Yvonne Chaka Chaka, the music sensation crowned the Princess of Africa is also humanitarian who still reaches out to her dirt poor roots and an entrepreneur to boot bustling with boundless energy.
Her body heaves with enthusiasm as she tells the story of her life, her music, her roots and her future.
Yvonne is a sweetheart to the fans of her music as well as to the little urchin in Soweto.
When she starts talking about just about anything under the sun, she just keeps going.
Apart from singing in the most melodious voice, Yvonne is a storyteller who keeps her audience hanging on to every word. Little wonder then, that she’s about to start a talk show to air on TV stations around Africa.
Yvonne story is the rags-to-riches, I-struck-a-jackpot kind. As a child she was recognised for her speed, voice and good looks. Today, she is a global icon.
When she was young, she joined the war against the apartheid regime and fought through her music. She was 19 when she started singing.
Nelson Mandela wrote a letter to her from Robben Island where he was detained. Through the letter sneaked to her by Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the statesman thanked her for “singing songs that keep us alive in prison”.
Yvonne has rubbed shoulders with kings but, as Lifestyle found out last week, has never lost touch with the common man.
She is now an ambassador for washing hands to keep diseases at arm’s length.
Yvonne was in the country last week to promote a hand washing campaign sponsored by Lifebuoy soap. She told lifestyle she wished to visit Kibera, sit in a hotel and eat ugali and sukuma wiki.
Yet she does not consider herself a star. Dressed in a pink top, a black trouser and black shoes in a hotel room at the Serena, Yvonne brushed off queries on how she handles her celebrity status.
“I am no celebrity. I am just some girl who decided to do something about her life,” she said.
Yvonne was christened the Princess of Africa by Ugandan fans when she visited the country in 1991. She had been to Kenya in 1987 at the invitation of the then President Daniel arap Moi.
“I arrived at the airport and there were more than 5,000 people with placards written: ‘Welcome to Uganda the Princess of Africa’. They kept on singing as I alighted. I asked the Ugandan promoter, ‘who is this Princess of Africa?’”
“‘Yvonne Chaka Chaka, you are the Princess of Africa,’ the promoter said.”
Growing up in a family of three, Yvonne was raised by a domestic worker and there was little more than simple meals at home.
When she spoke to Lifestyle, hundreds of kilometres away from home, she pushed her waist-long nine-year-old dreadlocks back and said somberly: “The only clothes I owned were those passed on by my sisters. By the time I got them, you could not even tell the colour.”
She was named Yvonne Machaka by her father – who died when she was only 11 – but her primary school mates nicknamed her Chaka Chaka.
“I used to run and when I neared the finish line they would sing ‘Chaka Chaka,’” she said. She knew that there was something wrong with the apartheid system.
Always a rebel
Always a rebel, she wondered why she wasn’t allowed to attend the same schools as white children and why she needed a pass to visit the town. Her mother wanted her to be a lawyer.
“She was daydreaming. Her pay was not enough to pay for my university education. When we reached secondary school we started partly teaching ourselves through performing menial jobs,” she said.
In 1987, she was discovered by Phil Hollins of Dephon Records in Johannesburg. Her debut album, I am in Love with a DJ, which included the mega hit Umqombothi and I Cry Freedom, sold more than 35,000 copies.
Since then, all over Africa and the world, Yvonne has been a musical hero. The Vietnamese call her “Umkombothi, Our Mother,” and in Liberia they call her Chief Soukoko. Nelson Mandela calls her “Dear Daughter.”
“She’s my baby!” celebrated musician Miriam Makeba exclaimed once, while jazz maestro Hugh Masekela calls her “my mad niece”.
Her accolades can fill a basket. She won the Most Influential Women in Business award and Government 2009 award for the Arts and Culture Sector in South Africa. At the 2009 MTN South African Music Awards, Yvonne was awarded a Lifetime Achievement award.
Her other musical awards include the SAMA, KORA, OKTV, and Autumn Harvest.
Her songs Burning Up, I’m In Love with a DJ, I Cry for Freedom, Makoti, Motherland, Proud to be African, Thank You Mr DJ, Bombani (Tiko Rahini), and Umqombothi have sold up to platinum and gold.
The mega-hit Umqombothi featured in the opening scene of the 2005 Rwandan genocide movie, Hotel Rwanda.
She has released 20 albums and she says her latest one will be out by the end of this year.
Yvonne has performed to mammoth crowds throughout the world but now is moving to TV. The songbird plans to host a talk show, Chat with Chaka Chaka. She is still negotiating a deal with media houses in South Africa and other parts of Africa.
And what does she think about Shakira – who is not African – being chosen for the curtain-raiser performance for the first World Cup ever hosted in Africa?
“Shakira was chosen because people like her and know her. When we keep on writing about Bono, Michael Jackson and others at the expense of African artistes then we kill our heritage and our children will never know who the great names in African art are. That’s why Shakira was chosen at our expense. But she is also a (good) musician,” she said.
Yvonne, who says she sings because she loves it, is also an entrepreneur. Her business interests range from mining to ICT, energy and human resource development.
She is the CEO of her family’s company, Gestetner Tswane and owns Sandown Motors, a limousine selling company together with her husband, Dr Mandlalele Mhinga. She also owns a music label, Chaka Chaka Music (1995), and a music production and promotion house, Chaka Chaka Promotions (1989).
She has also been the face of several products from soaps to perfumes to banks. She is the face of Unilever’s Lifebuoy soap and was the face of South Africa’s First National Bank (FNB) in 2001.
One of her most lucrative deals would have been from a liquor company but she turned it down.
“I don’t drink and smoke and therefore I would not stand my face marketing alcohol.”
When not travelling for music or business, she is involved in humanitarian activities. In her travels she has come face-to-face with poverty and despair.
“I always cry when I see people suffering,” she said. In India, she came across hundreds of children whose eyes had been gouged out and hands amputated so that they would beg in the streets.
When she visited Liberia, a woman who had walked for two days to visit a health centre and gave birth on the way prompted her to start a clinic there. She will launch the clinic soon.
In 1991 she first met people infected with HIV in Uganda.
“I cried, cried and cried. It was a painful experience and I still remember it.”
Since then, she considered to demonstrate compassion for others around the world by becoming the voice of the voiceless and those suffering from diseases and injustice.
Yvonne has led the call for Massive Good, a campaign that asks for small donations on travel web sites for the fight against HIV, tuberculosis and malaria in the developing world.
She was invited by the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation to be one of the champions of the 2010 Poverty Campaign.
Now, she is a Lifebuoy hand washing campaign ambassador, a trustee of Tomorrow Trust – an organisation that educates orphans and vulnerable children – a Unicef goodwill ambassador against malaria and an ambassador for Roll-Back Malaria.
Yvonne also served as an ambassador for the University of South Africa (UNISA), the City of Johannesburg Tourism and Nelson Mandela’s 46664 Campaign.
She is the recipient of the Rotary Paul Harris Fellowship Award for her efforts to better the lives of others.
An honorary colonel of South Africa Air Force, she is also involved in asking youth to join the “bad man,” the term they used to call the armed forces during apartheid.
Her famous or infamous statements include claiming recently that Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe is the “most handsome man in the world.”
She has also made debatable statements on marriage and love.
“Marriage is very important in life. If you are in an unhappy marriage, you get out as soon as you can and you can marry another man immediately. I love my husband but, if anything goes wrong, I will walk out and marry tomorrow. I can marry even seven men and take care of them if I want,” she said.
She has lived with her physician husband, Dr Mhinga, for the last 21 years. The two met in 1987. Together, they have three children and she adopted her husband’s son.
She confesses that if she was granted a wish to meet three people, they would be US President Barack Obama, the Dalai Lama and God.
“I will want to ask God why the world is the way it is. Why are there rich and poor people, hungry and overfed, why would life not have been the same for all?” she said.
In Kenya, her friends include Mary Onyango of the Breast Cancer Campaign and the Prime Minister’s wife, Ida Odinga.
Yvonne left the country with an unfulfilled wish: “I have loved ugali and nyama choma but I wanted to go down to Kibera, sit in a hotel and eat ugali and sukuma wiki.”
Maybe she will come back and eat ugali to her fill.