Down and out in Brenda's Hillbrow

How did South Africa’s most popular singer end

up a sad, semi-destitute occupant of a seedy

Hillbrow hotel? Hazel Friedman traces

the decline and fall of Brenda Fassie

DRUG abuse is not the sole cause of the decline and fall of Brenda Fassie. She suffers from a much deeper malaise: loneliness.

It was drugs which, last Thursday, killed her closest companion, Poppie Sihlahla, with whom she shared a dingy room at Hillbrow’s Quirinale Hotel. Spiros Vovos, MD of the Quirinale, says Sihlahla had complained of chest pains “after a heavy bout of drinking”. He had entered her room after she had failed to report for work and had found her close to death, while Fassie lay asleep next to her.

He and a hotel security guard rushed Sihlahla to a doctor. But, by the time they arrived, she was gone. Both Fassie and Vovos insist that Sihlahla suffered from chronic asthma and had never taken a drug in her life.

Fassie’s friends at the Quirinale tell a different story. They recall cocaine marathons which took place shortly before Sihlahla died, days and nights of “freebasing binges” without food or

They describe Fassie as a generous, but lonely and volatile, woman who loved to indulge her friends with money and presents. Sihlahla, they say, was very sweet but extremely possessive of

“Brenda was in way over her head,” says “Gizelle”, a prostitute friend at the Quirinale (speaking on condition of anonymity).

“It had got to the point where some of the ‘merchies’ (cocaine dealers) were refusing to supply her because she was losing it so badly. But that didn’t stop her from exerting control. She was getting the stuff around the hotel. She was being used, practically forced to sing for her

According to Gizelle, Fassie was introduced to freebasing about two years ago by her Nigerian bodyguard. “In the beginning, it was occasional. We all did it together, but lately both she and Poppie went completely beserk on the stuff.”

She adds: “How could this happen? Brenda had everything going for her.”

But Fassie has long been riding a rollercoaster. Once called the local Queen of Pop, the Girl with the Golden Voice, and South Africa’s own Madonna, she is now compared to Billie Holliday, Edith Piaf and others who died tragic, drug-related deaths.

Many believe she is the sole architect of her own demise, that she alienated her loved ones through arrogance and an erratic lifestyle. Others—among them members of the Hillbrow drug and prostitute world—insist that, at heart, Fassie is an insecure, lonely child with a woman’s voice and body. Her hunger for approval and generosity lay her open to abuse, and drugs served to fill the aching hole in her

I met Brenda Fassie in 1986, when the 21-year- old dynamo had already become South Africa’s most popular singer for decades. Born in Langa’s Masakane Square in Cape Town, she took the short route to success. Inspired by her pianist mother, at the age of four she had already formed her own group, called the Tiny

In 1979, she was brought to the Golden City, where she caused an immediate sensation, first with the group Joy, then with Blondie and Papa and, finally, with the Big Dudes, with whom she recorded the chart topping Weekend Special.

By 1986, her record sales had surpassed all those of her counterparts and Weekend Special had been released in Britain. She was Brenda the Bazooka, the poor, pint-sized kid with the powerhouse voice. “You just tell the world,” she said, “that Brenda Fassie is here to stay.”

Our next encounter was during 1994, in the bar of the Europa Hotel in Joubert Park, where she was rehearsing for a gig at the Razzmattaz club. She was still a bundle of uncontained energy. But I noted that her eyes were heavy and haunted, her speech was slurred and she looked much older than her 29 years.

“Journalists have ruined my life with their lies,” she complained bitterly. “People I cared about have turned their backs on me. But Brenda will be back with a bang.” It sounded like a whimper.

The last four years have been rough. She was charged with fraud in 1990, with her then- husband Nhlanhla Mbambo and her former boyfriend Eric Mbeko, though charges were later dropped. She had been sued and her music boycotted after failing to appear at several township concerts. In 1992, she was convicted of assaulting Sowetan photographer Mbuzeni Zulu.

But public disgrace paled by comparison to her private pain. Her marriage ended in 1991, with her calling Mbambo a leech, a lecher and a wife- beater. In 1992, her former lover, a household name in Durban’s gay circles, went public with an account on an 087 telephone line of his miserable life with the volatile songbird.

Her mother died in 1993. In December of that year, she was dumped by manager Sello Chicco Twala, just months after he had “rescued” her from former manager Peter Mbolwekwa.

When we spoke in 1994, she was reunited with her first manager, Peter Snyman and, in October that year, she released Abantu Bayakhuluma. It was not well received. The woman whose personal agony had, until now, been masked by an overwhelmingly joyous voice, was stagnating in a creative quagmire. She was still doing variations of Weekend Special.

She was also homeless, having lost her house in Fleurhof and been evicted from her apartment in Lonehill. Her son Bongani was thrown out of school for failing to pay fees.

And, throughout this, the drug abuse continued, abated only by brief spells at the Riverfield rehabilitation clinic. Each time she would emerge, rejuvenated and triumphant, proclaiming: “Brenda, the real Brenda, is back with a bang.”

“Brenda’s problem can be described as part of the ‘too much, too soon’ syndrome suffered by many talented individuals,” says a psychologist who treated her at Riverfield. “She was seduced by stardom at an early age, before she had developed a sense of herself. While she exudes outer confidence, on the inside she is desperately afraid. She doesn’t know what is her.

I spoke to Fassie briefly this week, over the phone. She refused to answer questions about cocaine, nor would she confirm or deny that she had threatened to spill the beans on her drug- taking music friends. She simply cried, and told me how much she loved Poppie and how sorry she was. Then the phone went dead.

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