver Mtukudzi carries a brown bag, full of his life, on his shoulder. He carries the bag everywhere, just as he wears his trademark poor boy cap. Dressed in a black jacket and grey pants, he stands high up on the stairs to welcome us. He is in South Africa to promote his 65th album, Eheka! Nhai Yahwe, which features South African jazz legend Hugh Masekela. It’s a remarkable career stretching back some 41 years with songs that have enlivened parties all over the world with hits like Neria, Todii and Wasakara.

“I never decided to be in the music industry. It was in me. My mother said ‘you are a good singer but you will never surpass your birth cry. Your birth cry was so beautiful’. So I believe that’s when I started singing, from my first breath,” says Mtukudzi.

Born in 1952 in Highfield, a suburb in Harare, Zimbabwe, on September 22 at 3AM; music runs in his blood. Both his parents were musicians. They met at a choir competition and the competition never ended. They competed at home and the children were the judges.

“If we needed a favor from dad, then dad won and if we needed a favor from mum, mum won.”

It wasn’t long before he followed.

“I made a three-string guitar for myself from a tin around 1969 or early 1970s with the help of a [relative]. I was always playing it. My father didn’t like it and he broke the guitar,” he recalls.

It wasn’t going to stop him. He made up songs as a child and sang everywhere.

“One day, I decided to perform for my parents standing on the table and they enjoyed it so much I didn’t get smacked for standing on the table. I remember my mother noticed I had been standing on the table, two or three days later. That’s how good it was,” he chuckles.

Mtukudzi followed his passion. In the 1970s, he joined Wagon Wheels, a band which included yet another Zimbabwean star, Thomas Mapfumo, the man who wrote Nyoka Musango and is known as the king of Chimurenga music.

“I love what I do. If I was doing a career, I would be worried about how much money I can make. I am yet to decide on a career to take on. This is not a career for me. I am just doing me. This is about understanding the purpose of a song, to bring life and hope to the people and to heal broken hearts. If you do it right, there is more in appreciation than getting paid.”

His skill is appreciated from Angola to Zimbabwe. He has won many awards; among them, the National Arts Merit Awards, Zimbabwe Music Awards, KORA Awards and South African Music Awards.

“All my songs are my favorites. If it’s not one of my favorites, I will just throw it away. You won’t get to hear it. It won’t make it to my album. Awards are an appreciation. They shouldn’t put any pressure on me, otherwise I will lose the purpose of the song,” he says.

The deep voice of Mtukudzi has brought music to the next generation. Taught by their father, his children Selmor and Sam Mtukudzi became music stars in their own right.

“One day, in March 2010, I was in Johannesburg and my son, Sam, was supposed to pick me up in Harare at the airport.”

Mtukudzi sent Sam a message telling him he was no longer coming. Unfortunately, the text didn’t go through. Sam drove to the airport to pick him up. And tragedy struck.

“I got a call that evening and they said he had been in an accident on his way home from the airport. They were taking him to the hospital and I was to come as soon as possible. They wouldn’t give me the details,” says Mtukudzi.

When he arrived at the airport all his close friends and family were there.

“I realized something was really wrong. They were all crying and I knew my son had passed on. I couldn’t believe it. My last words with him, we joked and now he was gone. I am still learning to live with it.”

This is a big loss for Mtukudzi. Sam performed and toured with his father.

“He was always on my left side when he was on stage with me. That alone, when I’m on stage, it makes me remember he is not there. Every time I am on stage, I feel the emptiness but it is also therapeutic because I feel him the most when I’m on stage.”

After Sam’s death, it was hard to sing again. In 2012, after two long years of grief, Mtukudzi released Sarawoga – in his mother tongue, it means “left alone”.

“Some of the songs in the album were meant to be in collaboration with my son so this was some kind of therapy for me. I didn’t want to throw away the work we had sweated on. I had to finish it off,” he says.

One of the songs in the album is Shamiso, named after Mtukudzi’s daughter.

“Sam was more of a friend than a son. One of the songs we were working on was Shamiso. She was getting married and we were going to sing the song at her wedding.”

It hasn’t been an easy journey. According to Mtukudzi, for as long as there are people, there is something to talk about and if there is something to talk about, then there is something to sing about.

“My music comes from the people, the environment and some of it from personal experiences. Things come up when I’m driving and I park on the side and write it down, you don’t budget time for a song. This is a tough industry. There are a lot of obstacles but you have to be strong. There is no shortcut, you just have to go all the way and remain true to yourself,” he says.

As Mtukudzi learns to live with the loss of his son, he is trying to break barriers. He is adapting a famous 1961 Zimbabwean book, Pfumo Reropa, spear of blood in chiShona, by Patrick Chakaipa.

“I’m not going to retire. I can’t run away from myself. I noticed that some of our literature is being thrown away. It is being ignored probably because there are no visuals to them, so I felt I should take one of the popular books at home and script it into motion picture to encourage our youngsters to be more interested in African literature.”

Through the loss and the pain, Mtukudzi is trying to build something of substance for Africa out of the ruins. Surely, that is a tribute to the loss of a loved son.

Arts

Oliver Mtukudzi The Soldier With A Big Voice – Yvonne Chaka Chaka

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In January, Africa lost Oliver Mtukudzi. His friend and fellow musician Yvonne Chaka Chaka fondly remembers the global icon. 

In October 2012, Zimbabwe’s Oliver Mtukudzi, South Africa’s Yvonne Chaka Chaka and Kenya’s Suzanna Owíyo produced Because I Am Girl with musicians from around the world.

It was released to promote the global launch of Plan International’s ‘Because I am A Girl’ campaign, marking the first UN International Day of the Girl Child, on October 11.

READ MORE | Tribute To Oliver Mtukudzi – Zimbabwe’s ‘Man With The Talking Guitar’

Dressed in African prints, they sang together, spreading the word about the empowerment of the girl child.

Mtukudzi’s bass and Chaka Chaka’s soulful voice in harmony, they became more than co-artists; they become brother and sister. It was the first performance of many for the two.

Seven years on, Chaka Chaka is teary-eyed about Mtukudzi’s death 23 days into 2019, when not just she, but Africa lost a music legend.

In a strange coincidence, Mtukudzi died the same day the continent lost the father of South African jazz, Hugh Masekela, last year.

On the phone for this interview, Chaka Chaka describes Mtukudzi as a soldier at work.

“When he was on stage, he was a totally different man. When he had his guitar, it was like a soldier. Like a soldier who has a gun at work,” she tells us.

“I think there were two different people. Offstage, he was just an ordinary man, and on stage, people ate out of the palm of his hand.

“I’ve never known Oliver to never be fit. He has been a skinny man and he would just twist that body with a guitar and that gravel voice of his. A big voice in a small body,” she says.

“He has never called me Yvonne, he has always called me Fifi… Fifi means sister.

“The man was always humble, he never raised his voice, I have never seen him angry and all he has ever wanted is just to see Africa thriving. He wanted to see Africa beautiful. He wanted to see Africa with less disease, less hunger, less corruption, a happy Africa – that was his wish.”

One anecdote Chaka Chaka shares is when Mtukudzi was made a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in Zimbabwe in 2011.

“You know he sat there with me and asked, ‘so, what does this entail, my sister? You have been a goodwill ambassador for a long time. You will tell me what needs to be done. How should I act? How should I react? How should I do things?’

“And I’m like, ‘no, but you know, you are more of a star than me and you have been in this industry long before I’. He was just so down-to-earth and had no chip on his shoulder.” 

The last performance the two did together was in October last year in Harare during the Jacaranda Festival, attended by more than 2,000 people and other artists around the continent.

“Oliver was not in his changing room or at home. He stayed there and watched other artists perform, which was so great,” says Chaka Chaka.

“This year, he promised that we would do it [the Jacaranda Festival] in Bulawayo,” she said. They had planned to make it a big show and use their status as goodwill ambassadors to encourage and inspire more youth.

 But sadly, that promise will never be fulfilled.

“The legacy he will leave behind is a legacy of love, the legacy of pro-African and I think for me he was a pan-Africanist. That’s what he was,” she says.

READ MORE | Zimbabwe’s Oliver Mtukudzi Dies At 66

To this day, Neria is still one of Chaka Chaka’s favorite songs by him.

 Mtukudzi, who died aged 66 of diabetes, was laid to rest on January 27 in his home village of  Madziwa.

Thousands sang and danced to the melodies of his songs.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa declared him a national hero, posthumously, a status that has previously been reserved for ruling party elite and independence veterans.

He may be gone but his music will live forever in the hearts of the fans that loved this legend who soldiered on until the end.

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Economy

What A Failed Johannesburg Project Tells Us About Mega Cities In Africa

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Six years ago a major development was announced in South Africa. Billed as a game changer, it was meant to alter the urban footprint of Johannesburg, Africa’s richest city, forever.

The Modderfontein New City project was launched amid much fanfare, expectation and media hype.

Zendai, a Chinese developer, bought a 1600-hectare site north-east of Johannesburg for the development, which it quickly dubbed as the “New York of Africa”. Early plans showed it was to include 55,000 housing units, 1,468,000 m2 of office space and all the necessary amenities for urban life in the form of a single large-scale urban district. The cost estimate was set at R84 billion.

The developers believed that Modderfontein could function as a global business hub and would become Johannesburg’s main commercial center, replacing Sandton. The project would also change Johannesburg’s international profile by strengthening relations with Asian corporate interests.

But, despite the release of futuristic computer-generated images which led to significant publicity for the project, it was never built. Instead, the land was eventually sold off. Another developer has since begun construction on a much more scaled down project, in the form of a gated-community style housing development.

Modderfontein has faded away from the public consciousness. The story of why it failed has never been adequately told in the media.

Our research, which took place over the course of several years, sought to understand the factors which led to the project’s demise. We also wanted to find out how Modderfontein’s failure relates to the broader African urban context.

We found that the project was hindered by conflicting visions between the developer and the City of Johannesburg. Moreover, unexpectedly low demand for both housing and office space meant the original plan for the project was incompatible with the city’s real estate market.

The project’s trajectory also shows how African “edge-city” developments, which are generally elite-driven and marketed as “eco-friendly” or “smart”, can be influenced by a strong local government with the means and willingness to shape development.

Conflicting interests

Zendai’s aspirations to produce a high-end, mixed-used development did not fit with the City of Johannesburg’s approach. Rather than a luxurious global hub, the city wanted a more inclusive development – one which reflected the principles outlined in its 2014 Spatial Development Framework.

At the heart of the framework is the desire to reshape a trend that saw capital leave the old central business district for affluent Sandton at the dawn of democracy in 1994. This was accompanied by an upsurge in securitised suburbs further north towards Pretoria, the country’s capital city.

These spatial trends were incompatible with the ideals of South Africa’s new democratic government and its strategy to mitigate the effects of apartheid-era planning. During apartheid, black people were prohibited from living in more affluent areas, which were reserved for the minority white population. Instead, they were forced into sprawling “townships” on the periphery of cities, far from work and economic opportunities.

To this end, the city demanded that Zendai include at least 5 000 affordable homes in its plans. It also wanted to ensure that the development was compatible with, and complemented, Johanneburg’s public transport system. The city was willing to contribute funding for the necessary infrastructure and inclusive housing.

Yet Zendai remained steadfast in its commitment to its vision, eventually deciding against fully integrating the city’s wishes into its planning application. This saw the city draw-out the planning process.

Meanwhile, problems were mounting for Zendai. The owner, Dai Zhikang, was eventually forced to sell his stake in the project to the China Orient Asset Management Company. Rather than continuing with the project, the asset managers sold the land to the company behind the new housing development on the site.

Smart cities in Africa

Over the last decade, a variety of developments like Modderfontein, including Eko-Atlantic in Nigeria, New Cairo in Egypt, and Konza Technology City in Kenya, have been touted by both public and private sectors as panaceas for Africa’s urban problems. The thinking is that as the developments are disconnected from the existing urban landscape, they won’t be burdened by crime or informality. However, these projects can take badly needed resources away from the marginalised areas of the city.

To make them more palatable to domestic and international audiences, the developments are usually marketed as “smart” or “eco-friendly”.

But these developments can fail at the point of implementation. This is because, as speculative projects, they generally don’t recognise the need to fit in with the wishes of the local authorities or adapt to the existing city. In the case of Modderfontein, the city government had the capability to push back against the developers and, in the end tried to shape the project to better fit Johannesburg’s urban realities. – The Conversation

-Ricardo Reboredo; PhD Candidate in Geography, Trinity College Dublin

-Frances Brill; Research fellow, UCL

The Conversation

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Focus

4 Ways To Develop Employment-Ready Graduates

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Chris Pilgrim, the new CEO of Transnational Academic Group West Africa and Lancaster University Ghana, on the potential game-changers in higher education on the continent.


It is to a verdant academic campus in Ghana   that Chris Pilgrim will be packing his bags from the dunes of Dubai. As the new CEO of Transnational Academic Group (TAG) West Africa and Lancaster University Ghana, Pilgrim will provide students across emerging markets access to post-secondary and executive education.

TAG currently owns and operates Lancaster University’s campus in Ghana, Curtin University’s Dubai campus, and South Africa-based ABN Training in partnership with the Australian Institute of Management in Western Australia.

Pilgrim, who has helped develop TAG’s expansion in Africa and has over 25 years of experience in the higher education sector, spoke to FORBES AFRICA about skills-building, STEM and job creation:

READ MORE | Education Quality and the Youth Skills Gap Are Marring Progress in Africa

1. Are more universities looking to set up here?

A. With over half a million African students studying abroad annually, the continent has the highest outbound student ratio (number of outbound tertiary students/total number of tertiary students) in the world. Along with this annual migration of students comes capital flight, increased brain drain, and a hesitancy to build further world-class higher education capacity on the continent.

TAG partners with globally top-ranked universities to provide the highest quality of higher education in emerging market nations, thereby reversing, albeit modestly, the flow of students.

Our campus in Ghana, in partnership with Lancaster University (ranked sixth in the UK), provides world-class higher education capacity for West Africans, and it has seen students from other countries, including outside of Africa, take up enrolment.

TAG’s Lancaster University Ghana is the only comprehensive UK university campus in mainland Africa, and while TAG is undertaking steps to open similar branch campuses in other African countries, other investors and top-ranked universities have not moved to open campuses in the region.


Chris Pilgrim, the CEO of Transnational Academic Group West Africa and Lancaster University Ghana.

2. How can Africa build skills, capacity and create more jobs?

A. While there has been a modest growth of employment in the formal job sector in some countries, many of Africa’s youth are more likely today to take up work in the informal sectors and in family enterprises.

Africa, as a region, has the largest youth population in the world, and with over 11 million young people expected to enter the job market each year, its economies are stretched to productively absorb Africa’s greatest asset – this youth population.

While the continent’s education capacities and output are integral to leveraging this youth population into a potential demographic dividend, investments, both private and public, into relevant higher education capacities, particularly STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) capacity, are limited.

In the long-term, addressing the underlying causes of unemployment and skills-gap lies in increasing enrolment in secondary and tertiary education, with a focus on STEM, thus enabling graduates to participate in the new economies and globalization emerging with the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). Innovation, technology, and entrepreneurship are fundamental to creating the jobs of the future.

3. What is the increasing role of STEM programs?

A. While the vital importance of STEM education to infrastructure development, healthcare, energy security, agriculture, and the environment are well cited over the past decade, the role of STEM and digital skills in preparing for 4IR are potential game-changers.

READ MORE | Kenyan Approach Holds Promise for Boosting Early Childhood Education

African nations need to develop “future-ready curricula that encourage critical thinking, creativity and emotional intelligence as well as accelerate acquisition of digital and STEM skills to match the way people will work and collaborate in 4IR” (Source: WEF 2017 The Future of Jobs and Skills in Africa).

Lancaster University Ghana has been delivering relevant computer science curriculum since its inception, and is set to launch programs in engineering this year, followed by additional programs in STEM disciplines.

4. How are you creating future leaders?

A. TAG Ghana works closely with Lancaster University to assure that our students receive an education that is relevant both locally, and in the global context. We work closely with industry and the community to understand their needs so our graduates are employment-ready.

Interviewed by Methil Renuka

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