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Full circle with ‘The One Who Sings’… and writes and heals

Full circle with ‘The One Who Sings’… and writes and heals
Image courtesy of Zolani Mahola

In 2010, Zolani Mahola performed with Shakira at the opening ceremony of the Fifa World Cup, the eyes of South Africa, a broken country longing for healing, focused on the pint-sized powerhouse. But the singer’s energy and joyfulness belied a lifetime of pain carried inside.

Zolani Mahola, the lead singer of Freshlyground, our home-grown superstar, has come full circle and is sharing her own journey to healing in her one-woman show, The One Who Sings (from the Xhosa Lo Uculayo), which has just completed its first short run at the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town.

In barely more than an hour, Mahola tells of what broke her heart and tore her apart and takes the audience on a journey of healing as she makes herself whole again.

For the most part, time passes quickly, with life-changing moments, years, decades even, represented by a few lines, a poem, a song, a shawl, a skirt. But time also freezes sometimes as it takes a minute or two to have our worst fears confirmed.

The One Who Sings is the story of a family living in a bubble of love until that bubble is burst by the gravest of losses. It is the story of a happy little girl who loved to polish the stoep, and who grew up to be a global superstar.

It is the story of innocence destroyed by a wicked stepmother and a lecherous stepbrother and a world that wanted to confine people like her to backwaters and dark corners.

Mahola seems part-woman part-child as she shifts between her childhood self, the accomplished and adored songstress and diva, and the new Mahola, the transformational and motivational speaker.

She bares all, and hers is a shocking and sad story. Sadly, it is all too familiar in South Africa. A cycle of bereavement and abuse, invisibility and not being good enough, culminating in the self-abuse of addiction.

She talks about being sent to a Catholic school, where she is forced to check in her name and mother tongue. As the English-speaking “Monica”, the confused teenager tries to get Mother Mary, to whom she is made to sing, to make good on her side of the bargain and listen to her prayers.

Mahola has always had the uncanny ability to make you feel she is singing to you alone, whispering in your ear. Never more so than now when she is telling this very personal story in the intimacy of the Golden Arrow Studio in the Baxter complex.

Mahola’s fortunes changed quickly after she made it to UCT, to study drama. Freshlyground was formed and she was catapulted to another world.

She was successful and so famous, gigging all over the world, but she was still running away from the loss and the hurt of her childhood. She couldn’t escape the devil locked inside her so she turned to alcohol to keep the darkness from overwhelming the light.

In a particularly poignant scene, this courageous, wounded woman-child describes the war between darkness and light when as a mother she is forced to confront her addiction.

Sometimes it is hard to watch; we feel shocked, raw, cut up. Harder to imagine what it is like for Mahola to tell this story. But she holds us in her arms, soothing us in that reassuring way she has, talking to us individually, telling us it is going to be okay.

She comforts and lulls us with her extraordinary range of songs, familiar and new, and the stories behind them. The old favourites get a new lease of life, they sound even better, now that we know what we know.

The new songs are sensational multi-genre numbers. There is that impressive vocal range that we know from Freshlyground’s repertoire, the soothing ballads, her voice thick as honey, and then suddenly the crystal clear voice of an angel cuts through. There is also some soul, quite a bit of rock, and a new husky gravelly rock-chick emerging.

Mahola, the storyteller, takes us full circle, from a treasured memory of lying in the crook of her mother’s arm learning to colour in the lines to holding her sons in the same way. Rites of passage indeed, but who needs the lines when you can colour in without restraint…

In telling her story so bravely she shows us that even the deepest wounds can heal. It is nine years after the World Cup, that moment when a country desperate for healing focused on the pint-sized pop star, who hadn’t yet started her own journey of healing. Now she has and she is sharing it with us. ML

The One Who Sings was a show  directed by Faniswa Yisa; designer: Angela Nemov; musical director:  Aron Turest-Swartz.

Article first published on


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