/ 14 February 2009

Killer carnival

Mzwakhe Mbuli, Lucky Dube’s backing vocalist Tonique Phala and gospel singer Nondumiso Nyambosi outside the Johannesburg High Court, where Dube’s murder trial is taking place. Photo: Lisa SKinner
Mzwakhe Mbuli, Lucky Dube’s backing vocalist Tonique Phala and gospel singer Nondumiso Nyambosi outside the Johannesburg High Court, where Dube’s murder trial is taking place. Photo: Lisa SKinner

The seductive old-school charm of Nomsa Mtolo of the Mahotella Queens; the booming voice of the People’s Poet, Mzwakhe Mbuli; the adolescent intensity of Trompies’s Eugene Mthethwa and his feisty fellow kwaito star, Doc Shebeleza. They all came together at the Johannesburg High Court this week for the trial of the alleged killers of their musical peer, friend and mentor, Lucky Dube.

Three men, Mbuti Mabe, Julius Gxowa and Sifiso Mhlanga, are accused of murdering South Africa’s reggae icon in a botched hijacking in southern Johannesburg in October 2007.

The musos provided a welcome distraction in a trial which at times has been a veritable Babel. The proceedings have been conducted in Portuguese (Gxowa is Mozambican), English, Sesotho, isiZulu and isiXhosa, making them drawn-out and tedious.

Moreover, this week’s ”action” centred on a trial within a trial over the admissibility of evidence about an identity parade. Captain Mphikeleli Vana, accused by the defendants of rigging the ID process, testified on this issue.

”I saw them for the first time on the day of the parade,” Vana said in isiXhosa. The packed gallery fidgeted and suppressed yawns as this was translated into English, Sesotho, Portuguese and then isiZulu.

The drudgery of the translation aside, Dube was adored by many nationalities in Africa, Europe and especially Jamaica, reggae’s birthplace.

On Monday Judge Seun Moshidi said he was aware of the high-profile nature of this trial and the need to bring it to a speedy and proper conclusion. But the three pro bono advocates for the accused did not make his job quicker or easier. More than once he had harsh words for the defence team, impatiently calling them to book for their time-wasting antics.

”We know how an identity parade is conducted. Do we want him [Vana] to go through the process again?” he asked an advocate on Monday. Last week, Moshidi reminded Vuyo Jack, Mhlanga’s advocate, not to ”waste our time with the technicalities”.

Moshidi also intervened in a contorted cross-examination of one witness about the skin tone — was it light or dark? — of one of the accused when Jack strayed into the science of melanin.

The judge sounded tired. ”You’re treading in an area in which neither you nor the witness are experts. Can we be more relevant?” Outside something similar was going on — without the curtsying and court choreography.

On Monday during lunch a young relative of one of the accused, Mhlanga, walked up to Mbuli, Shebeleza and Mthethwa as they held an informal press conference on the steps. He took them to task for continually referring to his uncle as a killer when he has not been convicted.

The Doc had no time for such legal niceties. ”You’re stupid, you piece of shit. You’re talking shit,” he shouted at him. ”This person wants to be famous. Don’t give him publicity,” Mbuli interjected.

It was always going to be an emotional trial. Testimony by a state witness last week that the man who allegedly shot Dube thought he was killing a Nigerian has exploded around the continent. Dube’s supporters at the trial were vocal about the xenophobia angle. Said Mbuli: ”This is nonsensical — Nigerians are human beings.”

On Wednesday Dube’s backing vocalists, fresh from a tour of Australia with Eddie Grant, arrived to show their support. They said they were ”struggling to move on”. Tutukani Cele, leader of Dube’s band, said they are still grieving but are trying to gather the shards of their lives. ”Every time we listen to our sound, every time we practise, we remember him. We’ll continue to spread the message of peace and love.”

And not before time, as Taliep Petersen, Gito Baloi and thousands of other South Africans who die by another’s hands each year would say. If they were alive to say it.