Zola 7 and the undying spirit of community

In the past few weeks, kwaito legend and media personality Bonginkosi “Zola” Dlamini, aka Zola 7, was given his flowers and got to smell them. His philanthropic efforts, songs and wisdom were commemorated by both fans and celebrities, as is more often the case only when an artist passes on. 

House and kwaito super producer DJ Cleo, maskandi artist Khuzani, veteran actor Israel Matseke Zulu and controversial politician and reality TV star Shauwn “MaMkhize” Mkhize each had their interactions with Zola documented and posted on social media. The latter, who, to mixed reactions from the public, gave Zola a chance to sit in her Bentley, reportedly left him with a cool million. But Zola and his team disputed the reports. “UMaMkhize just wanted to cook for me and for me to meet her son, and we stayed there the whole day,” Zola said in a video posted on social media a few days later.   

While Zola is alive and kicking, the recent events had me thinking about how some missteps are rectified only through death, because it fosters hindsight and initiates difficult conversations. Rapper and culture icon Riky Rick’s death last month touched many South Africans. On his death, the collective notion was, “We should/could have done more for Riky” as a man who had been vocal about living with mental illness. 

This lesson seems to have been taken to heart in the case of Zola. When it was learned that the kwaito legend was facing medical problems, after photographs of him looking frail surfaced online, many people, most of them members of so-called CBD Twitter, urged the country’s artists and other personalities to “do something”; show that they care “while he is still alive”. 

The infamous parody Twitter account @ChrisExcel102, a prominent member of CBD Twitter, noted that celebrities weren’t checking up on Zola or lending a helping hand. “They saved pics he took with them so that when he is no more, they can post & chase the clout like they cared.” 

“CBD Twitter” is a condescending term used by “woke Twitter”, the faction of the bird app made up of middle-class South Africans — educated, enlightened and privileged. They pride themselves on being sound, considerate and progressive, which they are, for the most part. CBD Twitter, on the other hand, consists chiefly of individuals who tend to hold conservative and rather outdated views of the world; those who subscribe to patriarchy, nationalism and other systems that don’t fly with the politically correct. “CBD” because Joburg central, where the working class live and hustle, is plagued by urban decay rendering the inner city, and by extension its inhabitants, unpleasant. The insult to the masses in the imagery is staggering, especially considering it comes from a group of people who will fight tooth and nail against classism. 

‘I will shine for you’ 

Zola won the hearts of the masses, the demographic represented by CBD Twitter, in the 2000s. In his prime as a kwaito star, he branched into philanthropy through Zola 7, a reality TV show that showed Zola and his team assisting people to make changes in their communities or in their personal lives. Between 2002, when Zola 7 premiered, and 2010, when it ended, the homeless had homes built for them, destitute students were assisted with bursaries; and stepping stones were provided for creatives and athletes to break into the game. 

Zola was a community builder with a high success rate. He remained in tune with the people partly because of the time he spent on the ground. The people’s stories of strife seeped into his music; in his first two albums Umdlwembe (2000) and Khokhovula (2002), he was a self-absorbed, feisty and charming thug; in his third and fourth releases, Bhambatha (2004) and iButho (2005), Zola’s scope widened. Songs such as Don’t Cry, Kuyoze Kube Nini, Jongosi, uNosonka and Himself (Think About It) are all compelling because of their specificity; he deals with the youth’s navigation of the country’s unemployment crisis. 

In the introduction of iButho, a meditation on black struggle, his voice shivers as he expresses concern for his community. The monologue opens with Zola waking up exhausted and disillusioned. He decides to pay his boys a visit to cheer him up. Along the way, everyone he meets tells him their struggle stories — granny told him she had, once again, not received her pension that month; a young girl was raped the day before; a young boy now lives on the streets after HIV claimed his mother’s life. Amajita also told him, “Zola asikho grand.” 

The monologue later morphs into a prayer as he thanks the Holy Father for his talent, but makes it known he doesn’t understand why He allows black people to be subjected to the plights he listed. In conclusion, he puts forward his question as an offering to Him, a gesture that further pointed to his commitment to black people. 

From the same album is the song Stars, a love letter to Zola, the Soweto township he was born and raised in and chose to use as his stage name. It’s one of Zola’s most loved songs and shows a man who harbours a passion for his people coupled with heart-warming well-wishes and eternal gratitude. The believability isn’t just because of his conversational delivery but speaks to his track record. 

Thobile, a gospel tune from Bhambatha, featured an unknown singer, who Zola collaborated with so he could afford to take care of his 91-year-old grandfather, the only family he had left. 

In those years, the predictions on the streets of the kwaito star possibly becoming president of South Africa were a stretch, but weren’t completely far-fetched. His effectiveness was just that huge. He rapped on Stars: “These are my people, they living in the shacks/ If I was president, I’d make you prominent/ But ng’cul’ ikwaito, ngicel’ ukuk’nik’ uthando.” 

The decline of Zola’s star was the result of a number of intertwining factors, among them being sour relations with former label Muthaland Entertainment. (Photo: Sabelo Mkhabela)

 

Zola’s subsequent decline

Zola’s decline resulted from a combination of various personal woes; one of them allegations of gender-based violence, which he has consistently denied. His former wife, Sibongile Nkabinde, told Sunday World in a tell-all interview in 2017: “That marriage damaged me in ways you could never imagine.” 

Zola’s name sits comfortably on the long list of South African men who benefit from society’s patriarchal leanings; he remains a darling to the masses even after consistent reports of inflicting violence on a woman. Whereas woke Twitter believes in throwing the baby out with the bathwater, CBD Twitter and the demographic they represent occupy the extreme side of the spectrum and tend to gaslight women in cases in which they speak out about the abuse at the hands of their powerful partners; a dangerous standpoint to take in a country with a high rate of gender-based violence. It explains why, in the past two weeks, his former wife’s story rarely featured when Zola was celebrated for his philanthropy and music. 

Recently, actress Pearl Thusi expressed that the gender-based violence allegations were what prevented her from lending a helping hand to Zola when Twitter users called celebrities to action. In his brief response to Pearl’s tweet, Zola said that those who know him personally “know false accusations from the truth”.

***

As kwaito’s time at the top of the totem pole came to an end in the late 2000s, a lot of kwaito artists’ careers turned into subjects of ridicule as their stars faded. Fans had moved on to genres such as Afro-pop, house and hip-hop. But, even in a climate that never favoured kwaito, Zola never stopped releasing music; it just didn’t stick as it did earlier in his career.

Further fuelling the fire that ate through his reputation was his clash with Ghetto Ruff (now known as Muthaland Entertainment), the label under which he established his career and released his first four albums. Zola claimed the company owed him millions. In 2015, Lance Stehr, Muthaland Entertainment boss, turned to the courts to issue a protection order against the kwaito star after claims of harassment. Similarly, Afro-soul singer Nathi Mankanyi’s split with the same label got ugly when both parties claimed they were owed money

In 2015, Zola made a return to philanthropic TV as host of the show Utatakho on Mzansi Magic. In it, he attempted to assist people seeking to solve their issues of paternity.

“Absent fathers are a real issue in our society, and it has caused a lot of pain and confusion. Being able to help a few people deal with this is great,” Zola wrote in a post published on the Mzansi Magic website after the first episode aired.

But, after eight episodes, Zola left the show, and would explain in a 2021 interview on Podcast and Chill With MacG that he parted ways with the show not because of his own child maintenance problems, as was widely reported. Zola told MacG that he received a call from “a kid” who had birthed the idea of the show but wasn’t benefiting financially from it. “Then I decided, ukuthi, morally, I should leave,” he said. 

In 2018, he made another attempt; the controversial channel Moja Love announced its team-up with Zola on a show called Hope With Zola; the concept mirrored that of Zola 7 from the previous decade. Unfortunately, Hope With Zola didn’t get anywhere. 

Zola, one of the most influential kwaito artists of the 2000s, had essentially fallen from grace; he has become the type of celebrity the tabloids referred to as “disgraced” or “faded”. As a result, he resents the media and remains critical of it. “The Americans must always look perfect and invincible phambi kwethu at the expense of African icons,” he said in the skit, Tumbling, from his 2011 album Unyezi

He told MacG in the interview: “I’m not sitting at home because I’m crazy. It’s because I don’t feel like working for now. And I will not work until I find a company that is honest: that is willing to pay me what I need to be paid; that is willing to take my ideas and make them my intellectual property.”

Despite a rocky career, Zola is still dear to legions of fans as indicated by the concerns about his health and donations to him. (Photo: Sabelo Mkhabela)

#Namanje 

But, throughout the years he was fighting for his career and reputation, Zola still commanded a strong following. The streets simply refused to forget his efforts as a community builder, philanthropist and the people’s poet. Viral Facebook posts have been listing his achievements — building a library in Mthatha, assisting students with scholarships, helping small businesses — and calling for his return to TV to assist more desperate South Africans. 

Despite multiple attempts, he was not able to reignite the spark of Zola 7. More than a decade since the show was canned by SABC 1, there are still calls to bring it back. 

Which is why it didn’t come as a surprise that when the news of his medical problems spread on social media and the media in the past two weeks, the masses called for assistance to be granted to Zola. They requested his banking details, which he shared after a few days. “I’ve never expected anything in return for the help I’ve given people in need, but this is truly humbling,” Zola wrote in the Facebook post. He added that he “initially rejected the notion” as “a proud Nguni man” but, for the same reason, he also knows better than to turn down a gift. 

Zola is basking in the love his fellow artists and the South African public have been directing his way since the viral photo. As a passionate community builder and figure of pro-Blackness, Zola with his imperfections, is being uplifted by the same community he devoted himself to elevating through his music and philanthropy. 

His name may be mired in so much controversy that it understandably breeds suspicion and contempt, but the people are choosing to remember him for his selfless deeds. Zola is one of the few people who are afforded the out-of-body experience of getting a sense of the shape his own eulogy will take and witnessing Rasta’s endearing take on his face

The Strictly Kwaito Legends Festival, in honour of Zola 7, will take place at The Bears Palace in Carolina, Mpumalanga, on 2 April. Zola will be joined on stage by the likes of Doc Shebeleza, Spikiri, Mapaputsi, Professor, Alaska, Nestum and several other kwaito legends.

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