Hugh Masekela. REUTERS
Hugh Masekela. REUTERS

In May 1985, I lost the first significant person in my young life. I was 27 years old, and apart from ancient family members and a dear uncle who died too young – shockingly murdered in northern Natal where I grew up – nobody I knew intimately had, until then, died.

Savvas Georgiades, slipped off the top of Augrabies Falls near Upington in the northern Cape and was presumed dead.

His body was never found, and although a death certificate was finally issued, there has never – to this day – been any certainty that he is in fact dead.

That was the hardest part of it: the not knowing.

We, his family, his friends, all those who loved him, were never sure. For years I expected him to turn up, looking a little sheepish, with tales of having gone walkabout.

In this loop of a fantasy, his dark hair was shaggy long, his olive skin dark from the sun; his tales of adventure exotic and exciting.

There was never any conclusion to my imaginings, like why he’d disappeared without a word to those of us who’d mourned his absence.

There was no explanation as to how he’d escaped from the ravine at the bottom of The Falls, of how he’d made his way to a far-flung land.

Mostly I was furious that he hadn’t let us know that he was, at the very least, OK.

But, as the years went by, I thought about him less and less, missed him more and more and moved him to that special place I have come to realise is the space that the dead inhabit, a sighing space, a remembering place.

Since then, I have had too many significant people die on me.

In May, 2012, 27 years after death enter the realm of reality in my life, (May has not been a good month for me) my beloved brother Shaun choked on a piece of steak in a Los Angeles restaurant. Deprived of oxygen for 22 minutes, he was brain dead when the paramedics resuscitated him, but was put onto life support until the machines were turned off almost two weeks later.

By then my parents had died, and a slew of friends. In 1995, I went to a funeral every month but December.

There have been some especially shocking deaths: an old boyfriend, a chartered account, was found naked in a sugarcane field near Durban – his hands tied behind his back, shot at the base of his skull. He’d apparently been doing some dodgy books and mentioned the possibility of reporting the company to the authorities to a colleague.

Two days later he was dead, silenced it would seem.

A man I was close to died on his yacht, moored off Madagascar, when a marauding group of escaped convicts from a nearby prison boarded his boat and murdered him. It is thought they threw his (never recovered) body overboard and made off with his R14 000 travelling kitty.

A friend took an overdose, another two shot themselves. (One left me a note saying he’d see me in hell. He probably will.)

Death has now become a sad, not unexpected, but still shocking part of my life. More and more people I love are dying. It’s a factor of age. Life is cyclical: you find yourself going to a host of 16th birthday parties, then 21sts, then weddings, then 30ths then stork parties and 40ths… And then, more and more funerals. It’s the way life works. More people you know die when you’re nearly 60 than when you’re in your 20s, like I was when Savvas died and I was introduced to the inevitability of death.

And so I was surprised by the ferocity of my grief when the father of South African jazz, Hugh Masekela died this week after a protracted battle with prostate cancer.

He was 78, not considered old these days.

For me, his song Stimela, about a coal train bringing African men from across the continent to work on our mines, was evocatively powerful.

His words, his rhythm, his raspy voice conjured up images that informed the many of the plight of those separated from their families, uprooted from their places of birth, transported to less than happy living conditions in the City Of Gold.

It appeared on a compilation album of the same name in 1994, the year that our democracy was born, the year hope entered the arena, the year our expectations of change and a better life for us all were at their zenith.

I took Hugh Masekela with me in my hand luggage when I went to America to work on The Dallas News for a year in 1986. He lived on a cassette tape next to my bed, a tape I played over and over and over on my Walkman. Bring Home Nelson Mandela, his anti-apartheid anthem became a rallying cry around the world.

“Bring back Nelson Mandela, bring him back to Soweto.

“I want to see him walking down the street with Winnie Mandela.”

It was this song that fuelled the dream of liberation, a song that generated a surge of optimism.

It was also a “freedom” song that was a jolly good ditty, one that had us all humming along to because it was a catchy tune!

Hugh Masekela took South African music to the world. What an astonishing ambassador he was.

I’m just sorry that he didn’t have a chance to see what I predict will be meaningful change in our country.

I am ridiculously heartened by our Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa’s speech at the World Economic Forum’s annual gathering at Davos in Switzerland.

Looking “statemanly” the DP later said in an interview with Bloomberg television that he plans on rooting out and putting an end to pervasive corruption.

He said positive discussions were being had with potential investors.

“The wheels of change are moving now, and they are going to start speeding up.

“Cleaning up clearly is going to be quite a mammoth task, but we have to start somewhere.”

He said, quite rightly, that we, the people, want a clean government. “And that what we are going to give them.”

I know that Hugh Masekela will be cheering from heaven.

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