Yvonne Chaka Chaka with UKZN vice-chancellor Prof Malegapuru Makgoba, after receiving her honorary doctorate in April.
Chaka Chaka performs at the World Bank’s HQ in Washington in 2006, as part of the Unite Against Malaria campaign.
(Image: Simone McCourtie / World Bank)
• Col Mariette Hartley
Senior staff officer: SAAF
+27 12 312 2778
Businesswoman, philanthropist, singer, motivational speaker – Yvonne Chaka Chaka is a versatile woman. Many people, though, may be oblivious to the fact that the South African singing icon is an honorary colonel in the South African Air Force (SAAF), and works closely with the young people of the Air Force Gymnasium, guiding them to make the right career and life decisions.
“I was approached by the air force,” says Chaka Chaka of her recruitment in 2005, “and since then I’ve learned so much, it’s been so good. I really love it.”
Her appointment falls under the SAAF’s outreach initiative Siyandiza (we’re flying), which encourages high school children, especially those from disadvantaged communities, to sign up for a career in the air force.
Siyandiza holds annual camps for schoolchildren where, for a week, they’re not only exposed to the workings of the SAAF, but are also educated about life skills, self-discipline and etiquette, HIV/Aids awareness and substance abuse, as well as military matters.
The initiative gives young people a taste of what lies in store for them, should they decide to pursue an air force career.
Even that brief period is enough to change lives – during the two most recent camps held in July in the Eastern Cape and North West provinces, a pupil at one of the passing-out parades stated that the week had helped him to believe in himself and understand the folly of making wrong choices as a result of peer pressure.
“We regularly take kids to play on the flying simulators at Montecasino [a casino complex in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs],” says Chaka Chaka, “and although they think it’s a game, they’re getting an idea of what it would be like to fly a real plane.”
She’s assigned to the Air Force Gymnasium, based since 2009 at the Hoedspruit base near the Kruger National Park in Mpumalanga. This is the first stop for all new recruits. Here they’re assessed and shunted into the fields for which they show the greatest aptitude, and they all receive their basic training.
“It’s not just about flying,” Chaka Chaka says, “but there is a place for engineers, navigators, air traffic controllers, medics, even musicians. Actually, it’s really about empowering yourself by making the most of the education that you get.”
She regularly gets the call-up to interact with the recruits and do inspections at the base, and says she’s always impressed by the neatness and cleanliness she sees.
“Being in the defence force teaches discipline and tolerance for others,” she says, adding that she personally believes that a stint of compulsory service would go a long way towards instilling those values in South Africa’s young people.
“We need our kids to go to the air force. For those who want to serve their country but don’t know how, this is a good place to start.”
Instilling good values
But it’s working with the Gymnasium’s young women that brings her the most gratification.
“They’re far away from their home, you know,” she says, “so I talk with them about the challenges that they’ll be facing. I tell them that education comes before anything else, and that you should get to where you want to be on your own merit, and not through any other means.”
This philosophy is very close to her heart – that women should use their innate talents to progress, and stand up to issues such as victimisation and harassment – and it’s one that she’s lived by.
“I have no cause to regret anything I’ve done in my life,” she says. “I’ve always walked tall and I’ve done what I’ve done in my own way. I’ve never wanted to be at anyone’s mercy.”
Chaka Chaka’s involvement doesn’t stop with the recruits – she challenges the brass too, advising them to freely impart their knowledge and skills and always have the best interests of their young charges at heart.
She shares this advice wherever she goes – Chaka Chaka has adopted the school where she did her matric, and whenever she visits she reiterates the message, telling the children to believe in themselves and their abilities, and the teachers to treat their pupils like their own children.
“I’m a mother myself, so I shoot from the hip when it comes to these issues – I tackle them head on.”
In Women’s Month 2012, her message to all South African women is to encourage each other and to do away with self-doubt.
“Women are the strength of the world,” says Chaka Chaka. “I gather my strength from the women who came before me.”
A born leader
Born in Dobsonville, Yvonne Chaka Chaka has enjoyed a 27-year-long career in entertainment and is one of the African continent’s most enduring and popular stars, loved as much for her humanity as for her talent.
Besides her music, she heads her own charitable organisation, the Princess of Africa Foundation, which supplements her malaria awareness work for Unicef and the Roll Back Malaria Partnership.
An experienced businesswoman, Chaka Chaka also runs her own promotions company and record label. She is the CEO of Gestetner Tshwane and has been a brand ambassador for First National Bank and DStv.
She holds qualifications from the University of South Africa – an advanced diploma in adult education and a certificate in local government, management and administration.
In January 2012 Chaka Chaka was named the first African woman to receive the World Economic Forum’s Crystal Award, given to artists who use their talent and time to improve the world around them. She joined the likes of renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma and Senegalese superstar Youssou N’Dour, both previous Crystal recipients.
In April 2012 she received an honorary doctorate in music at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, at its humanities graduation ceremony.
“The choice as women is ours, to rid ourselves of self-limiting beliefs and choose positive beliefs that enable us to move forward and take our rightful place in society to realise our dreams,” she said in her acceptance address.