OPINION: Tribute to a friend and colleague

It was on a Tuesday night that I received the news of the death of a radio and newspaper journalist.

I was on my way from Khayelitsha, minding my own business when a strange message came in my mobile: “U-Unathi is no more”.

At first I ignored it, but then another message arrived, confirming the news.

Unathi Tuta was a colleague, and a dear friend to many of us, and many communities in Khayelitsha will be poorer after her passing. Mafaku, her clan name which many used to refer to her, was always driven by a clear desire to help and develop her community of Khayelitsha.

It was just after a day when her friend told me, “bhuti Phiri u-Unathi uthi udiniwe kukulwa sele efuna ukunikeza”. 

Her reasoning was that she had tried too much to fight her sicknesses. She said it was about time she gave in. When her soul parted with her body, her parcel was in the post office to be collected by me.

When this message came in, I was confused about who to convey my condolences to. I wanted to share my experience of death with the family but I could not. So I thought, “Kanene, how I did I come to know this journalist who calls herself Unns?”

Our friendship dates back to 2009. She was a young and ambitious journalist, a workaholic who loved her community and children. She was introduced to me by Andrea Dondolo.

At the time, Andrea and I had been trying to help a Khayelitsha creche that had nothing – and Unathi decided to partner with us to give back to the community of TR Section.

From there, we became great colleagues. She worked her way up until she became an Isolezwe freelance writer. In Mafaku there was an attitude that I struggle to explain. One day she was a difficult person, the other she was warm-hearted and nice. She took ownership of a journalists’ WhatsApp group, yet she was not there when it was formed. She was quick to call people to order or remove them. She was strict when her colleagues were out of order. She was stubborn but also a very nice person.

In person, she was bubbly, smiling – and very colourful, often sporting different hairstyles. If her hair wasn’t pink, it was blue.

I also adored her healthy lifestyle. She always had a bottle of water in her hand bag. But she would not say much to me because she knew I was a man of few words. She called me Tato. She stole that from Andrea of course.

My only regret is that I was not there in her last days. Just on the day of her passing I cleared her pictures from my mobile. But something told me to keep one, which I did.

I regret that I wasn’t there to encourage her as she faced losing her job and as she battled lung cancer.

But let me say it is people like her that give strength to many of us.

She faced challenges every day but fought on. She was not only a journalist but was busy giving back to the children of Khayelitsha.

Mafaku was not like the other “untouchable” journalists who know it all. She was a person before she was a journalist. I look at her life, and feel proud of her.

Mafuku was a fierce fighter and a beacon of hope who wasn’t easily knocked down.

She leaves behind a rich legacy of journalism that impacted people around the country.

There will be no substitute for you, Thahla. I thank God for her life. I thank Andrea for introducing me to such a person. I can’t count the times when we sat and laughed together.

I am grateful that I spoke nonsense to you and you did the same. Thank you to your parents for you.Thank for your strictness.

Lala ngoxolo Mafaku, Thahla, Ndayeni, Mpondo, Hlamba ngobubend’amanz’ekhona.

Please know I am stuck with your parcel from Jozi. Tell me in my sleep who to give it to.