They both grew up in small towns. Both had a burning vision. Both achieved acclaim on the stages of the world. But the manner of Lucky Dube‘s and Patrick Mynhardt‘s deaths told two very different stories about the South African reality.
Patrick, who grew up in a small town half-an-hour’s drive from my home town of Trompsburg in the southern Free State, was 75 when he passed away in his hotel room on Thursday morning, between performances of his one-man play, Boy from Bethulie, in London’s West End.
Lucky, who grew up in Newcastle in rural KwaZulu-Natal, was 43 when he was murdered last Thursday in the streets of Johannesburg’s southern suburbs.
These two very different performers had one thing in common: the very personal impact they had on all those who had the privilege of experiencing their performances.
I first met Patrick when I was a green young journalist, but our common background created an instant bond between this nervous youth and the seasoned trouper who was already a legend in the early 1980s. On the strength of that connection, my parents made the trip from Trompsburg to Bethulie to watch Patrick perform Boy from Bethulie in the town of his birth. They introduced themselves to Patrick after the show and, there too, a lifelong friendship ensued. That Patrick so readily embraced such friendships — with anyone from a diffident journalist to a humble small-town couple — was a mark of his deep humanity and his faith in other human beings.
Lucky Dube was no different. I recall walking with him down Bree Street in downtown Johannesburg and marvelling at the instant rapport he seemed to have with almost everyone passing us on the pavement. There was no swagger to his walk and no self-importance in his readiness to greet everyone who passed by. Quite the opposite: he was at pains to settle the nervousness of those who seemed terrified to greet the international superstar. Lucky never behaved like a superstar, and that openness and faith in humanity left him vulnerable to the thugs who took him away from us.
Lucky humbled me in his lifetime, and I am again humbled on his death, to experience the enormous outpouring of emotion in more than 150 comments left on this blog in the past week. The words in all those comments underline the extent to which Lucky united people across the boundaries of language, culture, genre, race, gender and political views. A tribute by his engineer of 23 years, David Segal, emphasises the remarkable character of this special man whose “priority was not to be a superstar”.
It is all the more tragic, then, that Lucky Dube should have fallen victim to the disease of violence that infects the streets of South Africa. But another disease also killed him, and that is the disease of uncaring leadership that forever passes the buck on crime and violence in our society. You can blame foreigners, you can blame greed, you can blame ignorance, but ultimately the fault lies with a system that encourages criminals to flourish.
Patrick was a victim of a different disease, but no less a South African one. He used to say publicly that he could never stop working, because that’s all he knew to do. He is also said to have died doing what he loved best, But he once told me that he couldn’t ever afford to stop working. This from an actor who was one of our greats. He literally worked himself to death.
We have seen it with many a great South African artist, and it is not only a South African phenomenon: many of the American jazz greats have died in poverty due to one circumstance or another. But in South Africa, aside from those who become international stars, our performing greats are almost guaranteed to die penniless, working to earn a living until their last breath. That Patrick did it so well, and thrived on the acclaim of his audiences, does not take away from the reality that he had no choice.
Lucky’s death tells us about our society’s lack of respect for life — any life. Patrick’s death tells us about our society’s lack of respect for our living artists.
Patrick and Lucky, rest in peace. May your families and friends find consolation in the deep and lasting impact you had on the lives of all who encountered you.