Zolani Mahola was born in a Port Elizabeth township called Kwazakhele and very nearly got through a Theatre and Performance degree at UCT.
It was through this institution that she met with musicians with whom she would later form the band Freshlyground.
The band has to date opened for BB King, Hugh Masekela, Vusi Mahlasela and Robbie Williams and have shared stages with such legends as Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Johnny Clegg, Oliver Mtukudzi, Cindy Lauper and Annie Lennox to name but a few.
She is well known for her lead role as Boniswa in the inspirational SABC drama series Tsha Tsha season one and two.
Named Glamour Woman of the Year in 2011, she then went on to star in the 2014 feature film Cold Harbour.
She is currently one of three judges of the first season of The Sing Off SA competition on SABC 1 alongside HHP and Zakes Bantwini. She lives in Cape Town with her husband and son.
Purple eyeshadow is scattered across the dressing room counter at the Baxter Theatre where Zolani Mahola sits down to do her make up.
She has a secret to share, one she’s kept for 30 years. It’s only now, at the age of 38, that the former Freshlyground lead singer is ready to unburden herself and share her story.
She pauses deliberately, swivels in the chair, her hands covered in purple, and says: “I was sexually abused when I was eight.”
The moment is interrupted by a cleaner, who recognises her and begins singing It’s time for Africa, a line from the 2010 World Cup anthem. Around that time, while Mahola had reached the pinnacle of success, privately she was imploding.
When Mahola was six, her mother went into labour. There was excitement in the home. Her dad had just been promoted, the family had just moved from Kwazakhele in Port Elizabeth to New Brighton, a seemingly better township. But the excitement turned to tragedy when neither her mom nor the new baby returned from the hospital.
In 2013, when she was pregnant with her first son, the façade she’d spent nearly 30 years creating began to crack. At the height of her music career she felt unworthy and unloved.
“I’d been this public figure and I was very confident, but I was living with this underlying belief that I wasn’t worthy. First I had to admit that there was a problem, it wasn’t working.
“Then it was a willingness to sit with myself. That’s actually what I’d been running away from my whole life — from stopping and sitting down and feeling, instead of picking up my phone, putting on the TV, having that glass of wine, eating that meal, whatever thing to take me away from the moment,” she says.
She is still in the healing process, and this year has been a pivotal one. In August Mahola announced that she was going solo after 17 years of fronting the Afro-fusion band Freshlyground.
Accompanied only by a pulsating djembe drum and her guitar, she opened up about the death of her mother and how she went from knowing she was deeply loved and worthy to almost overnight feeling unloved and unworthy.