One of Ladysmith Black Mambazo's longest-serving members, Russel Mthembu, has heaped praise up the group's leader, Dr Joseph Shabalala who died on Tuesday. PICTURE: MARILYN BERNARD

Durban - One of Ladysmith Black Mambazo's longest-serving members, Russel Mthembu, said the praise and honour showered upon late group founder Joseph Shabalala, was well deserved. 

Mthembu, 74, who joined the group in the early 70s, after it had just formed described Shabalala as a disciplined leader who laid a solid foundation to the group.

Shabalala, 78, the founder of the multiple Grammy award-winning Scathamiya group passed away on Tuesday, following a long illness. He died in a Pretoria hospital. 

Mthembu was speaking exclusively to the Sunday Tribune from his Durban North home after the news broke about Shabalala's passing. The visibly emotional Mthembu said "Mshengu" (Shabalala’s clan name) made him quit his job as a carpenter in 1973 after he had recruited him.

“When the news broke I had flashbacks, we have come a long way with this man,” he said.

Mthembu said he made sacrifices when he joined the group, which was not popular at the time.

"I used to walk long distances at night to get into practices from KwaMashu to Claremont. I believed the vision and dream Mshengu had about this music but I do not know what made me believe him because we had just met. He would say 'we will turn this soil into a gold' and I realised that later on," he said.    

Mthembu spoke fondly of Shabalala whom he referred to as a pillar of the group that put South Africa in the global map.

“He was born for fame and to be praised, I guess. He had his special way of engaging with people, whoever has met Mshengu will tell you the same thing. He respected everyone regardless of their age or position. And I believe that is one of the things that kept our group united. Mshengu instilled a culture of respect among us. He was devoted to music and ensured the group grew and remained united. He was a source of inspiration and wisdom," he said.  

Mthembu, however, was confident that the group will remain strong for the next generation to come.

Although he no longer travels with the group, Mthembu was still responsible for mentoring and advising the group, especially when they record music. 

He said over the years they have managed to instill a culture of respect and discipline to the younger members who have joined the group.

“If the current or the next generation of Mambazo fails it will be our fault. Mshengu taught us, most importantly, to respect one another. It is a great loss. Even though he has not been well for a long time, I find it hard to come to terms with his passing. But I am proud of his legacy. The current Mambazo is on a high level, this shows his leadership and principles are still there and will be a pillar of strength going forward,” he added.

Messages of condolences have poured in from all spheres, including political parties, local and international government and celebrities the world over. 

The funeral arrangements have yet to be announced. 

Sunday Tribune