/ 10 July 2023

Suicide of a son … ‘Rikhado is gone’

Channel O Birthday
Stay shining: Riky Rick performs in Johannesburg. The musician committed suicide on 23 February last year at the age of 34. Photo: Oupa Bopape/Gallo Images

Nothing else to offer 

Bianca called me in February 2022, her words strangled by the sobs she was suppressing. “Something is wrong,” she said. 

She had gone to Rikhado’s studio to check on him after dropping off the children at school and found it locked. His car was outside. “I can’t get in,” she said, “I’ve found a note in the car. Please come, Mama. I’m scared.” “I’m on my way B,” I responded while I negotiated with myself to keep breathing and begged my heart to slow down. 

I was in a conference room at the LaWiida Lodge where a three-day Oxfam South Africa strategy session was about to start. As I made arrangements for transport from Tshwane to Rikhado’s studio in Barbeque Downs, Midrand some 28km away, Bianca and I continued our conversation on WhatsApp messages: 07:45. Me: “The Lord is with you and all of us, all the time, B” 07:55. Bianca: “Mum I’m scared” 07:55. Me: “Just call on his name! Just call on Jesus.”

I was desperate, willing my heart to stay in its place, my head to stop spinning, the air not to feel so thick as it entered my nostrils and my rubbery legs to work. Within ten minutes Sibusiso Zulu was driving me through thick rush-hour traffic. I called Sheikani, explained what Bianca reported and asked him to urgently check on the situation. I sent a WhatsApp to Bianca to say I was on my way and asked how she was holding up. 

Sheikani called to say Rikhado’s friend Bheki Nkentshane had managed to pry the studio key out from under the gap at the bottom of the door and unlocked it. He and the Major League DJ twins Bandile and Banele Mbere found Rikhado hanging from a rafter and cut him down. 

A bellowing noise sent me rolling on the back seat of the car. I cried out from the depths of me: “My son has died! Oh God, my son has died!” All the energy flowed out of my body as each breath turned into a sob. I gathered myself and realised the rest of the family had to be informed. 

His maternal aunt Makhadzi Denga Makhado was overseer of all family matters. After calling and greeting her, I established that she was home and asked if she was seated. After she told me she was in bed I delivered the news. The notification of a call from Bianca interrupted my explanations so I apologised and disappeared on my son’s aunt. 

Bianca told me Bandile, Banele and Bheki were rushing Rikhado to the hospital, that I should meet them at Waterfall City Hospital. I called Makhadzi again to tell her there was hope. My heart was filled with expectation as we arrived at the hospital and walked towards the entrance. 

When I reached the lobby, Sheikani called. “Hayi, he didn’t make it, Ma. Rikhado is gone.” I went down, prostrate on the ground. Every ounce of energy exited my body. I heard people scurrying about and calling for a wheelchair. Hands pressed down on my right arm and back and a voice called to God Almighty, Lord of Mercy and Jesus.  

Sibusiso, who drove me to the hospital, witnessed my despair turn to hope, then turn to despair. He prayed energy back into my body and helped me off the floor. Hospital employees offered me a wheelchair but I pointed to the emergency department about 100m away and told them there were children waiting there who needed me on my feet so I could be there for them. I called on Jesus for strength with every step I took towards my people. 

Grief: Louisa Zondo’s memoir explores the death of her son, popular musician Riky Rick.

Banele, Bandile, Bheki and other young people were in the emergency department. I gathered them in my arms but found I couldn’t utter a word. I asked to be taken to Rikhado and was led to the resuscitation room. My son was lying on a steel bed, dressed in a white CottonFest tracksuit. A male hospital employee was removing cables attached to his body. 

He looked like himself. He was still my son. His expression was slightly forlorn because his lips were parted, but it looked as though he was lying quietly on the bed. As I drew closer to him a loud cry erupted from me. I ran my hands over his entire body, first his right side then his left. I cupped his head and prayed for him, for Bianca, Jordan, Maik and all of us. I prayed for God’s mercy and love to hold us up. 

I noticed that his right palm was completely open while his left one was slightly clenched. I sensed that his open hand reflected that he had given everything he could and had nothing else to offer. The slightly clenched hand said he was unable to take care of some things and relied on us to do so. The wellbeing of his children was the most urgent need. 

I was calm when I left the room. It was 23 February 2022 and my second-born son had died from suicide.  Themba arrived and I held him tight for a long time before taking him into the resuscitation room and giving him a moment alone with his big brother. 

Sheikani came, got his long hugs and joined his brother. Ntobeko was the last of my sons to arrive and seeing him so deflated just broke my heart. Bianca’s body quivered as I approached her. I held her tight and told her that I had seen Rikhado and prayed with him. I told her that he looked peaceful and beautiful. I asked her to come into the room and see him, I promised I would be with her. 

She was unsure and I could see how impossible this moment was for her. We entered the resuscitation room and Bianca stood in the doorway crying. After she gathered herself and went to the bed, I left her to have a private moment with her husband. 

I had to call Kumi in Berlin. “Oh God, how am I going to do this? Please Lord, give me the strength,” I prayed as I dialled his number. I greeted him gently. He sounded tired. I asked if he was home, and he confirmed that he was. I asked him to get a glass of water and sit down in a comfortable place, I had news. When he confirmed that he was seated I told him that Rikhado had hung himself at the studio and had died. 

Listening to him break apart was unbearable. “I’m so sorry, babes, I’m so sorry Kumi,” I told him. We cried together for a few minutes. I asked him to tell Naomi and his siblings Kovin and Karmini before they heard about it on social media.  

My next call was to my best friend Xoli. I could not tell my sisters this news over the phone. Xoli undertook to go to Centurion, where both my sisters lived, to break the news. 

The hospital staff told us the police had been notified and they would come to take statements and complete other procedures related to death from unnatural causes. A family counsellor was on her way. The police had not yet arrived by noon and we were worried Jordan and Maik would hear about their father’s death. My Secret Pals had received the news and they were frantic. 

As I walked towards Bianca’s friend’s car in the hospital parking lot, I heard loud screams. The Secret Pals had arrived. They rushed towards me and we embraced. Surrounded by their love and support my heart literally broke. The pain in my chest was immense. I tried to find relief through deep breaths, but the agony would not abate. Massaging my chest area brought no relief. We were summoned from the parking lot before we could leave. 

The police had arrived and we were required for their procedures. After a slow process of taking statements, we confirmed that Rikhado had left a note for Bianca and the children but refused to give it to them. I was given access to the hospital photocopier and made a single copy of the note. I gave the original to Bianca. I wanted to ensure that we controlled access to the note so we could monitor where leaks to the media originated. It was leaked, and we have no doubt who was responsible. 

Sheikani undertook to stay at the hospital to wait for the morgue services to take Rikhado for an autopsy, necessary for the issuing of a death certificate. We were finally free to go home and break the news to the children. 

Bheki had collected Jordan and Maik from school and brought them home. We found them on the couch facing the TV. Hugging them and drawing them into her tiny body, Bianca said she had bad or sad news. Very early that morning Rikhado had passed away. Jordan crushed everything inside me when she cried out, “Why? He didn’t do anything wrong!” 

She had the same pained response in 2014 when she was five years old and Bubbles, a beautiful black cross between the Fox Terrier and the German Shepherd breeds, had to leave before her brother Maik’s birth. I was worried that a big dog living in their house might not be healthy. Rikhado took Jordan with him when he dropped Bubbles at the SPCA, hoping she would understand that this was the dog’s new home. The cages were jails, Jordan decided, and it wasn’t fair that Bubbles was going to jail for no good reason. 

Jordan and Maik cried in their mother’s arms for ten long minutes. Bianca told them that it was going to be very hard for them — and all of us — to deal with Rikhado’s death. She promised that she was available to talk whenever they needed her. It was okay to feel sad, all of us were feeling very sad. Rikhado left beautiful messages for his family and Bianca read them aloud to her children.

Dearest MaRicky : A Mother’s Journey through Grief, Trauma and Healing by Louisa Zondo, Jacana Media, R240.00