South African Pop Star Finishes High School At 60

Sipho "Hotstix" Mabuse's musical career brought him success and celebrity in South Africa. But he quit school at the age of 16 to launch his music career, and he always felt there was something missing. He tells guest host Viviana Hurtado why he decided to go back to school.

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VIVIANA HURTADO, HOST:

So, let's turn from the school dreams of Afghan kids to hear about an adult whose own wish to return to the classroom recently became a reality. One of South Africa's best-loved musicians, Sipho "Hotstix" Mabuse's, career may have given the world hits like "Burn Out" in the 1980s.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BURN OUT")

SIPHO MABUSE: (Singing) I'm gonna burn out all my love. Gonna burn out all my love. Gonna burn out all my love. Gonna burn out all my love...

HURTADO: But his musical success came at the expense of his education. At 16, Mabuse quit school to launch his career as a drummer. Now 45 years later, he's past his matric, the South African equivalent of a high school diploma. And he joins me from Johannesburg.

Welcome to the program, and congratulations are in order.

MABUSE: Thank you very much. And hello to everyone and to all your listeners as well.

HURTADO: This is an incredible story of persevering. What does it mean to get your high school diploma?

MABUSE: I keep telling people that nothing really compares. Nothing compares with everything that I've done as a musician and nothing compares.

HURTADO: Really? I mean crowds of adoring fans and it doesn't compare?

MABUSE: Nothing compares with that, you know. It's mine and it belongs to me and it's mine forever.

HURTADO: So is that why you wanted to go back because you wanted something that was going to be yours forever?

MABUSE: Not really. All my life as a musician I had felt incomplete. I had felt that I had not done what I'd set out to do in life, because I have always been an academic in my heart and I've always loved reading and so on. But I just felt that if I didn't complete this then I'd still feel that I have not achieved what I'd set out to do. And eventually I made a decision last year that it's now or never and I went back to school. I enrolled, and surprisingly, I managed to immerse myself into the study mode.

HURTADO: I'd like to talk about how difficult it must have been. I mean, it was four decades after you quit. Was it hard to go back into the environment and the schedule and to see that your peers are a lot younger than you, some of them could be your children, grandchildren, maybe?

MABUSE: I would say it was hard. Yes, there were challenges, though. I mean, because I came into an environment that was completely different to when I was still at school. And the kind of relationships that the students today have with their teachers completely different to what we had. I mean, at some stage I would be exposed to students coming into classrooms with a mobile phones and right in the middle of a lesson, someone picks up...

HURTADO: They send a text message?

MABUSE: You know they text...

(LAUGHTER)

MABUSE: Not even text. Not even a text message. They speak on the phone. So I was taken aback and, and of my days, you wouldn't even dare, you'd be so silent and concentrating on the books. But it was so easy for someone to stand up in the middle of a lesson and speak to someone outside. And that's when I really, really took umbrage with everybody. I said, well, let's cut through all this and we have to understand that all of us want to pass. And certainly for me, maybe you guys, you know, you're in class, you know what you're doing but I don't know what to do, so I'm here to learn and that's how it's going to be.

HURTADO: So Sipho...

MABUSE: I spoke sternly to them as a parent but also as a colleague.

HURTADO: Sipho, I was going to ask how the students reacted because of your age and your celebrity status. But I'm kind of hearing that you were a bit of a leader, a role model, you know, with a tad bit of disciplinarian?

MABUSE: Well, I tried to be a student, but I tried to be a leader at the same time. Because I realized that I know what I want in class and I'm sure all of us wanted the same thing but someone had to give direction as to whether we're going to set up an environment which is conducive for us to study. So I just took the leadership and I said, well, this is how it's going to be and fortunately, I guess for who I was, it was easier for people to respond positively.

HURTADO: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Viviana Hurtado. We're speaking to South African musician Sipho "Hotstix" Mabuse, about his experiences going back to school at the age of 60.

(LAUGHTER)

HURTADO: So you launched your musical career at 16, the age of many of your current classmates. Why did you leave before you've finished high school? What happened?

MABUSE: I don't, I don't even know what had happened. You know, I - even musical career was just something that you were detected to by fate. The headmaster at school had asked a few students to volunteer performances because we needed to raise funds for some students who were going to university. So I and some of my colleagues volunteered and we gave a performance, and the next thing we were called by all high schools around, you know, Johannesburg and we were called by high schools all over the country and universities. And we didn't even realize that we had left school by then, and come time for us to write exams, we are not around, we're somewhere in Zimbabwe or we're somewhere in Mozambique. And that's how it happened. And one thing led to be other with all the successes and the demands and, of course, we started making lots of money. And, you know, in our music business there are all those beautiful girls surrounding me and everywhere.

(LAUGHTER)

HURTADO: Oh, the beautiful girls. But, you know...

MABUSE: All the beautiful girls who people called groupies are always there, so you forget exactly why we were at school then.

HURTADO: In 1953, Sipho, South Africa began segregating educational facilities for blacks during Apartheid.

MABUSE: Yes. Yes.

HURTADO: Can you reveal how your generation was affected by that?

MABUSE: Yeah. That was one of the most difficult periods for us because you can imagine when you, when one begins school, you're taught in your own mother language, you know, in the vernacular, everything you grow up, and then you go to primary school, you get your primary school, then English gets introduced as a subject and you get your high school, then Afrikaans becomes another subject and then you do three subjects in Afrikaans, you do three subjects in English and, of course, is vernacular in the middle. So the whole education system was rather challenging and confusing for many of us. But because we're driven by one purpose of getting education, we took it as a normal challenge. Little did we realize that it had its own objectives, it had its own agenda, which was obviously to ascribe black people to an inferior education. And, of course, the minister of education at that time was the late Dr. Verwoerd who, you know, who dictated that black people do not belong to the European standards of education, so we shall remain forever hewers of the wood and drawers of water. Little did he know that there was Nelson Mandela out there, there was Steve Biko out there who were going to prove him wrong.

HURTADO: Sipho "Hotstix" Mabuse, thank you for joining us from BBC studios in Johannesburg, South Africa.

MABUSE: Thank you very much and thanks for inviting me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HURTADO: And that's our program for today. I'm Viviana Hurtado and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MABUSE: (Singing) I'll be watching you every day of my life. Mm-hmm. Messing around with all the guys. Now let me tell you one more time.

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