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A moment of grace.

Updated: Feb 8, 2021

The hired car bounced over potholes, past piles of squalid garbage, stray dogs, tattered children and shabby homes. A south-easterly wind howled across the Cape Flats whipping up biting sand, a never-ending dry, hot wind that holds Cape Town hostage for days at a time.

I arrived at the venue of the Mitchell’s Plain, Shell Road to Fame audition. Jerry Mabusa and Peter Mokwena, our guerilla-marketing duo, had travelled the township streets a few days ahead of the crew in our “ad-mobile”. “If you can make it in your hometown, you can make it anywhere,” roared Jerry through a loud hailer, crudely mounted on a small car, covered in Road to Fame posters. The crowds were gathering, even at 10 a.m. What else was there to do for entertainment in this grim township during the bleak years of apartheid. I knew that by the afternoon the hall would be pumping with a laughing, dancing audience, packed together like sardines in a tin.

It was the late 1980s. Townships barricaded against the South African army and police with piles of burning tyres. I was working the job of my dreams, travelling more than 5,000 km a year, crisscrossing the country in search of “talent”. During this time, I was privy to the nation’s singing and dancing at its raw, grassroots level. I witnessed unbridled joy and passion that neither rampant poverty nor apartheid could still. I spent days in casual friendship chatting to our judges and guest stars. South African musical celebrities such as Sipho Hotstix Mabuse, Abigail Khubeka, and Rebecca Malope.

Arriving at our next venue was for me, just another day at the office, and another Kentucky Fried Chicken lunch box. I would be one of three white people in a sea of black and coloured faces, at a venue that would easily accommodate up to a thousand people.

The day always started haphazardly. The crew and backing musicians took their time setting up the backline while the contestants arrived in dribs and drabs. The hall felt like a vast aeroplane hanger, and, in the early morning, it offered some shelter from the heat. Outside plastic bags swirled around ankles, catching in gutters and on razor wire. By noon it would be sweltering.

As the music drifted down the dirt streets and higgledy-piggledy alleyways, more and more people drifted towards the sound. Vendors gathered outside selling fruit, cold Coke and Fanta, raw peanuts and single cigarettes to the men, women, teenagers and children, singers, dancers, gospel choirs and musicians, headed to the stage in search of stardom. Or, for their five minutes of neighbourhood fame.

As predicted, the audience was thumping by the afternoon. The soft stench of sweat and unwashed bodies closed-in, making the air heavy. It was after lunch when a small coloured woman shuffled onto the stage with a broad smile brandished across her face revealing two missing front teeth.

“Welcome, Mama,” shouted Jerry, “Eish, but I love Cape Town! Cape Town I love you!” The crowd cheered in unison. “It’s the Shell Road to Fame, and Mamma here is going to sing us The Lord’s Prayer. Wena Mama, let the music move you.”

The wind yowled outside, shifting sand from coast to coast across the Cape Flats, as it has done for centuries. She paused, uncertain, and took in the sea of faces in front of her. Her eyes crinkled in delight. The stage was hers.

There was almost a moment of silence.

The backline musicians waited expectantly, drumsticks poised in the air, hands hovered over a battered electric keyboard. Mama gripped the microphone in her tiny hands:

Onse Vader wat in die hemel is,

laat u Naam geheilig word;

The audience sucked in its breath. A trill voice rose from Mama’s swollen lips, and she hit the first notes. Flat and off-key. And, the audience erupted in laughter.

laat u koninkryk kom;

laat u wil ook op die aarde geskied,

net soos in die hemel.

Mamma swayed on her little legs. Her black socks clung to her wrinkled pantihose. She wore an oversized doek, wrapped around her head and a faded, standard-issue, blue overall (housecoat) with a frayed cardigan underneath. Her slippers were colourless. Her face was puffed from years of unwelcomed fists, softened by meths. But, this was her moment, and the audience was lapping her up. She raised her voice:

Gee ons vandag

ons daaglikse brood;

en vergeef ons ons oortredings,

soos ons ook dié vergewe;

wat teen ons oortree;

Teenage girls clung to each other hand in hand, giggling into their palms. Men at the back of the hall put their fingers to their lips and whistled through their missing front teeth. Others, unable to contain their hilarity, rocked their heads between their legs or held onto their sides, slapping their thighs or a neighbour’s back in uncontained laughter. The jubilation rose above the wind, and the heat, and the smells, and the poverty.

en laat ons nie in die versoeking kom nie

maar verlos ons van die Bose.

Van U is die ryk en die sterkte

en die ere,

The lone figure sang on to the sound of laughter and cheers. From the stage she could see the shine of white teeth through the gloom of the cavernous venue, now seething with bodies. Mama held onto the last notes:

vir ewig en ewig,

vir ewig en ewig

And then came the final:

Amen. Amen. (one more time) Amen!

The crowd was thrilled and drummed their legs on the floor and clapped their hands. Mama stood triumphant on the stage. The cheers and hoots of laughter rose around her small form, lifting her out of her miserable life. Carrying her away from her hollow stomach, the listless days in her hovel stuffing newspaper between the cracks to keep out the wind and sand while chewing dry bread dipped in methylated spirits.

She took her bow. The applause exploded. People fell on the floor and rose to their feet. Mama stood silently taking in the crowd in front of her. Never before had she been so revered, so loved, so noticed. It was her golden moment.

The crowd quieted into a restless but satisfied lull. Mama stood firmly on her little legs, surveyed her fans. “Surely,” she thought “ this crowd wanted more.” Nothing as magical had ever happened to her before. And, taking a deep breath, she started at the beginning again:

Onse Vader wat in die Hemel is,

laat U Naam geheilig word;

The crowd roared in delight, egging her on. The queen of flat notes who brayed like a donkey. Yes, they wanted more. Raising her voice in rhapsody, Mama urinated. It ran down her little brown legs, colouring her beige pantyhose and gathered in her socks and slippers, splashing carelessly all over the stage and darkening her faded, standard-issue, blue overall. By now, the laughter was raising the roof with this new, and unexpected addition to the afternoon entertainment. The crowd went wild, drowning out:

laat U koninkryk kom;

Mama’s puffy mouth hung open in silence. Her hands fiercely grasped the microphone. She stood still in a puddle of pee. Alone. On a stage. Stinking in her warm urine. Her smile lingered like a faded frangipani bloom. She stared out across the chasm of grins and raised her chin, ever so slightly. The noise around me had become a din I no longer heard. I sat spellbound by this broken woman who had dared to dream. In this moment of shame, she squared her shoulders and firmed on her swaying legs.

From the wings stepped our stagehand, Pakkies Ntsele. He touched Mama gently on the arm and carefully unwrapped her fingers from the mic. “Come Mama. Come with me,” he coaxed. She turned bewildered to look into his kind brown eyes and allowed him to take her arm and lead her off stage.

Mops and a bucket arrived.

“Eish, Mama!” yelled Jerry. ‘Let’s hear it again for the Lord’s Prayer.” A wave of boisterous applause. “Let the beat go on. Let the rhythm rock you. Come and hear our song!” he sang out in his perfect baritone. “Its the Shell Road to Fame, ladies and ma’ g’men. If you can make it in your hometown, you can make it anywhere! Jump and jive. Here come the Kamosa Boys!” The stage came alive with six agile boys, dancing in perfect time. And the beat went on.

When I left Mitchel’s Plain that evening, a red sun softened the township. Candles and paraffin lights cast shadows in homes, people gathered around open fires on the side of the road. Kids kicked soccer balls in the street or chased an errant chicken or goat, and a few dogs stretched their bones before setting out to scavenge for scraps. Dinner smells of braaied meat, pap and beans, and fried onion wafted with the smoke into the sunset. The sun hovered on the horizon, before slipping into the ocean. The wind died, and relief floated in the laughter and gossip.

That night, in the luxurious comfort of my hotel bed, my sleep was intermittently interrupted by running feet and banging on doors—the hushed laughter of women and angry tones of men. The Road to Fame team were a popular addition to the town, and the local menfolk were ganging up against the Jo’burg imposters. The wind picked up again, beating against the window and forever bending the Stone pines into tortured crooked shapes. I whispered a prayer for grace, but it was snatched away in the wind as I drifted to sleep.


Further Reading

The Shell Road to Fame–from my perspective.

The Shell Road to Fame was a televised talent search, broadcast by South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) in the 1980s. Royal Dutch Shell, commonly known as Shell, is a British–Dutch multinational oil and gas company. At the end of the 70s, international trade and businesses were under pressure to boycott South Africa. Road to Fame was a corporate social responsibility project created to ease Shell’s conscience and smooth over its decision to stay in the country.

The competition travelled thousands of miles each year as the crew toured townships across the country’s length and breadth, visiting 52 different venues and townships auditioning millions of grassroots singers, dancers and musicians. People flocked to the auditions and rags to riches stories followed.

The semi-finals–in Johannesburg, Durban, Bloemfontein, Port Elizabeth–and the Johannesburg Gala Final, were televised on SABC3. The big night was swarmed with media and record labels, standing by to snap up the talent. It was a career highlight, and I was privileged to be part of this extraordinary, groundbreaking show.

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