On 22 June 1992, the body of a 30-year-old man was discovered inside a car outside a New York apartment in Rochester. His name was Vernon Molefe, a South African musician known among friends and acquaintances in the exile community as Mgababa. An unknown assassin had struck and disappeared immediately after firing two bullets in the victim’s head.
Twenty six years later, the death of the Sharpeville-born music prodigy and law student remains an unsolved mystery. In 1997, Reverend Molefe went to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission but to date the grief-stricken father’s submission hasn’t yielded anything positive. Molefe Sr was one of the priests who presided over the mass burial of the victims of the historic Sharpeville massacre.
Born in the Vaal Triangle township, two years after the tragedy that shook the country and made international headlines, Vernon was initiated into the music world through his father’s Assemblies of God church choir. He proved a deft hand on the accordion from an early age. In 1977 he walked into a studio for the first time. This was in Durban where he met Almon Memela. The illustrious bandleader and talent scout took a liking to the amiable, easy-going youngster and took him under his wing.
He taught him the basics of music making, toured with him and helped him to record his first album, Mgababa. At sixteen, Vernon was already a multi-instrumentalist of note, proficient on piano, percussion, timbales, marimba, tambourine and of course, accordion. He also wrote and arranged his own music.
Unfortunately Vernon’s promising future in the music industry was marred by political activism at a very early age, which set him on a collision course with apartheid authorities. According to his brother and journalist Phil Molefe, he was hardly fourteen during the 1976 uprisings when he set on an epic trip from Sharpeville to Pretoria to make demands to Prime Minister John Vorster and Minister of Education Michael Botha on behalf of black students. They refused to give him audience but from that day he was a marked man, often on the run from the security police.
After a brief stint as a resident musician at the Pelican Club in Soweto, in 1979 Vernon and a friend and fellow musician, Lebogang Morake – better known as Lebo M of Lion King fame – decided to go into exile. Their country of choice was Lesotho. Without any papers that authorised them to travel to another country they walked, hitch-hiked and eventually crossed the crocodile infested Caledon River (Mohokare) into the mountain kingdom.
In 2016, Thabo Molefe, who identified himself as the late musician’s son and better known by his radio moniker – Tbo Touch – organised a historic reunion concert of the Jazz Epistles at Caesars Palace, Kempton Park as a tribute to the legacy of Vernon Molefe.
By Sam Mathe
The writer is a journalist with a passion for jazz music, literature and South African history. This article was first published on his Facebook page on 19 August 2018.