By Donna Bryson
JOHANNESBURG -- The 60-year-old beloved South African musician shows up five days a week to sit behind a scarred desk in a bare-bones classroom, studying for the high school diploma he missed when he dropped out to pursue a career in rock, funk, soul and jazz.
And Sipho "Hotstix'' Mabuse wants the faith he is showing in learning to inspire a battered community.
Returning to school "is for me. But it's not about me,'' Mabuse said in an interview in his Soweto home, decorated with souvenirs from his European, U.S. and Mideast travels.
Mabuse, his round, unlined face animated beneath a shaven pate, said some of his friends and fellow musicians were baffled when he told them he was going back to school for what's known here as a National Senior Certificate, or, more commonly, a matric.
But bassist and producer Victor Masondo wasn't surprised.
"Sipho is a perfectionist,'' Masondo said. "In typical Sipho style, he wants to go through the right routes and do the right thing.''
Mabuse often paces his tile floors as he practices his saxophone. He also plays the flute, piano and other instruments as well as the drums that gave him his nickname.
He has performed with Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett, Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela and Paul Simon, giving the last a tour of Soweto when the American was here to work on "Graceland.''
Mabuse also has sat on the boards of South Africa's National Arts Council and the Southern African Music Rights Organization, which works to protect musicians' intellectual property rights.
"He's always been there for South African music,'' said South African composer and theater director Welcome Msomi.
With his money, Mabuse could have hired a tutor to get him through the matric exams. With his connections, he could have found a university to take him on as a researcher. Instead, he's enrolled in classes offered to adults after the day of learning for younger students is complete. The public school is just around the corner from his home in Soweto, the township where he was born and raised.
Japie Masombuka, who runs the adult education program at Thaba-Jabula Secondary School, said he asked his most famous student to give a motivational talk one afternoon. To Masombuka's surprise, even students who were habitually late to class or often skipped class showed up, and now many are more responsible.
One of Mabuse's classmates, 27-year-old Nikiwe Mpande, left high school to take a secretarial course and start work. She said the lack of a matric was keeping her from getting promotions, but she didn't seriously consider returning to school until she heard about Mabuse.
He's shown her "you're never too old to actually finish school.''
Mabuse is a local hero in Soweto, known as a cauldron of resistance to Apartheid. In 1976, Soweto high school students set off nationwide protests when they rose up against inferior education.
Apartheid politicians created curriculums meant to ensure blacks could aspire to be no more than servants for whites. For decades, the bulk of spending on education was reserved for the white minority.
Apartheid ended in 1994, but most teachers today are the products of Apartheid education. They are ill-equipped to prepare their students for the 21st century, which may explain some of the angry frustration that characterizes frequent teacher strikes for higher pay. The students, taking a cue from their teachers, treat their schools with contempt, arriving late and showing little discipline in class.