Lady Africa is waiting
for that `good feeling’
In her neighbourhood, even a child can lead you to Margaret Singana’s home. The singer once known as Lady Africa has not been on stage in a long while, but the people of Zola still treat her with the deference of old.
When disaster struck, Margaret Singana was at the top of the pile. Her international career was secure after hits like I Never Loved a Man and Hamba Bhekile.
A stroke rendered her inactive, at least on stage.
That was in 1980. The nation was stunned. For years, she had been a regular on South African stages, belting out all the favourites, flashing her famous smile.
After her stroke, Singana had to deal with the absence of adoring fans, and worse still, the inability to perform. She’s been living quietly in her Soweto home ever since.
Singana is reluctant to talk about her showbiz “friends”. “Some of them have shown a lot of support and love,” she says softly.
However, Singana has been firm with bearers of sympathy: “Those I’ve shown the door. I don’t need any sympathy. I’m still alive, and I’m not bitter about my lot.”
While others would have been shattered, Singana says: “I don’t miss the stage nor the glamour of showbiz.” She has “accepted” her fate, and all she wishes to do is “look after my health”.
The stroke severely inhibited Singana’s movements, but despite that, she is in good condition. She spends a lot of time “composing songs, good songs,” and watching television. Her quality time comes when her husband, jazz bassist Mongezi Velelo, comes home.
Singana was born Margaret Mcingana, but changed her name - at the behest of her then producer Patrick van Blerk - when her career took off in the mid-1970s.
She was born in Queenstown in the Eastern Cape. Like many small town residents with ambition, she headed north to the City of Gold in the late 1950s. Owing to influx control laws and other problems, Singana became a domestic worker. Singing while working is a very African thing, so Singana sang.
Luckily her “madam” had an appreciation for musical talent. She taped her maid’s songs and introduced her to a record company.
However, Singana was already spending a lot of her free time at the famed musicians’ home-from-home, Dorkay House, in Johannesburg. These trips were only possible on Thursday - known as Sheila’s Day - her “day off”. She was certainly not discovered by some do-gooder “madam”.
Singana performed with The Symbols, a band with which she made her 1972 hit, Good Feelings. The song rose to number two on the old LM Radio chart. That was history in the making.
Before Singana came along, if you listened to white radio, you would have thought that no black musicians existed in the country. Singana became the first black artist to feature on the white Radio 5 hit parade, as well as being on the television show, Pop Shop.
However, Singana’s biggest break came in 1973 when the effects of the world community’s cultural boycott forced white South Africa to come up with ploys to counteract it.
The all-black cast of Ipi Tombi was assembled by Bertha Egnos to launch her musical. Singana became the lead singer and her voice on the theme song, Mama Tembu’s Wedding, rocked the world. She toured Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, until heavy picketing by anti-apartheid activists abroad called a halt to the production’s run.
In 1964 she had a role in Sponono, a play by Alan Paton that suffered the same picketing fate in New York. Back home after Ipi Tombi, Singana continued her recording career. In 1977, she was nominated for a Grammy award after her deluge of hits like Where Is The Love, Stand By Your Man and The Beatles’s universal hit, Help.
In the same year, her incredible voice and dynamic stage persona got her the critics award for Star of the Year 76/77 by British trade magazine, Music Week. In Holland and Germany, as well as in the US, her records went to the top of the charts.
After her stroke in 1980, Singana hibernated for only one year before recording Number One In My Heart and her version of Bob Dylan’s Man Gave Names To All The Animals.
In 1984 she recorded Isiphiwo Sam with the original Bayete, formed that year. Two years later she sang the theme to Shaka Zulu, the television production that was sold globally. The very next year, she made a stunning appearance at the first Concert in the Park, sitting on her wheelchair and sending one hundred people wild.
At home, however, Singana is better known as the creator of Hamba Bhekile, a tune that should go down in history as one of the most endearing. To this day, that song is like musical Viagra for most black South Africans.
“I never thought much about it,” Singana said. “I was just making a record, not a hit.”
Her emotional support is the rock steady love from her husband. Mongezi is a renowned jazz bassist, formerly with Jazz Clan, a heavyweight band of the early 1970s.
“I loved her when she was a top star, and I love her now,” said Mongezi. He helps his wife with her needs, cooks, cleans the house, hangs out with her at all hours and still finds time for his acoustic bass. These are chores he did when she travelled the world.
Her fans are hankering after her but Singana is in no hurry. “When the feeling comes again, I’ll go back on stage” she asserted. Until then, her millions of fans around the world will just have to wait for that “good feeling” to come sooner rather than later.