MANDOZA’S widow talks about her first year without him, raising their kids alone and helping other cancer sufferers.
Johannesburg – If you didn’t know better you’d think the woman sitting on the couch alongside her three children didn’t have a care in the world. She smiles for the camera, seemingly the picture of peace and contentment.
But Mpho Tshabalala has been to hell and back. For several harrowing months she watched her beloved husband fight a battle he would ultimately lose – and in the past year she’s been battling to pick up the pieces and find meaning and purpose in life again. Yet the 37-year-old has done it.
Not only does she have a reason to get out of bed every day, she’s keeping Mandoza’s memory alive and striving to help others who are waging war against the disease that ravaged her husband’s brain and robbed her children of their father.
Mpho recently launched the Mandoza Foundation at Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital in honour of her husband in the hope of giving others a fighting chance against cancer.
Mandoza – real name Mduduzi Tshabalala – died on 18 September 2016, on Mpho’s birthday, sparking nationwide mourning for a man whose iconic kwaito hit, Nkalakatha, made him a star across the spectrum in SA and beyond.
“My husband was a loving guy who cared deeply for others,” Mpho says. “He would bring strangers into our house from time to time and he’d be like, ‘He’s my friend’. “I would ask him, ‘From where, because I don’t know this guy?’ Then he’d say, ‘Actually this person needs help because he doesn’t have a place to stay, so can we assist?’”
Through Mandoza, she and her children have learnt the importance of giving, even when you have nothing. Her husband’s experience with cancer – which eventually robbed him of his sight and made him a shadow of the man he once was – humbled them, Mpho says.
“When he was first diagnosed with cancer we soon ran out of funds and we had no choice but to go the public health route. At Charlotte Maxeke we saw first-hand the struggles people go through. Cancer doesn’t only affect the patient but the family too.”
More needs to be done to educate people about the importance of early detection, she adds. To help with this she’s teamed up with the Cancer Association of South Africa to help raise awareness in townships. “I would love for everyone to go for annual tests because when cancer is detected early there’s a lot doctors can do,” she says.
“My husband was diagnosed with stage 3 cancer and by then he was already blind in one eye. “He had treatment and was cancer-free for a few months by the end of 2015. But in January 2016 it was back.” And this time it was not going away.
Sitting in her three-bedroom Randburg townhouse, Mpho reflects on her first year as a widow. “I’m surviving,” she says.
A sigh escapes her lips but it’s quickly replaced by a dimpled smile when she starts talking about her children. She’s up at 4am daily to prepare lunches for Tokollo (17), Tumelo (14) and Karabo (7) before dropping them off at school.
Then she puts in a full day’s work at the Mandoza Foundation. But as hard as she tries she can’t get her husband’s last day out of her mind. She had given him a bath, clothed him and put him back in bed, she recalls.
By this stage Mandoza was so weak he couldn’t eat. “Then Tokollo said, ‘Daddy’s calling you in the bedroom’. He couldn’t breathe. I phoned his doctor who told me to get him to the nearest hospital, which was Lesedi hospital in Soweto.” She couldn’t carry him to the car on her own so she called his cousin Dumi Tshabalala and friend Kevin Ntaopane for help. His mom, Nobesuthu, was also there and they all picked him up and carried him to the car.
“As we struggled to get him into the car Tokollo told me to ‘Leave my Daddy – he wants to go’. I was so angry with him at the time and I told him that we don’t speak about death in this family. I didn’t want to let him go.”
They got Mandoza to the emergency room but five minutes later the doctor on duty came out to talk to Mpho. “He told me my husband was still alive but he was brain-damaged. I said I wasn’t following what he was saying. When we went in to see Mdu I looked at him and he took his last breath.” She fights back tears.
“I feel like I was robbed in my marriage. Just when my husband started to be what I wanted him to be, he suddenly had to leave me.” The couple’s marriage was peppered with rumours of infidelity for years. Mandoza’s second son, Thapelo (15), was born as a result of an affair the singer had while married to Mpho. But she holds no grudges.
“Thapelo is my child too. I love him just like I love these ones,” she says, gesturing towards the kids who have gone off to watch TV in the lounge. The family misses everything about Mandoza, Mpho adds, and they often sit and reminisce about his cooking skills and “his craziness”. She’s still holding onto his things.
“His clothes are still hanging in the closet. At times I just want to open the cupboard, smell him and spend a few moments with him. We only play his CDs in the car and we sing along. He goes with us wherever we go.”
LETTING GO OF THE PAIN
But she admits missing him sometimes becomes too much of a burden and when the load becomes unbearable she pulls over to the side of the road and lets go of the pain she feels.
This pain makes her understand the grave situation faced by families whose loved ones have been diagnosed with cancer. She hopes her efforts will make life easier for the patients. Charlotte Maxeke’s oncology ward treats patients from around the country – people who often have to leave their jobs because treatment can take months if not years.
Patients who come from afar need to budget for accommodation, food and transport and often need special products, for instance for their skin, which adds to the financial strain. Mpho has teamed up with social workers at Charlotte Maxeke to get in touch with patients who need help desperately.
She used some of her own money to get the foundation off the ground and also received help from Checkers, digital company MediaShop and Jacaranda FM. “I’m grateful they’re so committed to this cause. We do need more help though. I’ve approached the taxi association to make transport easily available to cancer patients.
“The idea is that if you have a Mandoza Foundation card, you can get to the hospital for free,” she says. The foundation has also approached a big pharmacy chain for sponsorship of specialised skincare products and she’s hoping other corporates will also come on board and help. This is how she’s choosing to celebrate her husband.
“We’ll never have him back, we know that,” she says. “But we’re celebrating the gift he was to us and to the nation.”