On Monday the nation mourned the death of “the fastest brother in Africa”. He won’t get to race Le Mans or Dakar, but he has been remembered for his talents both in and out of racing. Gugu Zulu died tragically in Tanzania on Mandela Day. By GREG NICOLSON.
In the late 1990s, Gugulethu Zulu saw a headline in Sowetan: Motorsport Wants Blacks. He had always wanted to be a driver and as a teenager at Parktown Boys he honed his ambitions on racing. He phoned the listed number and was accepted into the Isondo Racing Academy. “He was the star of the show. He had the potential. He had the talent,” said Ray Jones, a mentor at the academy.
Zulu’s racing career took him to the top of South African motorsports and on the way he became a public figure – participating in TV shows, open to the media, dedicated to fans.
Gugu Zulu was born in 1978, raised in Soweto, and conquered a traditionally white sport. His character transcended the world of racing, making him not just a role model for sports fans, but for South Africans. On Monday, tributes poured in after the 38-year-old’s death.
“And so it begins!” Zulu said on Instagram last week. He was arriving in Tanzania with the Trek4Mandela team to summit Mt Kilimanjaro. The group was raising money to prevent 350,000 young women from having to miss school due to a lack of access to sanitary towels. After beginning the trek, on Saturday he posted, “Made it though day2. My wife is doing fabulous, she has even learnt the local language. Am having flu like symptoms and struggling with the mountain but taking it step by step!! Today we managed to see our destination and our camp is literary above the clouds!! Bring day 3!!”
He included the tag #AdventureCouple. Zulu was trekking with his wife Letshego, a biokineticist and personal trainer. They have participated together in long-distance running and mountain biking competitions. They were were married in 2014, after Gugu proposed on the finish line of the Cape Epic. The couple had a daughter last year, Lelethu Zulu.
The Nelson Mandela Foundation announced Zulu’s death in a statement on Monday morning. “Details are sketchy,” it said. After having breathing problems on Kilimanjaro, Zulu was was put on a drip and taken down the mountain with Letshego, project leader Richard Mabaso, mountaineer Sibusiso Vilane, and the medical team.
“We are informed that the medical teams tried everything possible to save his life,” said the foundation. Zulu’s family were reportedly on their way to Tanzania on Monday, while his Trek4Mandela team ascended to the summit and could only be told of the tragedy when they descended.
Carl Perkins spent seven years racing, with Zulu as navigator. “I was in complete shock this morning,” he said on Monday, feeling numb. “I just thought this would be like everything else he’s done.” Zulu took on challenges, dedicated himself, and succeeded. “But it didn’t work out that way.”
Perkins first met Zulu when he joined a Volkswagen junior racing team in 2007. While it was a big step in Perkins’ career, Zulu was already in his third year on the team and well known in motorsports. He’d won the Vodacom Isondo Sports 2000 national championship, been given a ride by Sarel van der Merwe in the Sasol Steam Team, had won a number of awards, and had a taste of international racing.
But the pair got along. “We had very big dreams,” said Perkins. They won championships in their class in the SA National Rally Championship in 2007, 2009 and 2010 and were promoted to SA’s top rally car racing division in 2014.
“That was what we’d been aiming for all the time,” said Perkins, “Then reality set in.”
The pair would be tested against the best rally drivers in the country. Eventually, Perkins took time out from the sport to pursue his day job, while Zulu persisted with the sport’s best. “He always had a plan. Even at the bottom of the field, he knew what to do,” he said, emphasising Zulu’s racing talent. “He knew what he wanted and he went for it.”
Zulu, dubbed “the fastest brother in Africa”, was a presenter on SABC’s Car Torque between 2005 and 2009, a contestant on Strictly Come Dancing, and was often in the media. Perkins remembered how Zulu would announce that a camera crew had to join them on the way to a race or that he had to do an interview. “We’d have to make time for all of those things. That was part and parcel of navigating for him,” Perkins said.
Many drivers in South African racing have to balance their sporting careers with a day job, but Zulu was committed to using his position to inspire young South Africans and raise the profile of the sport, which required more sponsorship and mass appeal.
Ian Hooper, producer of Car Torque, said Zulu was extremely professional and did his research on the cars featured on the show, often knowing more than the motoring journalists. He remembered Zulu’s playful side. Once he went around the old Wesbank race club, rocking and spinning the car so much that when the cameraman got out he “looked a little green”.
In August, Zulu was set to begin a new chapter in his career, moving to Volkswagen’s Global Touring Cars, going from racing on gravel to the track.
“Our condolences go out to his wife Letshego, their daughter Lelethu and the entire Zulu family,” said Thomas Schaefer, chairman and managing director of Volkswagen Group South Africa on Monday. “We are deeply saddened to have lost Gugu who in so many ways embodied the new South Africa, a man with compassion, drive and a desire to be the best at everything that he did. He was a perfect fit with Volkswagen and we will miss him on both a professional and personal level.”
Eleanor Baiocci, PR manager for the National Rally Championship’s steering committee, said Zulu was much loved in the sport. She remembered his affinity with fans. “He was a champion personality,” she said, while noting his successes on the track. She recalled how Zulu was once under pressure to get to the start of a stage but stopped on the way to greet waving school children. “I think motorsport has lost a family member. It feels like most of us can’t function today.”
Sello Hatang, CEO of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, offered condolences to Zulu’s wife, his daughter Lelethu and family. “I am devastated. I knew him well. I recruited him to climb Kilimanjaro. The last thing he said to me at the airport before he left last week was that he wanted to speak about doing other Mandela Day projects. I feel a huge sense of loss,” said Hatang.
President Jacob Zuma said Zulu’s death was a tragic loss on a day meant to celebrate Mandela’s legacy. “South Africa has lost an inspirational young man who was not only an adventure enthusiast, but was also passionate about community initiatives aimed at improving the lives of others,” he said in a statement. Both the ANC and DA offered their condolences.
Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana, general secretary of the SA Council of Churches, said Zulu’s leading public role and participation in the Trek4Mandela team was “testament to his warm and selfless nature”.
“The loss of this young man cuts into all our hearts, not only because he was a phenomenal South African who put our country on the global map through his talents and commendable career, but also because we feel the deep pain of his mother, who has been closely associated with the SACC since the early 1980s,” said Mpumlwana.
As Zulu’s family head to Tanzania to find about more about his death, reports on Monday said they are devastated, especially his father. Zulu had spoken about the support he received from his family and the love of cars he shared with his father.
At his wedding, where Top Billing recorded the love he shared with his wife Letshego, Zulu’s father said, “To me he will always be a little boy, because I grew up with Gugu. We used to do everything together, kick the ball together, run together. That is why even up to today when Gugu is racing I can’t miss his race. I stop everything. I stop my work and will be with him at the race track.”
Zulu dreamed of racing the Le Mans and Dakar Rally and sharing the journey to inspire South Africans. He won’t get to participate in those races, but his story will continue to be told. DM
Photo: Gugs Zulu (VW SA)
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