Local Heroes 2023: Selfless nurturing of young talent makes SweetMama the toast of community

For more than  30 years, Zalisile Marwanqana, better known as “Sweet Mama”, has been constantly nourishing young talent in the performing arts, sports and life skills — going as far as using  his social grants to fund his programmes.

Since 1989, the 63-year-old multitalented patriot of Nqadu village near Willowvale has been developing young talent.

Since being retrenched from the gold mines in 1993, Marwanqana has used a portion of his income from odd jobs and a percentage of his old-age grant to run his youth academy.

For sports tournaments, he crafts beautiful wooden trophies for winning teams as sometimes there is only enough money for cash prizes.

In 1989, Marwanqana established a musical and dance outfit called Sweet African Inspiration Cultural Group, focusing on gospel and choral music, dance, theatre, sport development, crafts, baking and dressmaking.

“I started the group after faction fights among boys, crime, alcohol abuse and teenage pregnancy rocketed in Nqadu village. All my programmes are free,” he said.

An organic music composer and self-taught choreographer, Marwanqana is a household name in Willowvale, Dutywa, Butterworth, Gcuwa, Centane and further afield.

Through the Sweet African Inspiration Cultural Group, Marwanqana has unearthed raw talent and trained and moulded many aspiring artists in the outskirts of rural communities in the Mbhashe and Mnquma municipalities.

Thanks to Marwanqana’s commitment, in 2004 the late amaXhosa King Xolilizwe Sigcawu gave him a base where he trains the youngsters.

“I have helped hundreds of young people.

“Many of those who have gone through the SweetMama programmes are today professional singers, dancers, sound engineers and fashion designers.”

He composes his group’s original music, choreographs unique traditional dances that complement the songs, and produces its stage performances.

He continues to host local festivals, where he scouts talent and gives young people exposure

Renowned artist and cultural expert Zolani Mkiva said: “He continues to host local festivals, where he scouts talent and gives young people exposure.

“Tenacity, passion and sacrifice of this magnitude are  unbelievable, especially since Sweet Mama is unemployed, and he does all this with his pension income and the little support he gets inconsistently from those who are touched by his work.

“Such a person is certainly a local hero.”

Sweet Mama’s productions are professional, with carefully crafted melodies that are a mix of traditional and world music.

“Equally, his choreography is a mix of traditional and modern dance,” Mkiva said.

 “He has made a name for himself, but Sweet Mama remains modest and relentless in his efforts to help others.

“Considering the contribution of Marwanqana in the creative industry as well as the way he uses his talent to empower others on the margins of society, it goes without saying that he is an unsung local hero and community builder.”

Marwanqana, a grandfather of three, is a dynamic leading vocalist who has the versatility to sing soprano, alto and tenor.

He gained the name Sweet Mama as a result of his ability to project his voice as well as for his humility, love and care for children.

Marwanqana’s group also runs a vegetable garden to assist needy community members and teach children the importance of agriculture, and trains youth in wire-making projects, garment-making, craft and beading. Every December, he hosts sports tournaments.

“There are times when we cannot afford to buy trophies, but we craft specially designed wooden trophies and bead medals,” Marwanqa said.

He also assists Xolilizwe High School in youth development programmes.

AmaXhosa King Ahlangene Sigcawu said: “Marwanqana is one of our home-grown talents I can proudly describe as a bona fide organic artist.

“Sweet Mama never allowed his rural background to limit his abilities.

“Instead he built his career as an artist, basing it on the rich rural culture that brought him up.

“He contributes to the community by engaging and growing young rural talent, taking the youth off the streets into sport and the performing arts

“I really am proud of his achievements, enthusiasm, abilities and skills in uplifting our culture through performance.

“He remains the toast of our community.”