Johannesburg - Music icon Ray Phiri’s family enlisted the help of social workers and psychologists to break the news of his death to his 113-year-old mother on Friday.
Centenarian Thabethe Phiri lives in a simple pink house off the main tar road on an uneven dusty street in Pienaar, about 35km outside Mbombela.
The house is about 25km from her son’s home in Crocodile Valley Estates, 10 kilometres east of Mbombela.
Although dignitaries such as Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa, who visited her yesterday, have been paying their respects, Thabethe, seemed as if the news had not sunk in yet.
The family did not allow City Press near her when Mthethwa visited, but this reporter saw and heard her talking energetically to Mthethwa’s delegation and family members from her home’s veranda where she sat holding a walking stick.
Family spokesperson Paul Nkanyane said the family was being cautious.
“She is in high spirits. Following the visit by the professionals last night, she said she was hungry. This means she’s not yet depressed.
"However, everybody is cautious about what they are saying around her,” he said.
'He's overseas gogo'
Despite the bad news having been broken to her on Friday by social workers and psychologists, family members were seemingly wary of broaching the subject of Phiri’s death.
“He’s overseas, gogo, to buy you a big cake for your party,” one family member was heard saying, to which Thabethe repeatedly said: “I thank God. I love God.”
Phiri succumbed to lung cancer at Mediclinic Nelspruit in the early hours of Tuesday morning. He was 70 years old.
Other high-profile leaders who visited the family included Justice and Correctional Services Deputy Minister Thabang Makwetla, who is a former premier of Mpumalanga, and many other dignitaries from Mpumalanga and outside the province.
Paul Simon called
Nkanyane said internationally renowned musician Paul Simon had also called the family to ask about funeral arrangements. Simon, a US artist, performed with Phiri on his 1986 Graceland tour.
“Paul Simon called and asked about dates for the funeral, but he has not confirmed if he will be coming or not,” Nkanyane said.
Mpumalanga Acting Premier Refilwe Mtshweni announced that Phiri would be given a provincial funeral. The memorial service takes place on Thursday.
He will be buried at the Heroes’ Acre in Mbombela on Saturday.
Makwetla said that he had known the musician since the politician’s return from exile in the early 1990s and that they had a close friendship.
“Our friendship grew in leaps and bounds as he was somebody who was engaging and did not confine himself to music. He was an activist in his own right.”
Makwetla said Phiri “pestered” him with all manner of ideas about developing the arts in the province when he became premier in 2004.
He said he last saw Phiri in person around this time last year, but that they had been communicating over the phone.
“I was renovating an orphanage in Breyten as part of Mandela Day activities. To my surprise and without being aware, I found Phiri in overalls waiting for me.
"Those are the surprises he would spring on me every now and then,” Makwetla said.
Makwetla said he had lost Phiri’s contact details along with his phone when he was hijacked recently.
However, Phiri had left him a text message telling him that he was being hospitalised.
“When I heard of his death, I was on the way to Mbombela to see him in hospital,” Makwetla said.