The ‘crazy’ story of Puseletso Seema

The ‘crazy’ story of Puseletso Seema

QEME – PUSELETSO Seema is an eloquent storyteller. You hear that in the more than 300 songs she has composed in a career of over three decades.

But ask her to tell the story of her life and that confidence is instantly replaced by sorrow. That’s because hers is a painful tale to tell. Between it tears well her cheeks.  The flashy smile that usually lights up her face vanishes as she narrates how her own people rejected her, how she lost three “husbands” and how she survived a gangster lifestyle. “Get me my towel,” she instructs her grandchild when the tears she has been pushing back start oozing like a flooded river. It’s as if she must cry in order to keep telling the story. She pours out the harrowing details, taking long pauses as if her memory is failing her or she is just trying hard not to remember those sad moments of her life.

Your heart sinks as she searches for the words to describe the gruelling life she has lived. Indeed, she has lived rough from the moment she was born in 1949 in New Claire’s in South Africa. The daughter of a maid who used to hop from one white family to the next to eke a living, Puseletso found herself shipped off to live with an aunt who she recalls as “mean-spirited and abrasive”.

When she was old enough to understand emotion she concluded that her aunt “hated” her.
In the family kraal were cattle her aunt decided were Puseletso’s business. So when other girls were fetching water, cooking, cleaning dishes and washing clothes Puseletso was consigned to the veld to tend the cattle. To a certain degree it made sense that she had to do a boy’s job. “After all”, she says, “my mother did not have a son so I was her son”.

There is a type of loneliness that comes with being a shepherd: cows don’t talk. In the pastures you are your own companion. All you do is follow the animals in silence (if you are not followed as happens to masterful shepherds). Sometimes you whistle and at times you hum a tune. At some moments you rescind deep into your thoughts as you watch the repetitive activity of cows mowing the grass.

When it becomes too much sleep steals you, only to be rudely startled by the fear of having lost the family’s prized possessions.  Puseletso found that singing keeps boredom and loneliness at bay. With time she also discovered that the veld inspired her to compose songs, they came in times of sorrow and happiness.

But when she tried to sing those songs to her relatives in her aunt’s home people frowned.
“Music was for losers. For hopeless people,” she says of that time. The contempt for her musical talent was worse because “at that time women just did not go into music”. Home was where women belonged to raise children, obey husbands and keep the houses clean. It was taboo for women to go into music.

Puseletso was therefore going against the grain: a deviant trying to upend a social order established before she was even an idea. Yet if her love for music was considered out of synch with societal expectations what happened when she was 15 showed her that those who did not live by the rules were severely punished.

She had become pregnant after her boyfriend forced himself on her. The days of criminalising statutory rape were still decades away so no one listened when she tried to report the incident.  The backlash from her family was immense. She had brought it on herself, the family said. Had she not been obsessed with singing none of this would have happened, others said. Unwanted by her family, Puseletso eloped with the man who at that time was working at a mine in KwaZulu-Natal.

They crossed the border and settled in Mahobong, her new husband’s home. Her first child, a boy, would die in infancy. A girl followed a few years later. Then when she was expecting her second daughter in 1970 her husband died.

Thus began the struggle that would dominate her adulthood. Her in-laws kicked her out of her home. And when she sought sanctuary back in New Claire the reception was hostile.
The child who had disgraced the family by falling pregnant and eloping was not welcome. “I was on my own, just me and my children”. The decision she made after she was kicked out of New Claire would forever haunt her. She moved to the mines where she made a living by selling beer and food.

“If I had a choice I would not have gone there because it was a terrible place to be,” she says. To keep her business running Puseletso joined one of the gangs that ‘ran’ the compounds around the mine. With that move she had taken sides in the vicious gang wars. Although Puseletso doesn’t try to rationalise that drastic decision she admits that apart from being a survival strategy the gangs also attracted her in a certain way.

“I grew up without a family so when I met the gangsters they became my family”.
A dangerous ‘family’ it was. Her family in New Claire loathed her but at no point did they try to harm her. Her in-laws in Mahobong kicked her out of her matrimonial home but did not try to hurt her. The gang she called ‘family’ gave her ‘love’ but put her in the line of danger. To survive the wars she had to learn to use a gun. She had become a thug.

“I have never seen so much death in my entire life,” she says of the numerous times her gang was ambushed by rivals.  “I became desensitised to death because I had seen so many dead people, so much blood.” She starts weeping again. The children in the yard are startled.  “It is only now that I realise that when God says you will toil you will toil till the very end.”“But God protected me because I have been living and I am still living. Even my children have since died and I am left with their children.”

When her gangster husband was arrested for murder she married another “boss”.
“I should have left that life earlier but I had come to enjoy it. When I spurred them (gangs) to fight I would tell them that if a man is a coward he would not control me even if he was tall because I am used to being controlled by force”.  Still even in this tumultuous period she found time to launch her music career. It is the life in the gangs that inspired some of her early songs.

There were songs that came to her when she was mourning fallen ‘comrades’ and some that came when she was enjoying the living. When her brother died under mysterious circumstances in 1980 in Orlando music helped her grieve. The official report said her brother had been hit by a train but she was never sure because this was during the Apartheid era of violence and the police were notorious for paying lip service to black-on-black murders.

A few months later Puseletso and her group, Tau ea Linare, entered a studio in downtown Johannesburg to record her first album. Midway through the recording session words started coming to her mind.  “People I loved and trusted have left me/ there was a cloudy mist on the mountain top/ it’s not mist but the heart of my brother/my mother Mazakie do not cry they will come back. / Now that my brother has gone I too may go as well.”

It became a hit song that propelled her in the male-dominated famo music genre.
Her exit from the gangs started sooner after her third husband died. It was a brutal death, she says. A rival gang ambushed him, bundled him into a car and took him to a Germiston cemetery where they pumped several bullets into him. “I was shocked. I had grown to love that man. I could not take it.” Still she lingered a little longer until another ‘Boss’ she had followed for years was killed.

“That is when I said enough is enough. Some of the gang members wanted to marry me but I said no, never”. She packed her backs and came back to her father’s village in Mahareng, in Mafeteng.  “I wanted a fresh start. So I started rebuilding my father’s house.” Yet misery would not leave her. Her home was robbed time and again until she moved. Prince Bereng Seeiso, the Principal Chief of Matsieng, allowed her to stay at one of his properties in Qeme.

Like almost every famo artiste Puseletso has a gripe with recording companies which she describes as “thieves”.  Looking around her house it is hard to even contemplate that this is a woman who has recorded more that 32 albums. Hers is not a wretched life but it could have been better, she says. “Because most of us famo artistes are not educated we end up being cheated. Only those who can speak and write English get what they really deserve. I was robbed.”It is that plight that inspired her hit song Mofata Seliba in which she laments how other people were getting rich off her talent while she starved.

He who digs a well does not drink from it, she sang in lyrics directed at recording companies, producers, promoters and hawkers of pirated music.  “Of all these parasites it is those who pirate my music that anger me the most,” she says. It is not hard to understand why she feels that way. When the recording companies and producers don’t pay her she rationalises it by blaming herself for not reading the small print when she signed the contract.

She says she can live with that because she has come to accept that royalties never get paid. If they do come they are in pittances paid in dribs and drabs. One day in the early 1980s she walked into a studio to demand her royalties and the manager reached into his pocket to pull out a handful of coins. It was for her train fare back home, he said to her. Eighteen cents! On another occasion she was paid a few Rands which the producer said was for bus transport and food.

On another day a clerk at a recording company asked if she had received the share of the prize money for an award. “I was shocked that I had won an award and my producer had kept the money for himself. He paid me after a fight.” She says at least the promoters put something on the table and tell you to take it or leave it. “You take the small money because you are hungry.” “But those who pirate our music are blatant thieves. They treat us like donkeys they can just ride and then whip.”

In recent years Puseletso has started paying for her own recording sessions to cut out the middlemen. She then takes the master copy for duplication and sells directly to the public and music shops. “I ran away from the recording companies and producers but now the pirates are coming after me from all angles. It’s evil.”  Puseletso says in recent months she has felt her health deteriorating. What has kept her going are the children in her yard whom she says she lives for. Only three of the eight children in her home are her grandchildren.

Three boys — all under ten — used to live with their mother at a nearby homestead until she vanished. Puseletso took them in six years ago and their mother has not returned since then.
“This little boy standing next to me is a son to my former band member who I have not seen in years,” she says. “It is these little souls that I live for. I want to be remembered as a person who helped other people in kind”.  A few years ago Puseletso had a life-changing encounter with ’Malichaba Lekhoaba, the owner of Harvest FM.

“She taught me to see music as a business. She taught me to negotiate,” Puseletso says of Lekhoaba whom she now describes as an adviser and a friend. Through Lekhoaba’s help she bought a car and is just about to complete her first house, just a kilometre away from where she is staying. “Before I met her I would use every cent I get from performances to buy food and clothes for my children. She showed me another way of doing things”. Her music has also begun to flourish.

She wants people to see her as an aunt who advises and mediates in family disputes. She plays both roles through her music.   In Kea ikokobetsa she advises women to humble themselves. She sings: “I humble myself here at my own house. /Even when I arrive here at home drunk I still humble myself/When I arrive at night I go to my children and humble myself to ask for forgiveness”.

“I did not mean that women should subjugate themselves but rather that they should respect their husbands and families,” she explains.  “Women why do you hate me/I have not taken your husbands /I have taken an unripe pumpkin (hobo)/ I have washed him for myself,” she says in Basali le Ntlhoile ke’ng? “I just had to sing those words because many women were self- conscious when they saw me. They looked at me and said I do not have a husband so I could take theirs. Women should be self-assured.”

Shakeman Mugari

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