Bob Mabena eases into new life at youthful 50

From being a radio icon, crashing a race car at 240km/h in a hairpin bend, spurning a marriage proposal from Brenda Fassie to being feted by Miriam Makeba and winning a Sama Award for best rap - how much can one cram in one lifetime?

Bob Mabena has lived in the fast lane and nibbled on the upper crust of fame, a poster boy of cool for radio, television, music and racing.

But the story of Mabena is of radio and his enduring love for it. He turns 50 in July and this week he opened his office door at Power FM in Johannesburg where he is the station manager for a look back at a life so well lived.

He outstretches his famous big hands to welcome me for our lunch time appointment and shares that he's been in the office since 4.30am - in addition to managing the station, he's the breakfast host and programmes manager for the MSG Group which includes Capricorn FM in Polokwane.

He takes his nibble of an oreo as we start our chat.

Dressed in stark black, his life has never been that morose, it has been an explosion of colour, breakthrough moments and lows that the double edged sword of fame can bring.

The father of seven says when you have children you want to live longer.

"It's a blessing that I'm turning 50, I can say I'm older than my mother who passed on in her 30s.

"The secret to a good life is happiness. I laugh, smile and chuckle a lot.

"You mess with my happiness there will be trouble.

"I can't harbour ill feelings; there are people I dislike. But hate? No. I've never really hated anyone. Negative thoughts shave off your youthfulness.

Mabena's first job was a stock taker at OK Bazaars on Van der Walt Street (now Lilian Ngoyi) in central Pretoria. Music seduced him at a club called Tserama in his hometown of Atteridgeville where he became a DJ. It became so much of a distraction that he missed two papers for his matric at Saulridge High.

With no desire to supplement or repeat, he packed four paperbags, to be precise, one for clothes - two pairs of jeans, a pair of gypsy takkies, four pairs of underwear, some T-shirts and toiletries and the other three were stuffed with LPs and headed to Mahikeng - its twin town of Mmabatho - the capital city of fun and entertainment in the 1980s.

By 1989, at just 19, "Bob The Jammer" hit the big time when he landed the coveted afternoon drive show on Radio Bophuthatswana (Radio Bop) and so began his conquest of the entertainment space.

"In my mind, body and soul I thought I achieved too much too quickly. It was almost as if there was a conspiracy to get me on radio."

"The clarity of purpose made it easy for me to go for my dreams. I knew that I wanted to be in a club, play music and be on radio.

"In my mind, body and soul I thought I achieved too much too quickly. It was almost as if there was a conspiracy to get me on radio."

He found himself hobnobbing with celebrities from Johannesburg seeking fun in Mmabatho, the likes of MarcAlex, Khensani Manganyi (now Nkosi), Gugu Mlambo and Khanyi Dhlomo.

"Every other week there was a party at someone's house. Mmabatho was small and everyone knew everyone or in some cases, everyone had slept with everyone. But there was order and rule of law."

On air he struck a rapport with fellow host Zandile Nzalo who held his hand and would end up being his wife.

His first foray into TV was hosting the music show On the Beat with Nzalo until he took over alone.

More was to come when he left Radio Bop for Metro FM and he found himself under TV lights hosting Surf Pick a Box game show and a few others, including the hugely popular Studio Mix with Melanie Son (now Bala). TV propelled him to greater heights but it was not his first love.

"I have always been uncomfortable with TV. In many respects it's the antithesis of radio in that you have to show and tell whereas radio is all in the mind. I was also miffed at the lights, direction and the constant 'cut'. Also I liked to dress myself so that I look like I do in real life."

He did well for himself buying a big house in Midrand, a far cry from the four-roomed house in Atteridgeville shared by 13 people. He slept under the kitchen table with his cousins. His first car was a BMW 320 followed by a 325, then a convertible and a 5 series - he was in the express lane.

But the supersonic rise would bring its own woes.

"There was a certain level of arrogance, and I'm sure to some I was unbearable to be with, hence the many media stories about the 'make up and break up of Bob and Zandi'. It had become that 'I am Bob', that's what happens when you're not grounded.

"There is a danger when you're a breadwinner in the family and your elders can't call you to order.

"Money was all over the place and I never spent time in my house because I was constantly flying to Port Elizabeth, Durban or Cape Town. I'd do three shows a day making R30,000. I was living the life, but it messed me up. I was still a bad boy when I married.

"Zandi was ready and matured and played her role as wife well, but I wasn't ready... "

Mabena is now married to his second wife Eucharist and they have a son. In celebration of his 50th he also reboots his foundation which aims to provide pan-African education at early childhood education level.

He has identified a piece of land in Atteridgeville and will be building the school there.

"Life is meant to be lived with joy. It feels like I have lived five lives."

X