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Johnny Mekoa leaves a lasting legacy

By Carol Butcher

Legendary jazz musician and jazz educator, mentor of aspiring musicians and Head of the Gauteng Music Academy, Johnny Mekoa passed away recently. Mekoa has left a lasting legacy. He serves as a remarkable role model for South Africans of all ages.

As individuals and individuals working in the talent space, we can draw many important lessons from Mekoa’s life. Undoubtedly, one of the most important lessons is that one should never give up on one’s dreams despite obstacles and hardships. This is particularly pertinent to the NEETs in South Africa, many of whom may have given up hope of finding employment, meaningful work and even achieving their dreams, living as many of them do, in extreme poverty.

Denied the opportunity under the previous political dispensation, to enrol for a music course, based on race, he set the bar differently and realised that he had to opt for a different route to achieve his dreams. Instead of formally studying music, he had to make do with jazz lessons from his brother. Equipped with these skills, and undoubtedly hours spent practicing, he jammed with fellow jazz musicians at Dorkay House and later established the Jazz Ministers.  

It is important, particularly for young South Africans, embarking on their own careers to realise that there will inevitably be roadblocks and obstacles in one’s own career. Very few are born with a golden spoon in their mouth. Success is achieved by realising that it takes tenacity, and it sometimes takes a different route, rather than a direct route to achieve one’s ambitions. Success is also based on effort, passion and commitment and a willingness to take charge of one’s own career. If one door closes, one has to look for new doors, different opportunities.

Ambition is very important, and one should always set stretch goals. In the early days I very much doubt that Mekoa would have foreseen in his wildest dreams, that one day he would become an internationally acclaimed jazz musician. As someone working in the talent management space, have you set ambitious goals for yourself, and have you also encouraged your team to set ambitious personal goals?

Mekoa was riding the crest of the wave of fame and success; the band had performed at the Newport Jazz Festival, and had released Nomvula’s Dance, Zandile and Ndize Bonono Na? It was at this time that he decided to step out of the limelight and study music, formally and full-time.  

It takes a brave and very committed individual to enrol at university at the age of 42. Even more impressive is the fact that having been awarded a Fullbright Scholarship he completed his Master’s degree at the University of Indiana. Mekoa reminds us that it is never too late to further one’s education. His life also reminds us that despite international acclaim, Mekoa knew that he did not “know it all”. It’s very important as talent professionals to be humble and to recognise that there is always scope to learn something new, to master new skills and knowledge, despite years of experience.

Perhaps what impresses me most about Mekoa is the fact that he recognised the importance of giving back. After graduating, Mekoa returned to South Africa and established the Music Academy of Gauteng in 1994. The academy introduces aspiring young musicians to jazz.  Many of his students were orphans or homeless. Some grappled with substance abuse. Mekoa mentored them and helped them turn their lives around through music. What a wonderful accomplishment.

Talent comes in many shapes and forms. As talent managers, we need to give back. We need to inspire and unlock talent in rough diamonds and instil self-belief. We also need to realise that well-rounded individuals add tremendous value in the workplace. This begs the question – as a talent manager, do you know your team members’ passions and interests outside the work place? Do you encourage them to become well-rounded individuals with interests outside the workplace?


As one reflects on Mekoa’s life, the following questions arise:

  • When you look at your own career, have you found your true passion?
  • Are you willing to do whatever it takes to succeed in your career?
  • Are you always receptive to learning something new?
  • Would you turn your back on fame and success to give back?
  • Do you share your knowledge with others?
  • How many young people are you mentoring?
  • Do you want to make a difference?
  • Do you have any dormant talents that you need to develop?


Farewell Johnny Mekoa. Yours is truly a life well-lived.

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Carol has nineteen years’ experience as a professional writer, editor and case study writer. Her writing experience includes a stint as the resident Case Study Writer at the Wits Business School.


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