THE term “Nkalakatha” is township slang for top dog. For the better part of the early nineties, this is exactly what Mandoza was.
Born Mduduzi Tshabalala in Soweto, Mandoza was catapulted into national stardom by his hit song Nkalakatha in 2000. It was the lead single and title of his second solo album. Frequent collaborator Gabi le Roux produced it.
With its undeniable rock riff influence and Mandoza’s rough intonations, Nkalakatha became a hit in both black and white circles.
“With the legacy of apartheid, the majority of our people had the odds stacked against them,” explained Le Roux. “In (Mandoza’s) time, it was a young democracy. But even the most right-wing and racist communities adored him and that song.
“He had the freedom of any city. We can take Mandoza as an example that a good song and an artist like that can bring us together.”
At just 16, he was arrested for car theft. Later, he formed kwaito group Chiskop with Siphiwe “The General GTZ” Sibisi and the late Sizwe “Lollipop” Motaung and Sibusiso “Bless” Thanjakwayo. They signed to Arthur Mafokate’s 999 record label and had a hit called Klaima.
In those late ‘90s, Chiskop worked closely with Le Roux under his company Groove City, with house music maverick Tim White. “In 1999, we decided Mandoza was the most obvious one to launch as a solo artist first,” says Le Roux.
Thanjakwayo and Motaung sadly passed away and now General is the last surviving member of Chiskop.
Mandoza released his debut album, 9-II-5 Zola South. It spawned the hit single Uzoyithola Kanjani, which featured General.
“When we made the song, we didn’t know how it would impact people,” says General.
“Amajita ekasi (guys in the hood) didn’t have jobs at that time, but they told us that when the song came out, they got up from the corner and went and looked for jobs. It was an inspirational anthem.”
Another anthem – albeit for the nation and not just for the corner – came in the form of Nkalakatha. The multi-South African Music Award-winning Nkalakatha album went on to sell in excess of 350 000 units, making Mandoza a platinum-selling artist.
Mandoza released a good-selling album a year later. There was Godoba, then Tornado, then Sgelegeqe (the first single that wasn’t produced by Le Roux but by DJ Cleo), and then in 2004 Mandoza collaborated with pop crooner Danny K on an album called Same Difference.
Although their respective record labels weren’t initially sold on the album, Danny K says: “EMI and Gallo did a joint venture and the album went gold within a week.
“It was a different time in the country because collabs across the colour lines were still quite unique then, so people were quite taken by Same Difference. I guess it proved that we could work together despite our differences.”
It scooped the SAMA for Best Pop Album as well as a Channel O Music Award. When Mandoza released Phunyuka Bamphethe in 2005, the music landscape was changing. Artists were no longer selling as well as they used to and the paparazzi culture was growing.
Mandoza became tabloid headline fodder and in 2008 he was involved in a car accident that claimed the lives of two people. Vaughn Eaton, who was Mandoza’s business and personal manager from 1999 to 2009, says: “He’s been very upset at media occasionally.”
Eaton also says 2008 was “extremely challenging for him as an individual. He had gone through the whole process in terms of the court case and the challenges that came with it”.
Curwyn Eaton, who managed Mandoza from 2009 to 2015, says the only thing that helped Mandoza rise above his adversities was making more music. It was only on Mandoza’s 13th album, Sgantsontso (released in 2013), that the kwaito star started to feel like the public was receptive to him again.
But even so, Mandoza was plagued by illness after illness and was frequently in hospital. At the time of his death, he was diagnosed with cancer. Mandoza is survived by his wife Mpho and three children.