Mike Tshehla Phahlane is the man who gave Soweto its name back in 1963

Mike Tshehla Phahlane, the man who gave Soweto its name back in 1963, slipped away quietly two weeks ago without a single mention in local media despite the fact that he was the pioneer of black South African journalism and one of its finest wordsmiths.

Only the Sowetan carried a 31-word funeral notice accompanied by the standard black and white photo in the weekly In Memoriam section. He didn’t make it in the obituaries page.

His huge significance in South African journalism in general and jazz writing in particularly was a fact that the paper’s editorial team was evidently unaware of. He was just another dead Sowetan.

The man nicknamed The Indestructible because of his legendary reputation for having survived a number of near-death experiences, lived most of his life in obscurity and died in obscurity, thanks to an uncaring, insensitive and oblivious society. He was the invisible man in the real sense because all South Africans simply refused to recognise the squat, forlon figure who roamed the streets of Johannesburg as one of the city’s homeless people. He lived a hard and undignified existence, not out of his own choice but because as a country we failed him.

Born 26 March 1921 in old Sophiatown, in 1943 he joined Zonk, the first English magazine for African readers. He covered a number of beats but distinguished himself as a jazz critic, definitely the first one on the continent. He wore his passion for this noble art on his sleeve and with his elegant but cheeky prose, championed its beauty and cause on the pages of the racy publication. Jazz introduced him to a young and lanky pianist from Cape Town. He loved the shy musician’s efforts on the ivories but he didn’t like his name. Johannes Adolphus Botha didn’t have a ring of showbiz to it. So he gave his protégé a new identity – Dollar Brand.

He reasoned that a dollar was the world’s most powerful note and his charge was destined for bigger things in the US, a brand everyone wanted to experience its dream. Years later the protégé expressed his gratitude when he recorded Tintinyana, an evocative jazz tune dedicated to Mr Phahlane’s daughter, for Tintinyana was her name.

She grew up to become a fine lady and brilliant medical doctor but sadly she passed away in the prime of her life. He also lost his only son, Dr Michael Phahlane. The US-based psychiatrist was killed in a car crash in 1981. In 1983 he was diagnosed with amnesia and confined to Sterkfontein Hospital, a psychiatric institution for the mentally challenged as a state patient. One of his inmates was Dimitri Tsafendas.

When Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd was assassinated on 6 September 1966, Phahlane had quipped that Tsafendas had exterminated apartheid. The authorities never forgave him for that. His institutionalisation cost him enormously. He lost his Soweto house and other priceless belongings. It was reportedly auctioned off at the behest of a vengeful ex-father-in-law.

Since his discharge from the psychiatric institution, Ntatemoholo Phahlane, as the indomitable nanogenarian preferred to be referred to in his twilight years, has been struggling to get an RDP house. He initiatiated a series of correspondence with the former Gauteng premier, Mbhazima Shilowa and the Gauteng Department of Housing. His pleas fell on deaf ears.

By Sam Mathe

About Martin Myers
Music Supervisor / Artist and Talent Manager / Publicist / Music Exchange Founder / Owner Triple M Entertainment

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